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May 3 / Uzair Khan

The Rohingya in Myanmar

By Uzair Khan, Staff Member, Center for the Study of Citizenship

Usually when we hear about genocide or ethnic cleansing, we picture someone who is a criminal, a person or group with little regard for others. Whether the victims are women, men, or children wouldn’t make the slightest difference to them. We imagine someone who has no concern for law, or those who risk their lives to enforce it. However we don’t think of a government being the offender and civilians being the victims. We don’t think of a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate famous for their work as a non-violent freedom fighter. However these preconceived notions would be shattered if we took one look at the condition of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya population. A country that is led by a Nobel Peace Prize winning democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi. A leader who has silently presided over a nation’s using its military and law enforcement to unleash an onslaught of violence against the “world’s most persecuted minority” to a degree that the United Nations considers ethnic cleansing and genocide. The situation begs the question, why would an individual, renowned for their peaceful efforts, stay quiet on such a great violation of human rights? The answer is one that lies deep within the history of Myanmar (formally Burma), a history that intertwines religious and political pressure together to form a unified front of islamophobia that is understood by few, but motivates many to commit extreme acts of violence against a largely innocent population in the name of self-defense.

The history of Myanmar is complex from the first settlers who occupied the region to WWII. The political section of Myanmar’s past that concerns the Rohingya goes back to The Anglo-Burmese wars, a series of 3 wars from 1824 that resulted in Burma becoming a crown colony of the British Empire. Before these wars, Burma was a collection of kingdoms that had been ruled by different dynasties for millennia. Under British rule, Burma became a province of India. From 1824-1942 immigrants from India settled in Burma in search of work. To this day the Myanmar government considers this illegal and wrongly associates it with the Rohingya, inherently labeling them as Indian and foreign intruders.  During the 1942 WWII Japanese invasion the British asked for Myanmar’s support in the war. The Rakhine state, specifically the Rohingya, complied, and the Buddhists and nationalists sided with the Japanese. During the attacks, approximately 22,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh (which was then part of Pakistan), with 13,000 more to Pakistan and India. When the British drove out the Japanese, the Rohingya refugees retuning were considered illegals, trespassing from Pakistan. For their aid against the Japanese the British promised the Rohingya a Muslim state within Burma (Myanmar). Unfortunately, that promise was never delivered upon, and when the war was over, and Burma gained its independence from the British in 1948, hostility began to build against the Rakhine Rohingya. Although they did not receive land for a Muslim state, they did get prominent positions as civil servants. This only made things worse, since the Japanese lost WWII, the Rohingya were seen as beneficiaries which angered the Myanmar nationalists, a predominantly Buddhist group. This is how the political aspects of the situation bled into religious groups, and that divide remains today.

More recently though, Myanmar has drawn global attention due to its abusive use of power, causing 400,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. However we know this terror-based mass migration is nothing new. Unfortunately, this time there is no war that the Rohingya are caught in between, it is plain genocide. This back-and-forth movement of the Rohingya between Myanmar and Bangladesh is so common that it has created a chronic refugee crisis, placing immense economic burdens on Bangladesh’s economy. In the past, humanitarian aid has been issued, however the ultimate goal is for the Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. This is a mixed problem; historically when the Rohingya are allowed to return they are considered foreigners, if they allowed at all. These “immigrants” are subjected to numerous human rights violations, including lack of identity/nationality, limits on employment education, and freedom of movement. Without citizenship the Rohingya are beaten and often killed by law enforcement, subject to discriminatory taxes and confiscation of property under the pretense illegal immigrants cannot own property. Religious freedom is another restriction the government has imposed on the Rohingya. During military raids and police beatings, houses of worship are damaged. Rebuilding them becomes a challenge; since the Rohingya are not considered citizens, requests to the government for reconstruction or new buildings are invariably denied. Other restrictions, such as permission to marry and a limit of two children per couple, make life in Myanmar next to impossible.

Finally, in an uprising during the 1950’s the Rohingya resorted to militia warfare against discriminant authorities who came to the villages. These fighters were known as Mujahids. In 1962 a military coup took over the Myanmar government and began disbanding the rebellion through the use of force. The army attacked civilians and children, killing them and raping women, forcing over 200,000 to flee Bangladesh. With a weak economy of its own, Bangladesh did not offer any support and urged refugees to return. The returning refugees were once again considered illegal.

The most significant legal blow came after the 1982 national census and the enactment of the 1982 citizenship law. The law spelled out 135 national races which were all eligible for Burmese citizenship. However, the Rakhine Rohingya (that is, Rohingya originating from Rakhine State in Myanmar) were not one of them. This further exacerbated the situation; now the Rohingya were legally defined as illegals and officially stateless. This caused conditions to worsen; as the Rakhine Buddhists’ hatred grew, government brutality increased and the law offered no protection. As illegal non-citizens they were given foreign identity cards, (known as “white cards”), however these only solidified their position as illegal immigrants. The cards were rejected by employers, schools, and almost every other formal institution, making life even worse for the Rohingya. In fact non-citizens have more rights than Rohingya do. The cards pinpointed which individuals had no basic rights and therefore could be abused by anyone.

In 2014 the UN conducted a Census in Myanmar. The Rohingya were finally going to be represented until Buddhist pressure coerced the government into forcing Rohingya participants to be registered as Bengali. This once again undermined their native Burmese heritage. In the following 2015 election the government rescinded the white card’s (foreign identity card) voting rights ability. Thus the Rohingya could no longer vote, resulting in a new “Democratically elected” government that harbored hatred for them. Just as in the 1950’s, a militia group by the name of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has taken up arms against police brutality. When accusations of a Rohingya man allegedly raping a Buddhist women came up, and the police took immediate action and began burning entire villages, the ARSA reacted and fought the police, injuring and killing officers. Now the group is seen as a terrorist organization, causing further violence in the region and against the Rohingya.

The military does not only fight ARSA, however. They want to kill all Rohingya along with the ARSA, and this is how Myanmar is engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Myanmar army has been accused of killing civilians by placing land mines on the borders and killing fleeing refugees. From August to September 2017 over 6,700 Rohingya were caught in the cross fire and killed. Conditions for those who flee are not exactly pleasant either. Often times, families are broken up. The women are sold as sex slaves, and men as indentured servants in the vast Thai human trafficking market. Those who survive and try to make a return to their homes usually find them destroyed and are met with hostility from border patrol agents.

Efforts to resolve the issue have been sparse and ineffective for the most part. The UN has initiated several repartition campaigns in agreements with Myanmar, only to have them back out and not accept any Rohingya back, and if they do return, to exact violence against them. The international community have condemned Suu Kyi for her lack of involvement and constant evasion of questions regarding the situation. Her main response has been that her country has “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible”. Economic sanctions have followed from the U.S., and humanitarian aid from Canada, Norway, and South Korea have helped the situation somewhat. However, the only solution is a change of mindset. The cultural and religious issues of hatred between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s Buddhists runs deep, and until the Buddhists consider the Rohingya as people, the bloodshed will not stop.