A LONG trail of shoeless, scuffed people walk between the rice fields to a nearby Bangladeshi village. Many of them carry bundles─meager belongings that they managed to save when they fled for their lives from home. But, can it be called home? "Home" has been a place of recurring violence; persecution due to religious belief, rape, arson, murder, internment, and economic destitution. They are one million ethnic Muslim minority that used to reside in Rakhine state, west coast of Myanmar. They are the Rohingya. This long history of persecution has spawned radical ideologies, resorting to acts of terrorism upon Myanmar citizens and military in order to create an independent Rakhine state. Terrorism committed by Muslim militants have a long history and subsequent military crackdowns longer. Everyone is a loser in this “cycle of terror and violence”. All the civilians swept by this crisis victims.
Beginning of the Tragic Exodus
According to CNN, nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have mass migrated from Myanmar by boat or foot to Bangladesh since the renewed security crackdown in August 2017. Sources state that 80% of the refugees are women and children. The Rohingya have been unfairly stripped of Myanmar citizenship since the 1982 Myanmar Nationality law*. Since the 1970s, National Registration Cards (NRCs), which serve as proof of citizenship, have not been issued to the Rohingya, and many existing NRCs were forcefully taken away in military operations as part of the de-nationalization of the Rohingya. Instead, the Rohingya were given Temporary Registration Certificates known as the “white cards.” However, in 2015, then-President Thein Sein cancelled the white cards and made them expire by May 31st of that year, after which they were to undergo a citizen verification process. This verification process did not proceed in time. In recent years, the Rohingya have been subjected to recurring crackdowns from the military in so called "military campaigns" against Rohingya insurgents.
As the Asia Times reports, the 2017 Rohingya crisis was initiated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya insurgent group that aims to build an independent Muslim state for the Rohingya. Despite domestic opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and current Myanmar’s State Councilor, appointed Kofi Annan to head a commission to find viable answers to the Rohingya problem. In time for the long-awaited commission’s release on August 23rd, the Rohingya militant organization ARSA attack took place just days later, deliberately undermining the efforts to peacefully and constructively solve the long brewing crisis.
On August 25th, the ARSA raged attack on 30 police stations and an army base in Rakhine. The attack has resulted in the death of 12 security personnel and 59 insurgents. The Rohingya insurgents’ attack has subsequently been met with a massive military crackdown on the one million—mostly civilian─Rohingya people. Thus, the 2017 exodus began as persecution and violence escalated in Rakhine.
The widely reported 2017 crisis is unprecedented, and ARSA gained publicity and perhaps support from its Muslim brotherhoods in Islamic states. On the other hand, if the ARSA hoped to protect the Rohingya, it has failed horribly in working in the interest of the Muslim ethnic minority. The result of the August ARSA attack was mass village burning and the displacement of almost half of the Rohingya people. They have walked the precarious refugee trail to Bangladesh, where they are cramped into inhospitable refugee camps. This does not include the additional 30,000 displaced non-Muslims who have also fled the violence.
Not for the First Time
The Rohingya sectarian tension stems from historical relics of British colonial rule (1824-1948) over Myanmar. During the colonial period, many Rohingya were brought in from East Bengal to then-Burma, which existed as a province of India until 1937. As part of the divide-and-rule system, whereby the ruling power prevents concentrations of power by fomenting rivalries and division, the British overly favored the Muslim Rohingya over the Buddhist majority, fostering Buddhist-Muslim antagonism. This “divide et impera” strategy has worked to deepen animosity between the two groups and provided Buddhist nationalists grounds to accuse the Rohingya of benefiting from the British colonial rule.
In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma but were pushed out successfully in 1945 through coalition work between Britain, Buddhist nationalists, and the Rohingya. The British promised the Rohingya autonomy of Rakhine and the creation of an independent Rohingya state, but did not follow through.
Before Burmese independence in 1948, Rohingya militants rose to assert prominence in the Mayu peninsula, a Muslim-majority region in northern Rakhine, by driving out Buddhists. The Rohingya wanted the Mayu peninsula to be annexed by East Pakistan (became Bangladesh in 1971), an Islamic state. However, this plan failed and during 1947-1961, incessant Rohingya militants took arms and fought government forces for the secession and annexation. In 1962, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) seized power through a military coup and oppressed the Rohingya more directly than before. Finally, in 1982, the newly drawn constitution decided not to recognize the Rohingya as one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar. Since, the Rohingya have not been recognized as Myanmar citizens, and in present day, the status of their identity in Myanmar remains ambiguous with the expiration of white cards.
The Rohingya persecution
Without citizenship, the Rohingya no longer have access to basic rights such as education, ,medical services, welfare and protection under the law. According to Fortify Rights, a human rights organization, restriction of free movement means that the Rohingya need authorization to even move between townships. A consistent flow of state policy from 1993 to 2008 restricts their marriage with stringent two-child policy being imposed since 2005 in some townships and expanding into other Muslim regions. Construction and repair of homes and religious structures are also restricted. The discrimination these people have to endure due to their robbed citizenship partly explains the rise of the insurgent groups.
Other side of the coin: Rohingya retaliation
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, various active Rohingya insurgent groups have existed with aims similar to the ARSA. On August 4th, 21 days before the ARSA attack, six Mros (a sub-ethnic group of the Rakhine, situated in the western coast of Myanmar) were killed, presumably by Muslim militants.
Moreover the Rohingyas were not the only victims of the August 25th ARSA offensive. Tens of thousands of non-Muslims, amongst them Hindus and Buddhists, were faced with ARSA attacks, arson, and murders and had to flee their homes. According to The Irrawaddy, 30,000 Arakanese and other non-Muslims ethnics fled south to seek refuge in places where the Burmese civilian government has control. In these areas, mainly Rathedaung and Sittwe, government aid is being delivered. Through these acts of terror, the insurgent groups hope to negotiate toward the creation of an independent Rakhine nation.
Reaction from the international community
The international community has been quick to criticize the crisis. In a statement on Twitter, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai said “the world is waiting” for Suu Kyi to speak out. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein’s comments to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva called Myanmar’s crackdown on Muslim Rohyinga a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” However, Aung San Suu Kyi has been reluctant to fully criticize the extent of the Rohingya persecution by the Myanmar military.
The Rohingya are referred to as “Bengalis,” which is a derogatory term used by the Burmese to indicate the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In a much awaited speech addressed to the nation and the international community (presumed by her use of English) on September 19th, Suu Kyi consciously did not use the term “Rohingya” except when referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as (ARSA) a “terrorist group.” Instead she opted for the word, the ‘Muslims’ of Rakhine state. This is noteworthy as Suu Kyi has sympathized with the Burmese majority in not using the term Rohingya, essentially denying them their true identity as an ethnicity.
In the speech Suu Kyi took a defensive step by stating, “It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” However she did not address the widely reported abuses of military security and Buddhist nationalists.
Probing deeper into the problem
Suu Kyi has been sharply condemned for her inaction and reluctance to recognize the wrongdoings of the Myanmar military crackdown. However, deeper layers exist behind Suu Kyi’s carefully prepared speech. As Suu Kyi precariously tries to balance her political career and the fragile democracy maintained in Myanmar with compromises in human rights issues, her relationship with the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces, is at stake.
Since the 1970s, the Rohingya repeatedly fled persecution in heightened military crackdowns. The top destinations for Rohingya Muslims are Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. None of them are signatories of the 1951 UN Refugee convention, which “outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them” (UNHCR). These countries have been unwelcoming the Rohingya refugees, preventing trafficking boats from landing, from which the nickname “boat people” referring to the Rohingya originates. Even if they are allowed to land, no aid or assistance has been given for their settlement.
However, recently in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been outspoken on the Rohingya issue. The country has simultaneously announced that it will no longer turn away migrant boats and promised to assist in temporary accommodations. Bangladesh has also been more accommodating of the Rohingya refugees. The country has set up two government-run refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area of Southern Bangladesh, Kutupalong, and Nayapara Refugee Camps with aid help from NGOs and the UN. But resources are desperately lacking. As Al Jazeera reports, half of the 400 thousand Rohingya refugees live in makeshift sites prone to monsoon flooding, without clean drinking water and sanitation.
The Rohingya refugee crisis in the international region
The Rohingya Crisis is no longer just a domestic issue, but has expanded into a regional crisis encompassing thousands of Rohingya refugees scattered around South East Asia and ASEAN governments. In South East Asia, only Cambodia, Philippines and Timor Leste have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
As a result, the Rohingya refugees have been treated in an ad hoc practice in the absence of an official state policy or binding international law. A regional crisis calls for a regional solution. The current paucity of ASEAN conventions aiding the Rohingya refugees calls for a greater role played by ASEAN in legislating refugee obligations.
But there is not much ASEAN can do with the current system. Founded in 1967, the association has been established on the principles of “non-interference in domestic matters” and “good neighborliness,” serving primarily trade and economic purposes. Therefore, unlike the EU, ASEAN does not have a legal framework to resolve refugees and migration problems. ASEAN has only recently adopted the Human Rights Declaration in 2012. Even the 16th article on Civil and Political Rights section on refugees makes amends for non-interference, “Every person has the right to seek and receive asylum…in accordance with the laws of such State.”
The principle of non-interference that defined ASEAN’s inception is challenged as the Rohingya crisis, a “local problem”, has regional consequences. The Rohingya crisis is not only a refugee crisis but has expanded into issues of human trafficking and terrorism. Many Rohingya flee Myanmar in illegal human trafficking boats, risking their lives to cross the Bay of Bengal to destination countries. In their desperate flight, Rohingya men, women and children fall victims to human trafficking.
Moreover, terrorism and security concerns are raised as suspects grow that the local Rohingya militants have ties with Islamic terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. The most active Rohingya insurgent group, ARSA, is led by Saudi-based Rohingya immigrants. The Rohingya conflict has potential to culminate into wider religious conflict as Islamist terrorist organizations find grounding for recruitment in an environment so hostile to Muslim ethnic minorities. In order to prevent the expansion of Islamic fundamentalism to vulnerable regions of Rakhine and amongst marginalized Muslims, ASEAN and South East Asian governments have a bigger role to play in scrutinizing the Myanmar government and assisting the plight of the Rohingya refugees.
Insight behind the Rohingya persecution
A long history of repulsion fuels this “cycle of terror and violence” but economic factors also play a role in encouraging Rohingya exclusion. According to the World Bank, the Rakhine state in which the Rohingya used to make up a third of the population (before the mass 2017 exodus), is the least developed area in Myanmar. Rakhine state suffers from an 80% poverty rate, double the national average.
Historically, the region has suffered underinvestment, which means its infrastructure─electricity, roads, irrigation etc—is poor. Infrastructure is directly linked with productivity and output, and the paucity of these significantly lowers the standard of living for Rakhine residents.
Ethnic Rakhines and Muslims alike have difficulty accessing basic healthcare and suffer from food shortage. Overall, the economic destitution of Rakhine state means that the ethnic Rakhine perceive the Rohingya as additional competitors for limited resources, thus fostering greater animosity.
Buddhist nationalism is another significant factor contributing to exclusion of the Rohingya. The basic reasoning given for Muslim intolerance are the followings: The urge to protect Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage in face of globalization, Islamic expansion, and the belief that the Muslims initiated violence in their earlier rebellions for a separate Muslim state. Buddhist fundamentalists assert that Buddhism is threatened by Muslims more so because Myanmar is surrounded by Islamic countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Buddhist nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Myanmar. The radical version of Buddhist nationalism is expressed in the 969 movement and the associate, Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), established in 2013. The 969 movement is a Buddhist-led movement intended to build unity amongst Buddhists and marginalize Muslims. The spiritual leader of the movement, monk Ashin Wirathu, calls for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses.
According to scholar Emilie Biver, “The marginalization-and to some extent detestation-of the Rohingya had been pushed to another level by a section of nationalist/racist monks.” By propagating animosity towards the Rohingya and committing acts of violence, these 969 nationalist “monks” believe they are taking the responsibility to protect the religion in accordance to the Vinaya (monk’s code of discipline). Fortunately, the radical MaBaTha has been criticized and banned by Myanmar Buddhist authorities in May 2017, but their presence remains strong in their supporters.
Moreover, there are claims that the “969 monks were seeds left behind by the military government.” With a political agenda to stir animosity with nationalistic tendencies, the 969 movement and MaBaTha is a problem for the Burmese government as well. According to Zun Pwint Phyu Oo, who comes from Myanmar (Sr., UIC, International Studies), the influence of hatred speech made by 969 monks has been effective, “If the claim of military junta giving birth to 969 “monks” is true, this strategy of military junta definitely worked in their favor. Because it has not always been like that. Burma is a country of diverse communities. We have more than 100 ethnic minorities and everyone has freedom of religion, even in public schools. Growing up, I have never seen anyone being discriminated because of how he or she looks or who he or she believes in. Just in my neighborhood, there’s a Buddhist temple, Hindu temple, Church, and Mosque all within walking distance from each other. This growing sentiment against Muslims is a new thing since the government went through democratization.” Oo’s statement testifies Buddhist Nationalism has recently evolved to become a problematic phenomenon is Myanmar.
Political geography of Myanmar: Leveraging between Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw
The general atmosphere of Muslim hostility and Myanmar’s newly found delicate democracy suggest advocating for the human rights of the Rohingya is not in Aung San Suu Kyi’s political interest. “Speaking up for the Rohingya people may not be her electoral interest,” says Nicholas Farrelly, a director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre according to The Guardian. As a politician who has to win her seat and the general election with the support of the Buddhist majority, Suu Kyi's refusal to condemn the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya is understandable. As the journalist from The Guardian expressed her opinion, “In a country that is 90% Buddhist, there is little sympathy to be found for the Rohingya cause, and expressing support could be political suicide for both the National League for Democracy and the military backed ruling party…”
The political structure of Myanmar gives extensive power to the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw). The Tatmadaw retain significant control of the government under the 2008 constitution. 25% of seats in the Parliament of Myanmar are allocated for serving military officers. The three key offices of the cabinet, ministries of home, border affairs and defense have to be constitutionally headed by a serving military officer. The military also appoints one of the country's two vice presidents. As a state counselor (a position created because Suu Kyi is unable to hold title of President for she has sons with foreign nationalities), Suu Kyi may be Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, but she is not the commander-in-chief. Hence, the country's civilian leader has little influence over the security establishment.
Suu Kyi embraces this fragile and somewhat distorted political structure and tries to work within it. The military junta has given up its strong rule with reluctance following the 2011-12 democratic reforms. These democratic reforms were undertaken by the military-backed government, suggesting the military leaders still have power to retract from this half-hearted democracy they implemented for economic benefits. Constitutionally, military generals have the authority to take back its control of the government through a “legal coup.”
The 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law recognizes 135 ethnic groups and there are many more non-official ethnicities like the Rohingya. In other words, Myanmar is a thicket of numerous ethnicities forming a vibrant society. But Myanmar has failed to form a national identity with which its citizens and people who have settled in Burmese land can identify. Ethnic and religious animosities are causing terrorism and bringing havoc to a resource-rich country with potential.
In the meantime, the Rohingya crisis shows no clear path for solution. The 2017 Rohingya crisis will not be the last to occur as long as the indifferent or hostile mindset of Burmese majority, the presence of Muslim militants, the discriminating and persecuting attitude of the government toward the Rohingya minority persist amongst many other factors.
“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must-at the moment-become the center of the universe.”
-Elie Wiesel 1928-2016
*1982 Myanmar Nationality Law: This law divides Myanmar citizens into three categories: citizens, associate-citizens and naturalized citizens. The Rohingya are not included in any.