World Refugee Day: Rohingya Crisis Explained
The Rohingya people – historically also termed Arakanese Indians – are a stateless Indo-Aryan people from Rakhine State, Myanmar. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis. On 22 Oct 2017, the UN reported that an estimated 603,000 refugees from Rakhine, Myanmar had crossed the border into Bangladesh alone since August 25, 2017. The majority are Muslim while a minority is Hindu. Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya population is denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. According to Human Rights Watch, the 1982 laws “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality”. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Myanmar law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the eight “national races”. They are also restricted from freedom of movement, state education and civil service jobs. The legal conditions faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar have been widely compared to apartheid by many international academics.
The Rohingyas have faced military crackdowns in 1978, 1991–1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016–2017. UN officials and HRW have described Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing. There have been warnings of an unfolding genocide. Yanghee Lee, the UN special investigator on Myanmar, believes the country wants to expel its entire Rohingya population.
The Rohingya maintain they are indigenous to western Myanmar with a heritage of over a millennium and influence from the Arabs, Mughals, and Portuguese. The community claims it is descended from people in precolonial Arakan and colonial Arakan; historically, the region was an independent kingdom between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Despite accepting the term Rohingya in the past, the current official position of the Myanmar government is that Rohingyas are not a national race, but are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s government has stopped recognizing the term “Rohingya” and prefers to refer to the community as Bengalis. Rohingya campaign groups, notably the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, demand the right to “self-determination within Myanmar”.
Probes by the UN have found evidence of increasing incitement of hatred and religious intolerance by “ultra-nationalist Buddhists” against Rohingyas while the Myanmar security forces have been conducting “summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment and forced labour” against the community.
Nomenclature: The modern term Rohingya emerged from colonial and pre-colonial terms Rooinga and Rwangya. The term “Rohingya” may come from Rakhanga or Roshanga, the words for the state of Arakan. The word Rohingya would then mean “inhabitant of Rohang”, which was the early Muslim name for Arakan. In 1799, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, in his article “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” wrote “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.
The term Rohingya was used widely during political speeches and Rohingyas were active in the political circuit. Today the use of the name “Rohingya” is polarized. The government of Myanmar refuses to use the name. In the 2014 census, the Myanmar government forced the Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali”. Many Rohingya see the denial of their name similar to denying their basic rights. Jacques Leider writes that many Muslims in Rakhine simply prefer to call themselves “Muslim Arakanese” or “Muslims coming from Rakhine” instead of “Rohingya”.
The Rohingya population is concentrated in the historical region of Arakan, an old coastal country of Southeast Asia. It is not clear who were the original settlers of Arakan. Burmese nationalist claims that the Rakhine inhabited Arakan since 3000 BCE are not supported by any archaeological evidence. By the 4th century, Arakan became one of the earliest Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Sanskrit inscriptions in the region indicate that the founders of the first Arakanese states were Indian. The British historian Daniel George Edward Hall stated that “The Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as the tenth century AD. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal.
Arrival of Islam (8th-9th century):
Starting in the 8th century, Arab merchants began conducting missionary activities, and many locals converted to Islam. A southern branch of the Silk Road connected India, Burma, and China since the neolithic period. Arab traders are recorded in the coastal areas of southeast Bengal, bordering Arakan, since the 9th century. The Rohingya population traces its history to this period. Arab merchants married local women and later settled in Arakan. As a result of intermarriage and conversion, the Muslim population in Arakan grew.
Settlers from Burma proper (9th-15th century):
The Rakhines were one of the tribes of the Burmese Pyu city-states. The Rakhines began migrating to Arakan through the Arakan Mountains in the 9th century. The Rakhines established numerous cities in the valley of the Lemro River. Burmese forces invaded the Rakhine cities in 1406. The Burmese invasion forced Rakhine rulers to seek help and refuge from neighboring Bengal in the north.
Kingdom of Mrauk U:
Set against the backdrop of the Arakan Mountains, Mrauk U was home to a multiethnic population. Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the time of this kingdom. After 24 years of exile in Bengal, King Min Saw Mon regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Bengal Sultanate. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region. He ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognised his sovereignty over the areas.
Arakan’s vassalage to Bengal was brief. After Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah’s death in 1433, Narameikhla’s successors invaded Bengal and occupied Ramu in 1437 and Chittagong in 1459. Arakan would hold Chittagong until 1666. Emperor Aurangzeb gave orders to his governor in Mughal Bengal, Shaista Khan, to end what the Mughals saw as Arakanese-Portuguese piracy. In 1666, Shaista Khan led a 6000 man army and 288 warships to seize Chittagong from the Kingdom of Mrauk U.
Following the Konbaung Dynasty’s conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 people of the Rakhine State fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to escape persecution by the Bamar and to seek protection under the British Raj. The Bamar executed thousands of men and deported a considerable portion of people from Rakhine population to central Burma, leaving Arakan a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it. Sir Henry Yule saw many Muslims serving as eunuchs in Konbaung while on a diplomatic mission to the Burmese capital, Ava.
British colonial rule:
British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers. Thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work. The East India Company extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan. There was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration. It is hard to know whether these new Bengal migrants were the same population that was deported by force to Bengal’s Chittagong during the Burmese conquest in the 18th century and later returned to Arakan as a result of British policy or they were a new migrant population.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. Professor Andrew Selth of Griffith University writes that although a few Rohingya trace their ancestry to Muslims who lived in Arakan in the 15th and 16h centuries, most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Arakan massacres in 1942 involved communal violence between British-armed Rohingya recruits and pro-Japanese Rakhines. Tensions boiling in Arakan before the war erupted during the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia and Arakan became the frontline in the conflict. The war resulted in a complete breakdown of civil administration and consequent development of habits of lawlessness exacerbated by the availability of modern arms. The Japanese advance triggered an inter-communal conflict between Muslims and Buddhists. The Muslims fled towards British-controlled Muslim-dominated northern Arakan from Japanese-controlled Buddhist-majority areas. This stimulated a “reverse ethnic cleansing” in British-controlled areas, particularly around Maungdaw. Failure of British counter-offensive attempted from December 1942 to April 1943 resulted in abandonment of even more of the Muslim population as well as increase in inter-communal violence. Moshe Yegar, a research fellow at Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem noted that hostility had developed between the Muslims and the Buddhists who had brought about a similar hostility in other parts of Burma. This tension was let loose with the retreat of the British. With the approach of Japanese into Arakan, the Buddhists instigated cruel measures against the Muslims. Thousands, though the exact number is unknown, fled from Buddhist-majority regions to eastern Bengal and northern Arakan with many being killed or dying of starvation. The Muslims in response conducted retaliatory raids from British-controlled areas, causing Buddhists to flee to southern Arakan. Aye Chan, a historian at Kanda University in Japan, has written that as a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese. Chan agrees that hundreds of Muslims fled to northern Arakan though states that the accounts of atrocities on them were exaggerated. In March 1942, Rohingyas from northern Arakan killed around 20,000 Arakanese. In return, around 5,000 Muslims in the Minbya and Mrauk-U Townships were killed by Rakhines and Red Karens. As in the rest of Burma, the IJA committed acts of rape, murder and torture against Muslims in Arakan.
During this movement in the 1940s, Rohingya Muslims in western Burma organized a separatist movement to merge the region into East Pakistan. Muslim leaders believed that the British had promised them a “Muslim National Area” in Maungdaw region and were apprehensive of a future Buddhist-dominated government. Before the independence of Burma in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and asked his assistance in incorporating the Mayu region to Pakistan considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with East Pakistan. The proposal never materialized since it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah, saying that he wouldn’t interfere into Burmese matters. After Jinnah’s refusal to accept northern Arakan into the Dominion of Pakistan, some Rohingya elders who supported a jihad movement, founded the Mujahid party in northern Arakan in 1947. The aim of the Mujahid party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d’état by General Ne Win. He carried out military operations against them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was Operation King Dragon, which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighboring Bangladesh as refugees. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingyas also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan. Rohingya mujahideen are still active within the remote areas of Arakan.
The numbers and the extent of post-independence immigration from Bangladesh are subject to controversy and debate. In a 1955 study published by Stanford University, the authors Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff write, “The post-war (World War II) illegal immigration of Chittagonians into that area was on a vast scale, and in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas they replaced the Arakanese.” The authors further argue that the term Rohingya, in the form of Rwangya, first appeared to distinguish settled population from newcomers: “The newcomers were called Mujahids (crusaders), in contrast to the Rwangya or settled Chittagonian population.” According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), these immigrants were actually the Rohingyas who were displaced by the World War II and began to return to Arakan after the independence of Burma but were rendered as illegal immigrants, while many were not allowed to return. ICG adds that there were “some 17,000” refugees from the Bangladesh liberation war who “subsequently returned home”.
Burmese independence: M. A. Gaffar, a member of Burma’s constituent assembly, called for recognizing Rohingyas in 1948. The Rohingya community was recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma, with members of the group serving as representatives in the Burmese parliament, as well as ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and other high-ranking government positions. But since Burma’s military junta took control of the country in 1962, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights.
Rohingya political participation in Burma:
In the prelude to independence, two Arakanese Indians were elected to the Constituent Assembly of Burma in 1947, including M. A. Gaffar and Sultan Ahmed. After Burma became independent in 1948, M. A. Gaffar presented a memorandum of appeal to the Government of the Union of Burma calling for the recognition of the term “Rohingya”, based on local Indian names of Arakan (Rohan and Rohang), as the official ethnicity of Arakanese Indians. During the Burmese general election, 1951, five Rohingyas were elected to the Parliament of Burma, including one of the country’s first two female MPs, Zura Begum. Six MPs were elected during the Burmese general election, 1956 and subsequent by-elections. The 1962 Burmese coup d’état ended the country’s Westminster-style political system. The 1982 Burmese citizenship law stripped most of the Rohingyas of their stake in citizenship. During the Burmese general election, 1990, the Rohingya-led National Democratic Party for Human Rights won four seats in the Burmese parliament. The election was won by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest and not permitted to become prime minister. The Burmese military junta banned the National Democratic Party for Human Rights in 1992. Its leaders were arrested, jailed and tortured. As of 2017, Burma does not have a single Rohingya MP and the Rohingya population has no voting rights.
Mayu Frontier District:
A separate administrative zone for the Rohingya-majority northern areas of Arakan existed between 1961 and 1964. Known as the Mayu Frontier District, the zone was set up by Prime Minister U Nu after the 1960 Burmese general election, on the advice of his health minister Sultan Mahmud. The zone was administered directly from Rangoon by the national government. After the Burmese military coup in 1962, the zone was administered by the Burmese army. It was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1964 by the Union Revolutionary Council. The socialist military government inducted the zone into Arakan State in 1974.
Expulsion of Burmese Indians:
Racism towards people with links to the Indian subcontinent increased after 1962 Burmese coup. The socialist military government nationalized all property, including many enterprises of the white collar Burmese Indian community. Between 1962 and 1964, 320,000 Burmese Indians were forced to leave the country. From 1971 to 1978, a number of Rakhine monks and Buddhists staged hunger strikes in Sittwe to force the government to tackle immigration issues which they believed to be causing a demographic shift in the region. Ne Win’s government requested UN to repatriate the war refugees and launched military operations which drove off around 200,000 people to Bangladesh. In 1978, the Bangladesh government protested against the Burmese government concerning “the expulsion by force of thousands of Burmese Muslim citizens to Bangladesh”. The Burmese government responded that those expelled were Bangladesh citizens who had resided illegally in Burma. In July 1978, after intensive negotiations mediated by UN, Ne Win’s government agreed to take back 200,000 refugees who settled in Arakan.[ In the same year as well as in 1992, a joint statement by governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh “acknowledged that the Rohingya were lawful Burmese residents”. In 1982, the Burmese government enacted the citizenship law and declared the “Bengalis” are foreigners.
After 1988 Burmese pro-democracy uprising: Since the 1990s, a new ‘Rohingya’ movement which is distinct from the 1950s armed rebellion has emerged. The new movement is characterized by lobbying internationally by overseas diaspora, establishing indigenous claims by Rohingya scholars, publicizing the term “Rohingya” and denying Bengali origins by Rohingya politicians. Rohingya scholars have claimed that Rakhine was previously a Muslim state for a millennium, or that Muslims were king-makers of Rakhine kings for 350 years. They often traced the origin of Rohingyas to Arab seafarers. These claims have been rejected as “newly invented myths” in academic circles. The movement has garnered sharp criticisms from ethnic Rakhines and Kamans, the latter of whom are a recognized Muslim ethnic group in Rakhine. Kaman leaders support citizenship for Muslims in northern Rakhine but believe that the new movement is aimed at achieving a self-administered area or Rohang State as a separate Muslim state carved out of Rakhine and condemn the movement. Rakhines’ views are more critical. Citing Bangladesh’s overpopulation and density, Rakhines perceive the Rohingyas as “the vanguard of an unstoppable wave of people that will inevitably engulf Rakhine”. However, for moderate Rohingyas, the aim may have been no more than to gain citizenship status. Moderate Rohingya politicians agree to compromise on the term Rohingya if citizenship is provided under an alternative identity that is neither “Bengali” nor “Rohingya”. Various alternatives including “Rakhine Muslims”, “Myanmar Muslims” or simply “Myanmar” have been proposed.
Burmese juntas (1990–2011):
The military junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century relied heavily on mixing Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule, and, in the view of the US government, heavily discriminated against minorities like the Rohingyas and the Chinese people in Myanmar such as the Kokangs and Panthays. Some pro-democracy dissidents from Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority do not consider the Rohingyas compatriots. Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots led by Buddhist monks against ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas and Chinese. In the 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In the early 2000s, all but 20,000 of them were repatriated to Myanmar, some against their will. In 2009, a senior Burmese envoy to Hong Kong branded the Rohingyas “ugly as ogres” and a people that are alien to Myanmar. Under the 2008 constitution, the Myanmar military still control much of the country’s government, including the ministries of home, defense and border affairs, 25% of seats in parliament and one vice president. In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were rescued by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.
2012 Rakhine State riots:
The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims who form the majority in the northern Rakhine and ethnic Rakhines who form the majority in the south. Prior to these, there were widespread fears among the Buddhist Rakhines that they would soon become a minority in their ancestral state. The riots occurred after weeks of sectarian disputes, including a gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas and killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines. There is evidence that the pogroms in 2012 were incited by the government asking the Rakhine men to defend their “race and religion”. The Burmese government denied having organized the pogroms, but has never prosecuted anyone for the attacks against the Rohingyas. The violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and up to 140,000 people displaced. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine. In July 2012, the Burmese Government did not include the Rohingya minority group in the census—classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982. About 140,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain confined in IDP camps.
2015 refugee crisis:
In 2015, the Simon-Skjodt Centre of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stated in a press statement the Rohingyas are “at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide”. In 2015, to escape violence and persecution, thousands of Rohingyas migrated from Myanmar and Bangladesh, collectively dubbed as ‘boat people’ by international media, to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand by rickety boats via the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates about 25,000 people have been taken to boats from January to March in 2015. There are claims that around 100 people died in Indonesia, 200 in Malaysia, and 10 in Thailand during the journey. An estimated 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore and several thousand more are believed to remain trapped on boats at sea with little food or water. A Malaysian newspaper claimed crisis has been sparked by smugglers. However, the Economist in an article in June 2015 wrote the only reason why the Rohingyas were willing to pay to be taken out of Burma in squalid, overcrowded, fetid boats as “… it is the terrible conditions at home in Rakhine that force the Rohingyas out to sea in the first place.”
2016–17 conflict: On 9 October 2016, unidentified individuals who the Myanmar government claimed were insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. According to government officials in the border town of Maungdaw, the attackers brandished knives, machetes and homemade slingshots that fired metal bolts. Several dozen firearms and boxes of ammunition were looted by the attackers from the border posts. The attack resulted in the deaths of nine border officers.
On 11 October 2016, four soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting. Following the attacks, reports emerged of several human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by Burmese security forces in their crackdown on suspected Rohingya insurgents. Shortly after, the Myanmar military forces and extremist Buddhists started a major crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims in the country’s western region of Rakhine State in response to attacks on border police camps by unidentified insurgents. The crackdown resulted in wide-scale human rights violations at the hands of security forces, including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arsons, and other brutalities.
The military crackdown on Rohingya people drew criticism from various quarters. The de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi has particularly been criticized for her inaction and silence. Government officials in Rakhine State originally blamed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), an Islamist insurgent group mainly active in the 1980s and 1990s, for the attacks; however, on 17 October 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility. In the following days, six other groups released statements, all citing the same leader. The Myanmar Army announced on 15 November 2016 that 69 Rohingya insurgents and 17 security forces (10 policemen, 7 soldiers) had been killed in recent clashes in northern Rakhine State, bringing the death toll to 134 (102 insurgents and 32 security forces). It was also announced that 234 people suspected of being connected to the attack were arrested.
A police document obtained by Reuters in March 2017 listed 423 Rohingyas detained by the police since 9 October 2016, 13 of whom were children, the youngest being ten years old. Myanmar police also claimed that the children had confessed to their alleged crimes during interrogations, and that they were not beaten or pressured during questioning. The average age of those detained is 34, the youngest is 10, and the oldest is 75. The Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) stated on 1 September that the death toll had risen to 370 insurgents, 13 security personnel, two government officials and 14 civilians.The UN believes over 1,000 people have been killed since October 2016, which contradicts the death toll provided by the Myanmar government.
Autumn 2017 crisis:
Starting in early August, 2017, the Myanmar security forces began “clearance operations” against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. A few weeks later, on August 24, 2017, the Rakhine Commission (chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan)—established by the new civilian Myanmar government to recommend solutions to the ethnic conflict and related issues in Rakhine state—released its recommendations for alleviating the suffering of minorities (especially the Rohingya), calling for measures that would improve security in Myanmar for the Rohingya, but not calling for all measures sought by various Rohingya factions. The following morning, according to Myanmar military officials, a Rohingya rebel group—ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) — led multiple coordinated attacks on police outposts and border guards, killing a dozen government forces, at the cost of over 50 dead among the rebels. Almost immediately, the Myanmar military—apparently teaming with local authorities and mobs of Rakhine Buddhist civilians—launched massive reprisals that it described as its anti-terrorist “clearance operations” (which, UN investigators later determined, had actually begun earlier) — attacking Rohingya villages throughout northern Rakhine state. Within the first three weeks, the military reported over 400 dead (whom it described as mostly “militants” and “terrorists”) — the U.N. estimated over 1,000 dead (mostly civilians), and other sources suggested as many as 3,000—in the first four weeks of the reprisals. Refugees reported numerous civilians—including women and children—being indiscriminantly beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hacked to death or burned alive. Whole villages were being burnt down by authorities and Buddhist mobs.
Human Rights Watch released satellite photos showing the villages burning, but the Myanmar government insisted the fires were lit by Rohingya, themselves, or specifically Rohingya militants—though the authorities offered no proof of the allegation, and refused or tightly controlled all media and foreign access to the area. Myanmar’s presidential spokesman reported that 176 ethnic Rohingya villages—out of the original 471 Rohingya villages in three townships—had become empty. In addition to the 176 “abandoned” villages, some residents reportedly fled from at least 34 other villages. In the first four weeks of the conflict, over 400,000 Rohingya refuees (approximately 40% of the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar) fled the country on foot or by boat (chiefy to Bangladesh—the only other country bordering the Rakhine state area under attack) — creating a major humanitarian crisis. In addition, 12,000 Rakhine Buddhists, and other non-Muslim Rakhine state residents were displaced within the country. On 10 September 2017, ARSA declared a temporary unilateral ceasefire to allow aid groups to work in the region. Its statement read that “ARSA strongly encourages all concerned humanitarian actors resume their humanitarian assistance to all victims of the humanitarian crisis, irrespective of ethnic or religious background during the ceasefire period.” However, the Myanmar government dismissed the gesture, saying “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. The violence and humantarian ‘catastrophe,’ inflamed international tensions, especially in the region, and throughout the Muslim world. September 13, Myanmar’s presidential spokesman announced Myanmar would establish a new commission to implement some recommendations of Annan’s Rakhine Commission, in their August 2017 report.
A Holy See diplomat stated that at least 3000 people were killed by Myanmar security forces in August and September 2017. The U.N. Secretary General issued a statement, September 13, 2017, implying that the situation facing the Rohingya in Rakhine state was “ethnic cleansing.” He urged Myanmar authorities to suspend military action and stop the violence—insisting that Myanmar’s government uphold the rule of law, and (noting that “380,000” Rohingya had recently fled to Bangladesh) recognize the refugees’ right to return to their homes.
The same day, the U.N. Security Council issued a separate, unanimous statement, on the crisis following a closed-door meeting about Myanmar. In a semi-official press statement (its first statement on the situation in Myanmar in nine years) — the Council expressed “concern” about reported excessive violence in Myanmar’s security operations, called for de-escalating the situation, reestablishing law and order, protecting civilians, and resolution of the refugee problem.
On September 19, 2017, Myanmar’s civilian leader, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, made a major televised speech on the crisis—in English—stating “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” and indicated a desire to know why the Rohingya were fleeing. But largely defended her prior position supporting the Myanmar military and its actions, and deflected international criticism by saying most Rohingya villages remained intact, and conflict had not broken out everywhere. Expressing no criticism of the Myanmar military, and denying that it had engaged in any “armed clashes or clearance operations” since September 5, she added, “We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state,” and that the country was “committed to a sustainable solution… for all communities in this state”, but was vague as to how that would be achieved.
By the end of September, conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and outnumbered Hindus, became apparent—including the killing of around 100 Hindu villagers in Rakhine state, around late August—according to the Myanmar military who claimed to have found the bodies of 20 women and eight boys in mass graves, September 24, after a search near Ye Baw Kya village, in northern Rakhine state. The search was reportedly in response to a refugee in Bangladesh who contacted a local Hindu leader in Myanmar. Authorities quoted the refugee as saying about 300 ARSA militants, on August 25, marched about 100 people out of the Hindu village and killed them. ARSA denied involvement, saying it was committed to not killing civilians.
In other cases, in Myanmar and in Bangladeshi refugee camps—according to some media accounts—Hindu Rohingyas (particularly women) faced kidnapping, religious abuse and “forced conversions” at the hands of Muslim Rohingyas.
By the end of September, 2017, UN, Bangladesh and other entities were reporting that—in addition to 200,000-300,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh after fleeing prior attacks in Myanmar—the current conflict, since late August, 2017, had driven 500,000 more Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh, creating what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency… a humanitarian nightmare.”
Refugee relocation to Thengar Char island (2016-present): In January 2016, the government of Bangladesh initiated a plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, who had fled to the country following persecution in Myanmar. The refugees are to be relocated to the island of Thengar Char. The move has received substantial opposition. Human rights groups have seen the plan as a forced relocation. Additionally, concerns have been raised about living conditions on the island, which is low-lying and prone to flooding. The island has been described as “only accessible during winter and a haven for pirates”.
Genocide accusations: In 2015, an assessment by the Yale Law School concluded that there was a concerted campaign against the Rohingya, which could be classified as genocide under international law. An investigation by the media channel Al Jazeera English, along with the group Fortify Rights, found that the Myanmar military was systematically targeting the Rohingya population because of its ethnicity and religion. The International State Crime Initiative of the University of London issued a report stating that a genocide is taking place against the Rohingya. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has used the term ethnic cleansing to describe the exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar.
Rohingya people in Rakhine State: Those who identify as Rohingyas typically reside in the northernmost townships of Arakan bordering Bangladesh where they form 80–98% of the population. A typical Rohingya family has four or five surviving children but numbers up to twenty eight have been recorded in rare cases. Rohingyas have 46% more children than Myanmar’s national average. As of 2014, about 1.3 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar and an estimated 1 million overseas. They form 40% of Rakhine State’s population or 60% if overseas population is included. As of December 2016, 1 in 7 stateless persons worldwide are Rohingya per United Nations figures, and the Rohingya are the world’s largest stateless community. Prior to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis and the military crackdown in 2016 and 2017, the Rohingya population in Myanmar was around 1.1 to 1.3 million. They reside mainly in the northern Rakhine townships, where they form 80–98% of the population. Many Rohingyas have fled to southeastern Bangladesh, where there are over 900,000 refugees, as well as to India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar live in camps for internally displaced persons, and the authorities do not allow them to leave.
The Rohingya language is part of the Indo-Aryan sub-branch of the greater Indo-European language family and is related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar. While both Rohingya and Chittagonian are related to Bengali, they are not mutually intelligible with the latter. Rohingyas do not speak Burmese, the lingua franca of Myanmar, and face problems in integration. Rohingya scholars have written the Rohingya language in various scripts including the Arabic, Hanifi, Urdu, Roman, and Burmese alphabets, where Hanifi is a newly developed alphabet derived from Arabic with the addition of four characters from Latin and Burmese. More recently, a Latin alphabet has been developed using all 26 English letters A to Z and two additional Latin letters Ç (for retroflex R) and Ñ (for nasal sound). To accurately represent Rohingya phonology, this alphabet also uses five accented vowels (áéíóú). It has been recognised by ISO with ISO 639-3 “rhg” code.
There has been considerable official Burmese disregard for religious freedom vis-a-vis the Rohingya Muslim population. The group does not enjoy the protection of the state’s anti-discrimination laws because they are noncitizens. The predominant majority of Rohingya people practice Islam, including a blend of Sunni Islam and Sufism. A minority are Hindu. The government restricts their educational opportunities; many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only option. Mosques and madrasas are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home. Security forces have arrested Burmese Muslims for teaching religious doctrine and praying. Religious places of worship could only be constructed with informal approval that was frequently rescinded when officials or conditions changed. More formal requests were often delayed or denied. As such, Muslims encountered increasing difficulty in building or even repairing houses of worship.
The Rohingya face discrimination and barriers to health care. According to a 2016 study published in the medical journal The Lancet, Rohingya children in Myanmar face low birth weight, malnutrition, diarrhea, and barriers to reproduction on reaching adulthood. Rohingya have a child mortality rate of up to 224 deaths per 1000 live births, more than 4 times the rate for the rest of Myanmar (52 per 1000 live births).
In 2005, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assisted with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps threatened this effort. In 2015, 140,000 Rohingyas remain in IDP camps after communal riots in 2012. Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are unable to return to Myanmar due to the 2012 communal violence and fear of persecution. The Bangladeshi government has reduced the amount of support it allocates to the Rohingyas in order to prevent an outflow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh.
Thailand and Refugees:
Thousands of Rohingyas have also fled to Thailand. There have been charges that Rohingyas were shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand. In February 2009, evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea has surfaced. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities told that they were captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at sea.
On 29 March 2014, the Burmese government banned the word “Rohingya” and asked for registration of the minority as “Bengalis” in the 2014 Myanmar Census, the first in three decades. On 7 May 2014, the United States House of Representatives passed the United States House resolution on persecution of the Rohingya people in Burma that called on the government of Myanmar to end the discrimination and persecution. Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London suggest that the Myanmar government is in the final stages of an organized process of genocide against the Rohingya. In November 2016, a senior UN official in Bangladesh accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. However, Charles Petrie, a former top UN official in Myanmar, said that “Today using the term, aside from being divisive and potentially incorrect, will only ensure that opportunities and options to try to resolve the issue to be addressed will not be available.
(The writer comes with a writing experience of 5 years with expertise in misplaced population studies)
( The views expressed are the author’s own.The POST neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)