Who are the Rohingya and what is happening to them?
In looking to the crisis in Myanmar and the plight of the Rohingya people, the extent of the devastation is clear. Since August, 537,000 have fled from the Rohingya’s place of origin, Rakhine state, to Bangladesh in an attempt to escape the systematic persecution they are facing at the hands of Myanmar’s military. The current violence was precipitated by an incident on the 9th October 2016, when an attack on police outposts in Rakhine state, which left 9 border officers dead, was blamed on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In retaliation, the Myanmar army began a large-scale counter insurgency operation against the Rohingya population, an offensive which the UN has condemned as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Summary executions are frequent and indiscriminate; people are shot from helicopters at close range, and children and adults have their throats slit in front of their families. The recent UN report, based on interviews with refugees, describes the routine gang-rape of women and the destruction of homes and food supplies, with the clear intention of making it impossible for the Rohingya people ever to return to the area.
Abuse and marginalisation of the Rohingya people is long-standing in Myanmar. The Rohingya, who numbered over one million at the start of the year, are the largest of many Muslim minorities in the predominantly Buddhist country. Most live in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, and say they are the descendants of Arab traders who have lived in the region for centuries. However, the Myanmar authorities regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, deny them citizenship, and even excluded them from the census of 2014, rendering them the world’s largest group of stateless people.
After Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Rohingya were initially acknowledged as one of the country’s ethnic groups. However, following the military coup of 1962, the ascending generals established themselves as protectors of a Buddhist socialist state and ruthlessly cracked down on minority insurgencies in the borderlands. From the 1970s onwards, the Rohingya have faced systematic persecution, both legislatively and militarily; they are denied the right to education, to healthcare, and to vote, and everything from their movement to the number of children they are allowed to have is restricted by Myanmar’s government.
This history of disenfranchisement, the recent exodus, and the failure of Myanmar’s elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to denounce the indiscriminate, state-backed violence has led to the question of whether international intervention into the crisis is necessary.
International intervention is necessary
The silence of the former paragon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, on the ensuing violence has been deafening. At one time viewed as a symbol of resistance against the governing military junta, she advocated the need for a peaceful revolution in the country’s transition to a democratic state and in 2015 her party, the National League for Democracy, won Myanmar’s first free elections in over half a century.
In spite of her humanitarian past, Suu Kyi has refused to defend the Rohingya, characterising the coordinated military attacks against them as defence against terrorism. Whilst the latest military crackdown was indeed provoked by an attack on a police outpost by a Rohingya militant group, the response of the Myanmar military has been grossly disproportionate. They have targeted entire communities of civilians, despite militant groups’ declaration of a ceasefire.
The Rakhine Advisory Commission, an independent group appointed by Suu Kyi under pressure from the international community, recommended that Myanmar immediately address the citizenship rights and political representation of Muslims in Rakhine state, granting them healthcare and education rights and allowing displaced Rohingya people to return home. However, in a heavily criticised speech last month, which brought months of her silence on the issue to an end, Suu Kyi failed to denounce the reported atrocities, in an address which Amnesty International condemned as a “mix of untruths and victim blaming”.
Jono Davis for the St Andrews Economist has argued that international intervention in Rakhine state would be problematic. However, the Rohingya remain trapped in a buffer-zone between two countries which do not want them there (Myanmar considers them to be illegal immigrants and Bangladesh refuses to afford them refugee status), and with more than 15,000 refugees reportedly arriving in Bangladesh in the space of 48 hours, it appears that only international intervention can help to bring the plight of the Rohingya to an end.
Whilst it is likely that any form of unilateral military intervention would result in a war, inevitably destabilising Myanmar and likely incurring governmental change, more diplomatic means of putting pressure on Myanmar’s ruling elite do exist. Since August, the government has blocked UN aid agencies from entering parts of Rakhine state, where thousands of desperate civilians are in vital need of food, water, and medical supplies. World leaders must call on the government to reinstate access to this area for humanitarian groups. Meanwhile, holding an emergency aid conference to support the refugee camps in Bangladesh would help in drawing global attention to the crisis. Unilateral pressure must also be directed at the head of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, who has recently demonstrated a desire to build ties with European and Asian democracies. Governments looking to expand relations with Myanmar’s military, such as the U.S. and China, must halt this process immediately as a signal of their condemnation of the action.
A more focused response could be presented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an alliance interconnected by common ethnic and religious identities, as well as migration and economic relations, of which Myanmar has been a member since 1997. ASEAN could engage in preventive diplomacy with Myanmar, pushing the government and armed forces to end the violence in Rakhine state and highlighting legal and structural reforms which would facilitate an immersion of the Rohingya into Myanmar’s society. Nevertheless, a solution to the crisis will be contingent on the government’s willingness to engage with global partners, as well as a profound shift in socio-political attitudes towards ethnic minorities in Myanmar.