Who are the Rohingyas?
Rohingyas are part of an ethnic Muslim minority who practice a variation of Sunni Islam, in the predominantly Buddhist country that is Myanmar. Before August 2017 and the mass exodus, Rohingya Muslims represented the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state, in the North West of Myanmar.
The Rakhine state’s history is however quite muddled. Back in the times, borders were porous and many didn’t have any documentation that could prove whether a person had deep roots in Myanmar or not. Even though Rohingyas Muslims claim that their lineage can be traced by to 15th century Burma, this reading of history is firmly denied by anti-Rohingyas. For the Burmese government and the majority of the population in Myanmar, Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who arrived much later, during the British colonial period or even after independence. They refer to them as “Bengalis” to accentuate their supposed foreign origins and regards Buddhist Rakhine as Rakhine state’s truly indigenous ethnic group. The Burmese government does not recognize the “Rohingyas” label claiming it’s a self-identifying term surfaced in the 1950’s for political reasons. Yet, the etymological root of the word, even if disputed, is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means “from” which ties the roots of the ethnic Muslim group to the land that was once the Arakan Kingdom. Consequently, Rohingyas correspond to the Muslim community living or from the Rakhine state. Note that not all Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingyas, although their situation can sometimes be just as precarious.
Origins of the conflict
Tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist majority have existed for decades and can be dated back to the beginning of British rule in 1824. British colonists used their divide-and-rule policy to favor Muslims at the expense of other groups. Tensions reached its peak after World War II as the British recruited them as soldiers, while Buddhists aligned with the Japanese hoping they’d help end the British rule after the war. “Both armies, British and Japanese, exploited the frictions and animosity in the local population to further their own military aims,” said Moshe Yegar, author of a book about Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Their status was fortified in 1947 when a new Constitution was drafted, giving them full legal and voting rights. In 1948, Burma got its independence.
In 1962, Myanmar was taken over by a military coup. The constitution was thrown away and the military junta was created. They created a fierce nationalism and the Rohingyas were the common enemy to unite the nation around. In 1982, Burma’s junta passed a law on citizenship. In order to obtain citizenship, minorities had to either belong to one of the indigenous races, divided into 135 distinct ethnic sub-groups or to prove that their family resided in the country since before 1823 (British colony). The Rohingyas were not included in the list of ethnic groups. If they wanted to obtain citizenship they would then have to find the “conclusive evidence” that their ancestors were in Myanmar before 1823. They were thus rendered stateless.
Despite hatred that grew between the two communities during the British colonial period and afterwards, the crux of the problem nowadays seem that the Burmese government and the majority of the population in Myanmar see the Rohingyas as a separatist group, fueled by Islam, and funded from overseas. For the Burmese the fear is real and must be taken into account when looking at the whole picture. After WWII, forebears of Rohingyas appealed to Pakistan to annex their territory, which in the end didn’t happen, and then many Muslims took up arms and fought a separatist rebellion up until the 1990’s. If the government recognizes the Rohingyas as an official ethnic minority, then under the same law that rendered them stateless, the Muslims would be allowed an autonomous area within the country. And this has become the core of the problem. For the Burmese government, the whole creation of the Rohingyas group is just another mean to achieve a separatist agenda using the international attention to force the government to bend. Nonetheless, the reasons given are not a reasonable justification for the Burmese government to oppress and persecute the Rohingyas since decades.
Statelessness and its consequences
The Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group for decades through restrictions on marriage, family planning, religious choice, freedom of movement and so on. In order to marry or get a job, Rohingyas must obtain a permit or pay bribes. They are systematically subjected to arbitrary arrests, extortion, forced labor, rape, violence, forced displacement and evictions.
Rohingyas’ legal status is “resident foreigners”, making them de facto stateless and vulnerable to various kind of abuses, especially forced labor. There has been many reports of the army using forced labor, especially in minority sate and even more with Rohingyas. In some cases, villagers were expelled from their land and forced to build “model villages” with their own means for non-Muslim migrants in Arakan. Their freedom of movement is conditional upon obtaining permits delivered by the army and by the payment of bribes, direct consequence of the widespread corruption in Myanmar.
Rohingyas are also not allowed to access secondary education as it is reserved for nationals only and they are not allowed to work for the government. Consequently, many of them have thus fled in neighboring countries, even before the 2017 mass exodus, but remained stateless and thus vulnerable.
In this climate of constant discrimination and persecutions, even a small incident can trigger a violent reaction from either party and lead to one of the fastest growing humanitarian crises that sparked in August 2017.
The escalation of violence up to the 2017 mass exodus
Episodes of violence in the Rakhine State are nothing new. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have deepened the divide between Buddhists and Rohingyas that religious differences have exacerbated.
As far back as 1978, massive military campaigns were launched successively to terrorize and force the Rohingyas out of the country. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh and sometimes returned to Burma once the violence would cease. Tensions continued in the 2000’s and violence broke out in 2012 when four Muslims men were arrested and accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman in Rakhine state. Buddhist nationalists backed up by security forces attacked Muslims which resulted in tens of thousands of Rohingyas forced to displace.
In 2016, a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged and coordinated small-scale attacks on border police stations. On August 25th 2017, ARSA carried out attacks and left 12 police officers dead, prompting the military’s disproportionate response and brutal retaliation that led to the deaths of thousands of men, women and children and the mass exodus of about 700,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.
Ethnic cleansing and the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi
MSF (Doctors without Borders) conducted an investigation in some of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and according to their investigation, the overall Rohingyas death toll during the 31 days following the start of violence reached 13,759, but could be much higher (as not all of them made it out of Myanmar and not all refugees could be surveyed). In addition to the killings, there were many reports of raping, torture, mass arson and of villages turned to rubble and ashes. Reports even said that landmines were planted near Bangladesh border to prevent Rohingyas from returning. Not only was the Rohingya crisis considered as the world’s fastest humanitarian crisis but it was also called by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussen, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. During that time, Myanmar refused access to Human Rights investigators.
The international community condemned largely and vividly the atrocities committed against the Rohingyas and called upon the Burmese government to end it. Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely condemned. While claiming to support human rights, she made controversial remarks about the Rohingyas and seemingly ignored the violence inflicted upon them.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be facing a dilemma: the vast majority of the population is rejecting this minority, seeing them as illegal immigrants. If the democratically elected government has more and more margin for action in Myanmar since the 2008 constitution, the army still wields power on 3 very important areas: defense, interior and frontiers. On those issues, Aung San Suu Kyi has no power and could face backlash from both the army and the population if she openly criticized the actions committed in Rakhine State against the Rohingyas. Knowing that the army is wielding power in the shadow, the government, instead of going for a direct confrontation, is betting on another strategy: the economic development of Arakan and the progressive reintegration of the Rohingyas within the population. Strategy that has been compromised with the events of 2017. The silence of Aung San Suu Kyi should not be analyzed too hastily. It is important to understand the dynamics inside Myanmar, a country 90% Buddhist that is still deeply controlled by the army that has for decades massively used propaganda to instill fear of an Islamic threat into the Burmese population, and to understand her role and her room for maneuver in this specific context.
What future for the Rohingyas?
In June 2018, the Myanmar government announced that it had reached an agreement with the UN for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands Rohingyas stuck in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh mainly. Yet, the Rohingyas community was not consulted on this deal and Rohingyas leaders and activists were fast to strongly criticize the deal that do not include the precondition of their repatriation which would otherwise leave the Rohingyas’ situation upon return no different in practice from the persecution they had just fled. And for that not to happen they request the restoration of their citizenship before returning, their rehabilitation and reintegration, the reparation of their loss. In order to ensure the repatriation of Rohingyas in a safe and voluntary manner, the government must ensure the ending of the discriminatory state policies that lie at the root of the crisis. Many Rohingyas shared their concerns regarding repatriation mainly fearing for their security once back in the country, not mentioning all those who are too traumatized to even consider returning to Myanmar.
In April 2018, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor sought jurisdiction over alleged war crimes that forced the exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh. As Myanmar is not a party to the ICC and has not accepted the court’s jurisdiction, only the UN Security Council can refer the situation to the Court. So far, the case has not been referred to the ICC.
Rohingyas’ nightmare didn’t end at the border. Life inside the refugee camps resembles for most of them to hell on earth. With limited access to health and sanitation, malnutrition, and overcrowded sites, diseases spread fast and call the lives of many refugees. Inside the camps, women and girls, are not safe and many are victims of violence, abuse and rape. They are also at high risk of complications if pregnant, not mentioning the myriad of risks faced by pregnant rape victims.
The future of Rohingyas is uncertain, the ethnic group has been profoundly marked by the horror of the atrocities committed against them. It will take years, perhaps generations, before the Rohingyas move past what happened to them for decades, with the prerequisite condition that Myanmar government recognizes its responsibilities in the atrocities committed against them and truly commit to end any forms of discrimination against the Rohingyas. Right now, it seems that Myanmar government has accepted the return of Rohingyas due to the international pressure, but discriminatory laws and policies remain intact which make us doubt that the future of the Rohingyas community will be any different from what they experienced so far.
The Conversation – The history of the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya – Sept 2017 http://theconversation.com/the-history-of-the-persecution-of-myanmars-rohingya-84040 The
Al Jazeera – Who are the Rohingya – April 2018 https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/rohingya-muslims-170831065142812.html
Al Jazeera – MSF: More than 6,700 Rohingya killed in Myanmar – Dec 2017 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/msf-6700-rohingya-killed-myanmar-171214070925193.html
Al Jazeera – Virtual reality 360 film shows Rohingya’s plight – Dec 2017 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/virtual-reality-360-film-shows-rohingya-plight-171212104721866.html
The Guardian – Who are the Rohingya and what is happening in Myanmar? – Sept 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/06/who-are-the-rohingya-and-what-is-happening-in-myanmar
The Guardian – Rohingya refugees reject UN-Myanmar repatriation agreement – July 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/06/rohingya-refugees-reject-un-myanmar-repatriation-agreement
The Atlantic – The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis – Sept 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/
Council on Foreign Relations – The Rohingya Crisis – April 2018 https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis
Human Rights Watch – Burma, Events of 2017 – Report 2018 https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/burma
Human Rights Watch – Burma: Widespread Rape of Rohingya Women, Girls – Nov 2017 https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/16/burma-widespread-rape-rohingya-women-girls
BBC News – Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis – April 2018 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561
VOX – The “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, explained – Sept 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04axDDRVy_o
Le Monde – Comprendre la crise des Rohingya en Birmanie – Sept 2017 https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2017/09/13/tout-comprendre-a-la-crise-des-rohingya-en-birmanie_5185226_4355770.html
L’Obs – Rohingyas persécutés: « Aung San Suu Kiy prise entre l’opinion et l’armée » – Sept 2017 https://www.nouvelobs.com/monde/20170913.OBS4603/rohingyas-persecutes-aung-san-suu-kyi-est-prise-entre-l-opinion-et-l-armee.html