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Surge in Violence Against Myanmar's Rohingya Spurs World's Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis

Surge in Violence Against Myanmar's Rohingya Spurs World's Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis

Rohingya refugees

A crowd of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. (Photo: EU ECHO)

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

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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.



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