Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on September 24, 2017 (Photo: Cathal McNaughton/ Reuters); Background: Rohingya refugee Azida Begum, 11, was shot twice, under her arm and her leg, by the Burmese military when they killed her mother as she was fleeing her village in Burma. This photograph was taken in Palongkhali, Bangladesh on October 10, 2017 (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty).
The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya are largely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries.
Neither the central government nor Rakhine’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group, known as the Rakhine, recognize the label “Rohingya,” a self-identifying term [PDF] that surfaced in the 1950s, which experts say provides the group with a collective political identity. Though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts its ties to land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
The Legal Status of Rhonigya
The government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and as a result the vast majority of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced a law twenty years later stripping the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Until recently, the Rohingya had been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as white cards, that the junta began issuing to many Muslims, both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, in the 1990s. The white cards conferred [PDF] limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship. Still, Lewa says that they did provide some recognition of temporary stay for the Rohingya in Myanmar.
In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, its first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census, the government decided the Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead.
Similarly, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, then-President Thein Sein canceled the temporary identity cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote. (White card holders were allowed to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections.) In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted by international monitors as free and fair, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment [PDF] makes it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group.
Muslim minorities continue to “consolidate under one Rohingya identity,” says Lewa, despite documentation by rights groups and researchers of systematic disenfranchisement, violence, and instances of anti-Muslim campaigns.
Watch The Rohingya: Silent Abuse: Part II | Al Jazeera World (aired 8.13.2017).
Fleeing in Fear
The Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. For example, Rohingya couples in the northern towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung are only allowed to have two children [PDF]. Rohingya must also seek permission to marry, which may require them to bribe authorities and provide photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-shaven face, practices that conflict with Muslim customs. To move to a new home or travel outside their townships, Rohingya must gain government approval.
Moreover, Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.
The 2017 Exodus
Clashes in Rakhine broke out in August 2017, killing more than five hundred people after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. As many as 18,500 Rohingya Muslims fled their homes in less than one week, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The government declared ARSA a terrorist organization and the military mounted a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced more than six hundred thousand Rohingya to leave Myanmar, more than half of the estimated Rohingya population in the country. Myanmar’s security forces allegedly opened fire on fleeing civilians and planted land mines near border crossings used by Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Rights groups and UN leaders have condemned the escalating violence and atrocities, which have been described by a number of observers as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The clashes and exodus have created what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” At an emergency UN Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Myanmar authorities have carried out “brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority,” and she called on members to suspend weapons provisions to the military. Other Security Council members, like Russia and China, have resisted increasing pressure on Myanmar’s government because they say it is trying to restore stability.
Sectarian violence is not new to Rakhine State. Security campaigns in the past five years, notably in 2012 and 2016, also resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes.
The Rohingyas: The World’s Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis | 40 Photos
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MSF: At Least 67,000 Killed in a Single Month
On December 14, Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, including 730 children below age 5, had met violent deaths there in the month after a military crackdown on their villages. Survivors who fled to neighboring Bangladesh gave consistent accounts of executions, gang rapes and burned homes. But with Myanmar’s government blocking international access to the area of western Myanmar where the Rohingya once lived, estimates of the toll have been hard to ascertain. Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, said that nearly 70 percent of the victims it had tallied died of gunshot and that 9 percent were burned to death in their homes. The group said its mortality figure was almost certainly an underestimate. The estimate was a summary of findings from six surveys carried out last month with refugees who had fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.
Forced Marriages, Child Brides & Sex Trafficking
In Malaysia, the demographics of the Rohingya population skews heavily male. The situation created a troubling demand for young Rohingya women in places like Ampang—a suburban neighborhood on the edge of Kuala Lumpur, with a large population of Rohingya men. Human traffickers quickly targeted young girls in Rohingya camps in Myanmar, often offering them safe journey to Malaysia for a fraction of the normal cost. But once they set sail, the terms of the agreement would often change. Suddenly, the girls owed more than $1,000 and those who couldn’t pay would be held in jungle camps. Many were raped by their traffickers. Others were sold into marriages in Malaysia.
“We know women have been recruited by brokers in Rakhine State either for free or at a very reduced cost because their traffickers were anticipating that they could charge men in Malaysia a lot higher fee,” explained Amy Smith, of Fortify Rights—a nonprofit that documents human rights abuses in Southeast Asia.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many women have been sold into forced marriages, experts say. Arranged marriages are common in Rohingya society. The custom of a man paying his bride’s way to Malaysia is frequently practiced. It’s a tradition that feels similar to a forced marriage, but while the women set up on arranged marriages have had some previous connection with their spouse and the approval of their families, the victims of forced marriages have had no prior contact with their husband and no intentions of getting married when they set out from Myanmar. An investigation by the International Organization for Migration recently uncovered documented accounts of Rohingya girls as young as 11 getting married, and families at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are forcing their girls to marry early to reduce the number of mouths to feed and secure more food for themselves.
Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya woman who works with the victims of forced marriages in Malaysia, said the situation is the symptom of a cruel system. And for the women who refuse to accept the marriages, their future can look even worse: “The agents, they sell them into prostitution and then they have to work in bars and clubs. Some traffickers use these girls as beggars. They cut their hands or gouge their eyes out to incite sympathy. I’ve seen it happen so many times. I cannot explain to you how difficult life is for these girls,” sighed Shakirah.
Myanmar’s Civilian Response…or Lack Thereof
In 2016, Myanmar’s first democratically elected government in a generation came to power, but critics say it has been reluctant to advocate for Rohingya and other Muslims for fear of alienating Buddhist nationalists and threatening the power-sharing agreement the civilian government maintains with the military. Some observers saw the establishment in August 2016 of an advisory commission on ethnic strife led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a positive development, but subsequent outbreaks of violence have curbed this optimism.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place and dismissed international criticism of her handling of the crisis, accusing critics of fueling resentment between Buddhists and Muslims in the country. In September 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.”
Protesters have at times gathered in cities in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh to condemn the killing and persecution of Rohingya. Bangladesh’s foreign minister condemned the violence in Rakhine as “genocide” in September 2017 and Indonesia called on the Myanmar authorities to halt their campaign and bring an end to the violence. Yet governments in Southeast Asia lack established legal frameworks to protect refugees’ rights, and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not coordinated a response to the deepening crisis.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention or its protocol. ASEAN itself has been silent on the plight of the Rohingya and on the growing numbers of asylum seekers in member countries, largely because of its members’ commitment to the principle of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.
In December 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted sanctions against Myanmar, saying that the country had made strides in improving human rights. The move came amid a crackdown on Rohingya and was criticized by some as premature. In September 2017, the United States committed $32 million to supply food, medical care, water, and shelter for Rohingya who have fled. Yet, while U.S. lawmakers have proposed new measures targeting Myanmar military members and the State Department has withdrawn military assistance, no sanctions have been reimposed.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights continue to appeal to major international players to exert pressure on Myanmar’s government. Others, such as Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, say that placing sole blame on Myanmar oversimplifies and misrepresents the complexities of the country’s historical ethnic diversity. “An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable. It is time for the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution,” writes Clapp.
Annan’s advisory commission published its findings in late August 2017, after a year of investigation. It recommended that Myanmar lift restrictions on movement and citizenship. “Tensions remain high and they risk becoming worse. Violence will not bring lasting solutions to the acute problems that afflict the Rakhine State,” Annan said.
Resentment of the minority group has run deep for generations. Without overhauling “a culture of pervasive prejudice” and ensuring that Rohingya are treated as human beings, the situation in Rakhine State is unlikely to improve, says journalist and author Francis Wade.
❉ The Rhonigya Crisis -Eleanor Albert | Council on Foreign Relations
❉ The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis -By Krishnadev Calamur | The Atlantic
❉ At Least 6,700 Rohingya Died in Myanmar Crackdown, Aid Group Says -By Hannah Beech | The New York Times
❉ U.S. Says Myanmar’s Rohingya Assault Appears to Be Ethnic Cleansing -By Farnaz Fassihi | The Wall Street Journal
❉ What It’s Like to Be a Rohingya Child Bride -By Jonathan Vit | VICE
❉ Child Marriage in the Rohingya Camps in Bangladesh -By Photographer Allison Joyce | The Atlantic (Photos)
❉ Rape of Rohingya Sweeping, Methodical | AP Investigation via ABC News
❉ Free Detained Journalists in Myanmar | NY Times Editorial Board
❉ The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide | Azeem Ibrahim (Book)
❉ Aung San Suu Kyi’s Clearest Act of Complicity | New York Times Editorial Board
❉ Rohingya Recount Atrocities: ‘They Threw My Baby Into a Fire’ -By Jeffrey Gettlemen | The New York Times
❉ Satellite Images Show More Than 200 Rohingya Villages Burned in Myanmar -By Sergio Peçanha & Jeremy White | The New York Times
❉ Rohingya Activist: ‘Rohingya Are Not Safe Anywhere’-By Ashley Westerman | NPR