Myanmar: The continued persecution of Rohingya

By Nicole Girard

While right-wing populism and anti-migrant rhetoric are widely reported in Europe and North America, they are by no means confined to these regions. From Côte d’Ivoire to India, many political groups are actively exploiting fears and resentments around migration to further their own identity- based platforms. Yet there are few instances where the intensification of hostility has occurred so rapidly in recent years as against Myanmar’s Rohingya – a group long discriminated against, who in the past few years have seen attacks escalate against them, including pogroms, mass displacement and government-sponsored crimes that may amount to genocide.

While tensions were evident before 2012 between Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist majority, 2012 saw a major turning point with the outbreak of mass violence in June in Rakhine state following rumours that three Muslim men had raped and killed a Buddhist woman. Security forces reportedly not only failed to halt the violence, but even supported anti-Rohingya militias in their attacks on villages and blocked international humanitarian organizations from accessing the area. This and further communal violence in October killed hundreds of mostly Rohingya civilians and displaced in total more than 100,000, with further waves of forced migration bringing the total number to around 140,000. After the violence of 2012, internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in central Rakhine have become home to an estimated 120,000 Rohingya, including other Muslims known as Kaman. The camps segregated the Muslim population, restricting their freedom of movement and preventing their access to a means of livelihood or basic services.

In the wake of the violence, Buddhist extremist groups in the country, such as the notorious 969 Movement led by Buddhist clergy, were emboldened to escalate their activities. Further attacks occurred periodically, concentrated in Rakhine state and characterized by large- scale communal violence: this was enabled in large part by the inaction of security forces, who on multiple occasions were filmed doing nothing while Rohingya were assaulted and their homes looted or burned to the ground. These developments were accompanied by the continued contraction of Rohingya rights and recognition, including the revoking of their voting rights.

Tragically, these developments also coincided with the country’s apparent progress towards democratization after decades of military rule, including the election in 2015 of Aung Sang Suu Kyi as the first State Counsellor of Myanmar after years of imprisonment by the ruling junta. Yet there have been few improvements since her taking power and indeed, Suu Kyi has been strongly criticized for her failure to condemn the abuses.

This criticism only intensified in October 2016 when, following the killing of nine police officers by a newly formed Rohingya militant group, the army launched an indiscriminate attack on Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine state. Between 9 October and mid-December 2016 Burmese military soldiers stormed Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine state, killing, raping, beating, pillaging and setting fire to whole villages. Those who survived escaped only with their lives: 75,000 Rohingya managed to reach the Naf River and cross into Bangladesh, while an estimated 22,000 were displaced within Myanmar. Many were women and children. While the Myanmar government summarily denied the allegations, interviews with survivors showed a consistent pattern of human rights abuses including using sexual violence as a weapon of war. In the face of widespread evidence of atrocities, however, Suu Kyi maintained that the allegations were fabricated and accused the international community of undermining stability within the country.

The persecution of Rohingya has recently entered a new and even deadlier phase, however, since another attack by a recently formed Rohingya armed group in August 2017 provided the military with a pretext to launch a fresh ‘clearance operation’ – another indiscriminate wave of violence against unarmed men, women and children that bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. At the time of writing, thousands of Rohingya had been killed in brutal attacks on multiple villages in northern Rakhine state, with everyone from babies to the elderly massacred by security forces, with more than 600,000 people having fled to Bangladesh – numbers that are likely to continue to rise as more Rohingya cross the border to escape the violence. And yet, in the face of this violence, Suu Kyi has maintained the line that the abuses are largely fabricated and accused international agencies including the UN of supporting ‘terrorists’. In response, there have been calls for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize for her failure to recognize, let alone halt, crimes against humanity.

Much of these abuses, like the decades of persecution preceding them, have been enabled by the myth that Rohingya – resident in Myanmar for centuries – are illegal migrants, ‘Bengalis’ in the government’s official parlance (a stance echoed by Suu Kyi, who informed the UN that the term ‘Rohingya’ was ‘controversial’ and would be avoided). This sleight of hand, robbing the community of their history and belonging in the country, has been reinforced by the steady attrition of their status. Since their citizenship was formally revoked in 1982, effectively rendering them the largest stateless population in the world, their situation has deteriorated as they have lacked access to services or state protection from human rights abuses. Since the violence of 2012, many have been confined to isolated settlements with little in the way of freedom of movement.

The recent displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh may well be presented by the government, then, as a return to their country of origin rather than the uprooting of entire communities from areas they have resided in for many generations. Yet while those who have managed to cross the border may have found immediate safety from attacks by the military, their hardships are far from over. In Cox’s Bazaar, in Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar, even before the recent mass displacement an estimated 33,000 registered refugees were based in two camps, with between 200,000 and 500,000 further Rohingya living in areas surrounding the camps. The challenges are especially acute for women, who must frequently contend with the social, physical and psychological aftermath of sexual violence. Access to psychological and trauma counselling for victims of rape and sexual assault is crucial, yet many go without due to the lack of available support – a gap that is only likely to increase with the arrival of further displaced persons.

And desperation has driven many Rohingya further afield, frequently through the use of dangerous trafficking networks that have also been associated with widespread abuses. Thailand has long been a transitioning point for Rohingya on their way to Malaysia, with many kept in secret camps, often waiting to pay extortion money to traffickers to complete the last leg of their journey. Many were killed and buried in shallow graves, and women were reportedly abused and raped by these jungle camp traffickers if they could not pay.

Even those Rohingya who manage to reach Malaysia, where there are more than 60,000 UNHCR-registered Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers as well as at least another 35,000 unregistered, face new challenges. In some cases, for instance, Rohingya women are forced to enter into arranged marriages to pay their traffickers, and the significant proportion of Rohingya not registered with UNHCR can face difficulties in accessing government healthcare subsidies and other essential services, not to mention the threat of being reported and placed in detention centre. And since the Malaysian government does not provide formal access to education for refugees, the gap is being filled largely by NGOs – a situation that may leave many without education or skills training.

That there seems to be no end in sight for Myanmar’s Rohingya is in large part due to the intensity of popular hostility towards them within the country from many of their fellow citizens. Given that the majority of the rest of the population are unlikely to have any interaction with the community, these attitudes have been stoked by government officials, media outlets and other powerful interests, creating a mutually sustaining cycle of legal discrimination, military abuses and communal violence. In Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, ethnic violence has now entered a tragic new phase – one in which not only the state but also many of its citizens are complicit. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: Mahmud Rahman

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Date: 13/12/2017




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