Imagine you were denied an identity or a place to call home. Your rights to study, work, travel, marry and practice your religion didn’t exist – because you belong nowhere. You’re not given any way to prove who you are or where you’re from, which restricts your ability to gain full citizenship status. Wherever you try to find refuge you’re locked up in detention because of who you are. This is the life of a Rohingya person.
The United Nations refers to Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, and probably among the most forgotten ones. The Rohingya community of Myanmar is facing a humanitarian and political crisis. The longstanding persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea since the U.S. war in Vietnam. Human rights violations against Rohingya have resulted in a regional human trafficking epidemic, and there have been further abuses against Rohingya upon their arrival in other Southeast Asian countries. The plight of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar by boat and over land presents a humanitarian challenge for countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and India. Governments in the region also face ongoing policy challenges regarding how to respond effectively to the needs of Rohingya refugee communities.
The Origin of the Rohingya Crisis
The Rohingya people are an ethnic group who practice Islam and mainly speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language closely related to Chittagonian. They are indigenous to the Burmese state of Rakhine, formerly the independent state of Arakan or Rohang, and one of the poorest areas in an already poor country. Some Rohingya are known to speak other languages such as Rakhine or Burmese. As of 2014, 800,000 Rohingya are estimated to live in Burma. Of those, the majority live in the northern part of Rakhine State, where they make up 80% of the population. Additionally hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven out of Burma by the authorities and live in other countries in the region like Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan. The Rohingyas trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Bengal and the Rakhine territory were governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted origin is that “Rohang” is a derivation of the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and the “ga” or “gya” means “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts their tie to land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
The roots of the pattern of discrimination to the Rohingya community has long faced are ethnic and religious, as they represent a minority that primarily resides in Rakhine State (western Myanmar). The story of their persecution dates back even before the establishment of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, precisely during Second World War. During the war the Rohingyas declared their loyalty to the British, while the remaining part of the population, the Arakanese (Arakan is the former name of Rakhine State), decided to side with the Japanese. Even after the establishment of Myanmar in 1948, this Muslim minority had to face a constant anti-Rohingya campaign characterized by denial of their rights and discrimination. The anti-Rohingya events culminated in violent episodes carried out by the military junta in 1978 and again in 1991 which drove 200,000 and 250,000 Rohingyas, respectively, out of the country to Bangladesh, where they immediately found protection. In addition to the violence against Rohingyas in subsequent years—including the destruction of mosques and schools in Rakhine State—discrimination against them was institutionalized politically with the enactment of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The new law denied them Burmese citizenship making them stateless. Myanmar’s government does not recognize Rohingyas among the national races (like it does for Barman or Arakanese) even if there is evidence proving they were born in the country, and thus refers to them as “Bengali,” illegal immigrants.
Similarly, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, then-President Thein Sein cancelled the temporary ID cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote—white card holders had been allowed to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections. In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted as being free and fair by international monitors, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment makes it politically difficult for the [central] government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group.
Government policies, including restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement have institutionalized systemic discrimination against the ethnic group. Rakhine state is also Myanmar’s least developed state, with more than 78 percent of households living below the poverty threshold, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, weak infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities exacerbate the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict. Violence broke out in 2012, when a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. Groups of Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people, displacing tens of thousands of people. Human Rights Watch described the anti-Rohingya violence as amounting to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a “campaign of ethnic cleansing.” Since 2012, the region’s displaced population has been forced to take shelter in squalid refugee camps. More than 120,000 Muslims, predominantly Rohingya, are still housed in more than forty internment camps, according to regional rights organization Fortify Rights.
By virtue of being deemed stateless, or even worse, regarded as illegal migrants, Rohingyas have no standing to protest against discrimination before national authorities. Their situation is further compromised by the fact that none of the surrounding states are signatories to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, or its 1967 Protocol; nor has a regional refugee protection framework yet been developed.
Recent Violence and Invisible Genocide
The most recent spate of violence began in early October, when soldiers and police officers were killed by a group of 300 or so armed men, according to state media reports. That sparked an intense crackdown by the Myanmar military in which dozens of people have been killed and at least 230 arrested. Rights groups estimate the total death toll could be in the hundreds.
Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing the fresh destruction of hundreds of Rohingya homes in October and November 2016, the most deadly spate of violence since 2012. Reports in November indicated that the security lockdown was also preventing the entry of much-needed food and medical care from international agencies into villages. Later that month, John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency, in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazaar, told the BBC that the Myanmar government has an “ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar”. Malaysia’s foreign minister described the Myanmar government’s actions as ethnic cleansing and called on stopping the practice. Separately, protestors gathered in cities in Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh to condemn the killing and persecution of Rohingya. And yet, the Myanmar government led by internationally acclaimed de facto head Aung San Suu Kyi has remained unmoved by the fate of the ethnic group.
According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.” More specifically, any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, is considered as genocide-
a. killing members of the group;
b. causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c. deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and
e. forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor writes, I have spent the better part of the last sixteen years photographing human suffering, human rights abuses and, all too often, displaced civilians and refugees fleeing from war or persecution. But I have seldom seen the systematic oppression and abuse of an entire population go almost entirely unaided and undocumented. The camps and settlements in Myanmar and Bangladesh are conspicuously bereft of the international aid community and, consequently, a countless number of Rohingya are dying undocumented. This is the invisible genocide.
Where is Aung San Suu Kyi?
Since a dramatic Rohingya exodus from Myanmar last year, the political party of Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has taken power in a historic election, the first to be openly contested in 25 years. But little has changed for the Rohingya and Ms Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the current violence is an outrage, say some observers. Her failure to defend the Rohingya is extremely disappointing, said Tun Khin, who for years had supported her democracy activism. The question of whether she has much leverage over the military – which still wields great power and controls the most powerful ministries – is a separate one, he said. “The point is that Aung San Suu Kyi is covering up this crime perpetrated by the military.”
By law, the military controls the ministries of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs. These are instrumental ministries with respect to abuses in northern Rakhine State and Suu Kyi doesn’t control them. But in military lockstep, the State Counselor’s office has flatly denied any abuses may have taken place since October 9. And she’s since doubled down, accusing the international community of “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment. Her office has demanded apologies from the BBC and the UN’s refugee agency after the latter alleged “ethnic cleansing” was taking place.
Moreover, Suu Kyi does control the ministries of Information, Foreign Affairs and others, and she could swiftly renew travel authorizations for aid workers. But she isn’t. No one in the country has as much moral authority to change public opinion and counteract hate speech as Suu Kyi. So UN officials and governments are rightly sounding alarms.
In August, Aung San Suu Kyi appointed an “Advisory Commission” on Rakhine State, which is led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Fortify Rights welcomed the move, but Annan himself has said the commission does not intend to focus on human rights. It’s unclear if that directive comes from him or the State Counselor, but regardless, for the Rohingya, it’s a problem.
Bangladesh is in Rohingya dilemma
Since 1978, Bangladesh has represented the first destination of Rohingya asylum seekers, considering the proximity, the common religion, and—most importantly—because Bangladeshi authorities initially recognized the humanitarian needs of these undocumented Myanmar migrants.
For Bangladesh, it is that old dilemma: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In these past few weeks, the country has been under pressure from global human rights bodies as also governments and organizations in the West to permit Rohingya Muslims fleeing repression in Myanmar entry into the country. In other words, the Bangladesh authorities have been and are being urged to open the country’s borders to the petrified Rohingya.
According to the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission, some 9,000 Rohingya people have already entered Bangladesh in recent weeks. Bangladesh has reinforced both its border and coast guards since the escalation of operation by the Myanmar military and sent back many people. Some 3,000 Rohingyas are also said to have fled to China. Prothom Alo, a leading Bengali national daily, reported that some 1,100 Rohingyas entered Bangladesh on Nov. 28 alone, with Myanmar’s military burning down their houses and firing shots indiscriminately.
Amid international pressure to accept the newly displaced Rohingya people, the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh summoned the Myanmar Ambassador in Dhaka on Nov. 23 and conveyed its deep concern at the military operation forcing Rohingya Muslims to flee their frontier homes. Later, in a statement, Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said it had asked Myanmar to “ensure the integrity of its border and to stop the influx of people from Rakhine state. Despite our border guards’ sincere efforts to prevent the influx, thousands of distressed Myanmar citizens, including women, children and elderly people, continue to cross the border into Bangladesh.” The appeals made to the Bangladesh authorities, even by some Bangladeshis themselves, for refuge to be granted to the fleeing Rohingya, often have an emotional aspect. It is argued that Bengalis should look back at the history of their own persecution by the Pakistan army in 1971, when 10 million of them crossed into India and were provided shelter and everything that such shelter entailed for more than the nine months when the country’s War of Liberation was at its peak.
Bangladesh’s people and government feel morally pressured to take in the refugees. Hard realities, though, make it difficult.
Who will help Rohingyas?
In 2012, the then secretary general of ASEAN noted the risk that “the entire region could be destabilised” by the Rohingya issue.However, at present ASEAN has yet to develop a regional position on the issue and appears unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could play a leading role. One approach would be for ASEAN to exert economic pressure on Myanmar to gradually reduce discrimination against Rohingyas. Here, ASEAN has leverage, since its members represent the biggest investors in the country. However, applying this pressure would require the political will to employ it, especially as non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states is one of its founding principles. Another approach would be for ASEAN, building upon the Bali Process, to work towards the establishment of a common regional framework concerning illegal migrants and refugees, which, at an initial stage, may even differ from the Geneva Convention.
Given the constraints of bilateral relations within the context of their common ASEAN membership, the Malaysian government has more than at any time in the past admonished the Myanmar government for its acts of commission and omission vis-à-vis the tragic plight of the Rohingya people. The Malaysian government should now try to convince the other ASEAN governments that a slow genocide has been unfolding in Rakhine since 1978. It should share the overwhelming evidence garnered by credible researchers and human rights organizations of mass killings of Rohingyas, their forced displacement, the denial of access to food, healthcare and employment and the systematic refusal of the state of Myanmar to recognize Rohingya identity. Collectively, the nine ASEAN governments should now persuade the Myanmar government to:
1. Stop immediately the massacre of the Rohingyas;
2. Restore the most fundamental rights of the Rohingyas as human beings
3. Recognize the right of the Rohingyas to their identity
4. Accord the right to citizenship to the Rohingyas.
Malaysia and other ASEAN governments should convince other Asian governments which have vast economic ties with Myanmar such as China, India and Japan to raise issues pertaining to justice for the Rohingyas with the Myanmar government. Diplomacy should be utilized to the fullest for this purpose. There is no reason why governments outside Asia should not also be drawn into this effort on behalf of the Rohingyas.
Moreover, as in the ASEAN case, both European Union and United States could, eventually, make pressure in the region with sanctions that previously have been used against the junta, in the attempt to mitigate the root causes of this migratory emergency. In fact, if it is true that Myanmar is moving towards democracy, authorities will have to implement reforms against ethnic and religious discrimination, as well as secure the ethnic areas. In this process, Mynamar could find Western actors as solid partners, who have humanitarian and economic interests in collaborating with Myanmar.
Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights continue to appeal to major international players to exert pressure on Myanmar’s government. Some, like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue that the United States should not have normal relations with the country until its persecution of the Rohingya ends and that investment and aid should be linked to progress on the protection of minority rights. Others, like senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace and former U.S. mission chief in Myanmar Priscilla Clapp, say that placing sole blame on Myanmar oversimplifies and misrepresents the complexities of the country’s historical ethnic diversity. “An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable. It is time for the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution.
The writer is journalist and geopolitical analyst.