Surge in Violence Against Myanmar's Rohingya Spurs World's Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis
Since late August 2017, more than 630,000 refugees belonging to the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group have fled targeted violence in northwestern Myanmar (also known as Burma) across the border to Bangladesh, marking the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Reports have accused the Burmese military of burning Rohingya villages, using rape as a weapon of war, and indiscriminately killing civilians in what the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The new refugees joined an estimated 200,000 Rohingya who had already fled to Bangladesh in earlier rounds of violence, and the swift uptick in arrivals has raised concerns about the capacity of the Bangladeshi government and international aid organizations to provide adequate protection and services for this stateless group, amid record displacement levels worldwide (for more, see Issue #5: As Displacement Becomes Long-Term, Refugee Hosts Grapple with New Normal).
The Rohingya—dubbed the world’s most persecuted minority by the United Nations—have long faced discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The latest exodus began when the military launched a counteroffensive campaign in response to a coordinated attack by the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that killed 12 government officers. The ARSA attack provided justification for military action against Rohingya in Rakhine State—where most Rohingya in Myanmar live—to contain what State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi described as “the spread of terrorism.” Past instances of military violence against the Rohingya displaced 125,000 people in 2012 and another 30,000 in 2016.
Reports from refugee camps in Bangladesh describe overcrowded and inhumane living conditions. Thousands of children face life-threatening malnutrition, and child disappearances have raised fears of kidnapping and trafficking. Refugees are also suffering from a lack of clean water and an excess of wastewater, high rates of diarrhea and respiratory infections, and sexual violence, including forced prostitution of women.
The speed and scale of Rohingya displacement have challenged the ability of aid organizations to adequately meet the needs of this growing refugee population. However, dire living conditions are not wholly new for this group. For years, thousands of Rohingya have lived in internally displaced person (IDP) camps within Rakhine State. These camps have been compared to internment or concentration camps due to their severe restrictions on movement, marriage, employment, health care, and education. Tolerance of and even support for these conditions by Burmese citizens underscores the precarious cultural and legal positions that the Rohingya occupy in Myanmar society.
A History of Persecution
Issue No. 2 of Top Ten of 2017
Discrimination against the Rohingya has its roots in contradicting historical accounts of the group’s settlement in Rakhine State. While the Rohingya trace their ancestry in the region to the 12th century, the Burmese government views them as unauthorized Bengali immigrants who arrived during British occupation in the 19th century. Myanmar’s interpretation of Rohingya settlement resulted in an official designation of the group as “resident foreigners,” not citizens. The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law codified this stance by requiring all Rohingya people to provide evidence that an ancestor resided in Myanmar before 1823—the start of British occupation—to obtain citizenship. Many Rohingya have been unable to produce the necessary documentation, resulting in partial citizenship or statelessness. Lack of full citizenship has restricted their movement, limited their access to education and other social services, and made them vulnerable to arbitrary forms of asset forfeiture.
While justifications for discrimination against the Rohingya trace to Myanmar’s colonial past, they also draw strength from recent fears of growing Muslim influence in the country. Although Buddhists comprise 90 percent of Myanmar’s population, many in this majority worry about the fate of their religion and culture due to demographic changes and the growing wealth and power of neighboring countries. These fears have been used to promote anti-Rohingya rhetoric and scapegoat the Rohingya for the country’s problems.
International media coverage of popular organizations that hold anti-Rohingya stances, such as Ma Ba Tha (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), often focuses on their incendiary leaders; for example, a TIME article granted radical monk U Wirathu the title of “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” This has built up an image of the “Buddhist nationalist” or “Buddhist militant,” but has done little to deepen understanding of the complicated environment in which these positions emerge. Reports of violent acts committed by Muslim groups in other countries fuel anti-Rohingya sentiment, while organizations such as Ma Ba Tha foster broader support in Myanmar by partnering with Buddhist Sunday schools, charities, legal service providers, and other community-focused groups. In a newly democratized country that had been walled off from outside influences for decades, a confluence of competing groups, charismatic individuals, and powerful narratives has created a complex environment with blurred lines between religious and political motivations.
Growing International Pressure
Given the complicated social fabric in Myanmar, it is perhaps unsurprising that a large portion of the country’s population holds unfavorable opinions of the Rohingya. This partly explains why Suu Kyi has not defended the Rohingya—going so far as to call reports of attacks on the group “fake news and rumors” in a September speech—and has even tacitly supported the military. The international community has roundly condemned Suu Kyi for not speaking out on the plight of the Rohingya. However, expectations of the de-facto leader must be tempered by the reality that her power is limited under a constitution written by the military junta that ran the country before democratization in 2011. Consequently, despite calls to action amid numerous well-publicized reports of human-rights violations against the Rohingya, Myanmar’s hybrid civilian-military government appears unlikely to engage with these charges or entertain the possibility of undertaking serious restitution efforts.
A muted regional response also casts doubt over the possibility of a multilateral solution. The 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in November 2017 offered a platform to address the mass displacement of the Rohingya, but the bloc’s Member States were largely quiet on the issue, opting to toe the regional line of noninterference in another member’s domestic affairs. Just two of Myanmar’s neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia—both predominantly Muslim countries—have condemned its actions against the Rohingya. Meanwhile, Western powers such as the United Kingdom have suspended funding for the Burmese military, and the United States has proposed targeted sanctions against the perpetrators of the violence.
Ultimately—following regional diplomatic norms—it appears local actors will be tasked with addressing the Rohingya crisis. The Bangladeshi government has been lauded in some corners for its support for the refugees, but changing political dynamics in the country—due in part to the rise of Islamic advocacy groups—heighten the importance of developing solutions that would allow displaced Rohingya to resettle freely in Myanmar. Most notably, influential Bangladeshi Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam rallied 15,000 people in Dhaka in September 2017 to call for the liberation of Rakhine State, and group leaders have threatened to wage jihad against Myanmar if persecution of the Rohingya does not abate. These stances do little to quell the fears of Buddhists in Myanmar and further fuel the rhetoric of nationalist leaders. Moreover, as Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, experts doubt the government will allow Rohingya who have fled to another country to resettle freely in Rakhine State. While Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an agreement in late November to repatriate Rohingya who voluntarily opt for return to camps in Myanmar, details remain unclear about living conditions in these camps or the extent to which organizations such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be allowed to support return efforts.
If these two countries cannot provide permanent settlement for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have been forced to leave their homes, it is unlikely that international relief organizations will be able to contain the crisis to the Bangladesh-Myanmar borderlands. Boiling political tensions and large-scale movements of Rohingya refugees, often in unseaworthy vessels and at the hands of smugglers, also threaten broader regional stability. Relations between the Rohingya and Myanmar seem to have reached a new low in 2017, and a long-term solution to the crisis does not appear to be on the horizon.
Arnold, Katie. 2016. Myanmar's Shame: Living inside Rohingya Ghettos. CNN, March 31, 2016. Available online.
---. 2017. Traffickers Prey on Lost Rohingya Children in Bangladesh Camps. Reuters, November 7, 2017. Available online.
Beech, Hannah. 2013. The Face of Buddhist Terror. TIME, July 1, 2013. Available online.
Bengali, Shashank. 2017. What Will Asia Do about the Humanitarian Crisis Unfolding on Its Doorstep? Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2017. Available online.
Bigio, Jamille. 2017. Five Questions About Sexual Violence in the Rohingya Crisis. Blog post, Council on Foreign Relations, November 9, 2017. Available online.
Bouckaert, Peter. 2017. The Burmese Military Is Committing Crimes against Humanity. Washington Post, September 27, 2017. Available online.
Economist. The Rohingyas: The Most Persecuted People on Earth? The Economist, June 13, 2015. Available online.
Fortify Rights. 2017. Myanmar: End Attacks in Rakhine State, Protect Civilians. News release, Fortify Rights, September 1, 2017. Available online.
Gowen, Annie. 2017. "Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing": 370,000 Rohingyas Flood Bangladesh as Crisis Worsens. Washington Post, September 12, 2017. Available online.
Iqbal, Nomia. 2017. Rohingya Women in Bangladesh Face "Forced Prostitution." BBC News, November 13, 2017. Available online.
Hodal, Kate. 2017. Rohingya Children Close to Starvation Amid "Health Crisis on an Unimaginable Scale." The Guardian, November 10, 2017. Available online.
Holmes, Oliver and Emanuel Stoakes. 2017. Fears Mount of Myanmar Atrocities as Fleeing Rohingya Families Drown. The Guardian, September 1, 2017. Available online.
Human Rights Watch. 2000. Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution. New York: Human Rights Watch. Available online.
---. 2013. Burma: End "Ethnic Cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims. Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2013. Available online.
---. 2017. Burma: Military Torches Homes Near Border. Human Rights Watch, September 15, 2017. Available online.
Htusan, Esther. Aung San Suu Kyi Is Benefiting from ASEAN's Silence on Myanmar's Rohingya Crisis. Time, November 12, 2017. Available online.
Joehnk, Tom Felix. 2017. How the Rohingya Crisis Is Changing Bangladesh. New York Times, October 6, 2017. Available online.
Lederman, Josh. 2017. US Declares “Ethnic Cleansing” Against Rohingya in Myanmar. Associated Press, November 23, 2017. Available online.
Lone, Wa and Shoon Naing. 2017. At Least 71 Killed in Myanmar as Rohingya Insurgents Stage Major Attack. Reuters, August 24, 2017. Available online.
Mahmud, Tarek, and Anwar Hussain. 2017. Hefazat: Jihad against Myanmar if Rohingya Killing Continues. Dhaka Tribune, September 15, 2017. Available online.
Motlagh, Jason. 2014. These Aren't Refugee Camps, They're Concentration Camps, and People Are Dying in Them. Time, June 17, 2014. Available online.
Nouziès, Gilles. 2017. Rohingya Refugees Live in Inhumane Conditions. Handicap International, October 26, 2017. Available online.
Nurul Islam, Mohammad. 2016. More Rohingyas Flee to Bangladesh as Violence Spreads in Myanmar. Reuters, November 23, 2016. Available online.
Paul, Ruma. 2017. Bangladesh Says Agreed with Myanmar for UNHCR to Assist Rohingya's Return. Reuters, November 25, 2017. Available online.
San Wai, Kyaw. 2014. Myanmar’s Religious Violence: A Buddhist "Siege Mentality" at Work. Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Commentaries, Nanyang Technological University. Available online.
Seng Yap, Lau. 2017. UN’s Futile Effort to Engage Myanmar on the Rohingya Crisis. The Diplomat, November 9, 2017. Available online.
Thein, Aye. 2017. Putting Myanmar’s ‘Buddhist Extremism’ in an International Context. The Irrawaddy, September 3, 2017. Available online.
Tribune Desk. 2017. 20,000 Hefazat Activists Rally for Rohingya. Dhaka Tribune, September 19, 2017. Available online.
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 2017. Bangladesh Humanitarian Situation Report No. 10 (Rohingya Influx). UNICEF, November 12, 2017. Available online.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). N.d. Rohingya Emergency. Accessed December 18, 2017. Available online.
Walton, Matthew J. 2017. Misunderstanding Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha. Asia Times, June 9, 2017. Available online.
Westcott, Ben and Rebecca Wright. 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi Blames "Terrorists" for Rohingya "Misinformation." CNN, September 6, 2017. Available online.
Wood, Graeme. 2014. A Countryside of Concentration Camps. The New Republic, January 21, 2014. Available online.