Long Read: 4 mins
To understand the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority and the reasons behind the mass exodus to Bangladesh, we must examine the history of Myanmar as a nation. Since independence, it has been rigidly controlled by the ultra-nationalist military junta which has consistently scapegoated the country’s minorities (Chinese and Indian). The Rohingya have been stripped of nationality and subject to state-sponsored coordinated attacks to force them out of Myanmar.
At the time of independence from Britain in 1948, Burma’s borders with China and Pakistan were not yet clearly defined. Newly independent Burma had old resentments towards the Chinese and Indian indentured labourers who had moved there under British rule to meet labour requirements. The authoritarian military regime of General Ne Win advanced an ultra-nationalist policy, blaming the grievances of the new country on ‘alien’ migrants. Since 1978, the military rulers of Myanmar launched an anti-Rohingya military campaign declaring them as illegal immigrants in their country.
Under the Ne Win one-party state, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) confiscated South Asian and Chinese-owned properties and businesses in the name of nationalisation. The party’s ideology, the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, was an ideological variant of both Marxism and Buddhism. Following land seizures, members of the Indian business class, whose ancestors had immigrated to Arakan during the British colonial period, abandoned their properties. The Enterprise Nationalisation Law of February 1963 adversely affected entrepreneurs without full citizenship and deprived foreigners such as the non-resident Chinese from their livelihood. They were forbidden from owning land and obtaining business licenses, propelling a mass exodus of the Chinese.
Operation Dragon King (Na-Ga-Min)
Na-Ga-Min, an immigration operation of the later 1970s which sought to cleanse the population of foreigners and illegal immigrants and registering its ‘citizens’. It acutely affected border regions; most of the displaced Muslims are still confined to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps across Rakhine State. Under the pretext of government checks, human rights abuses such as the destruction of villages and arbitrary arrests pushed over 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The government claimed that the cause of the exodus was fear of being uncovered as undocumented, but major military operations specifically targeted the Rohingya, displacing them from many areas of the Rakhine State despite them having lived there for generations.
Discriminatory Citizenship Law
Citizenship is a fundamental right of all human beings, but the Citizenship Law of 1982 denied these full rights to the Rohingya, who were considered ‘foreigners’. This exclusion effectively rendered them stateless. The 1982 Law created four classes of citizens: citizenship by birth, associated citizenship, naturalised citizenship and those who had already been citizens in 1982. Citizenship eligibility was reserved for ‘national ethnic races’, composed of Burman, Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, and Arakanese (now Rakhine) according to the list from the 1960s. Though the Kamein were a predominantly Muslim group in Rakhine State and were recognized, the Rohingya were not. They are still perceived as ‘Bengalis’ who migrated from southeastern Bangladesh after 1823 with linguistic similarities to the Chittagonian language. Though Rohingya Muslims from Arakan/Rakhine are ethnically closer to Bangladeshi Muslims, they assert that their roots lie in the medieval kingdom of Arakan in the northern part of Rakhine, which was annexed by King Bodawpaya of Burma in 1784.
The economic migration of many Rohingyas into Burma occurred under British rule to fulfill requirements for indentured labour. However, documentation for this was not provided. Rohingyas who cannot prove their lineage or history of residence are therefore ineligible for citizenship and vulnerable to corrupt government officials for travel documents and other official documents. This effectively renders the Rohingya de jure stateless, suggesting that the root cause of their continued marginalisation lies in the law.
The violent events of 2012 caused the mass internal displacement of both Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims. After a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and murdered, a mob of 300 Rakhine citizens retaliated by lynching ten non-Rohingya Muslims. Violence spread and flourished under state complicity, disproportionately affecting Muslims in Northern Rakhine State. Homes, mosques, and other buildings being burnt down displaced 140,000 people, ninety-five percent of them Muslim. The psychological impact of the violence was intense; it solidified rivalries and strengthened the argument for segregating Buddhists and Muslims. In Arakan, or the Rakhine state, government sanctioned persecution of ethnic minorities fuelled a chauvinist Buddhism and intolerance of the Rohingya, though as many as 1 million Rohingya reside therein, according to estimates of the UN.
The violent events of 2012 caused the mass internal displacement of both Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims. After a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and murdered, a mob of 300 Rakhine citizens retaliated by lynching ten non-Rohingya Muslims. Violence swept the country and flourished under state complicity, disproportionately affecting Muslims in the Northern Rakhine State. Homes, mosques, and other buildings were burnt down and displaced 140,000 people, ninety-five percent of them Muslim. The psychological impact of the violence was intense; it solidified rivalries and strengthened the argument for segregating Buddhists and Muslims. In Arakan/ Rakhine, government sanctioned persecution of ethnic minorities emboldened a nationalist chauvinist Buddhism and intolerance of the Rohingya, though as many as 1 million Rohingya reside in Myanmar according to estimates of the UN.
The humanitarian side of the Rohingya crisis gripped the international community after reports of atrocities committed by the military were exposed: infanticide, destruction of whole villages and gross human rights violations such as gang rape and sexual abuse. The clearance operations of 2016-17 drove approximately 671,000 people across the border. The military justified its crackdown by citing the armed attacks on border police by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group. Though armed Rohingya insurgents exist, they are a small minority and not regarded as a sizeable threat. The retaliatory persecution of the Rohingya however, was of disproportionate measure as it affected the entire ethnic group, demonstrating ethnic cleansing.
The United Nations (UN) recently released a damning report against the Myanmar governments complacence in the face of increasing persecution of the Rohingya minority. In particular, the county’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner and former victim of the country’s military junta was criticized for her refusal to act on behalf of the Rohingya. The UN report is based on interviews of Rohingya refugees who had entered Bangladesh in the aftermath of the 2016 attacks, the majority of whom had experienced multiple violations. Survivors had witnessed killings, beatings, rape and homes being burned and looted. Separation from families was a serious grievance of the Rohingya refugees and witnesses corroborated on reports of random firings and the use of grenades, indicating the systematic nature of attacks and abuse of authority by the security forces. The UN report concluded that such actions were indicative of ‘genocidal intent’ and regarded the estimate of 10,000 Rohingya killed as a conservative number. This report is the harshest UN assessment of the Myanmar government, but the latter refuses to accept it’s findings and dismisses the legitimacy of the UN.
The majority of interviewed rape victims were gang raped by up to eight officers. One interviewee even said she was ‘lucky’ because she was ‘only’ raped by three men. Physical assault was also widespread; hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children suffered at the hands of the Myanmar police and military. Whilst some were accused of harbouring ‘insurgents’, others were simply beaten because they were Rohingyas or attacked by mobs. Many were told to leave Myanmar because they didn’t belong and face death threats.
Psychological torture was also inflicted on Rohingyas in the form of forcing victims to watch their family or friends suffer beatings, sexual abuse or even be killed. This was aimed to instil fear in observers and mentally torture them. Religious rituals such as burial services for the deceased, congregation in mosques and Islamic clothing were prohibited and some Muslims were detained or beaten for breaking the rules. According to the report, houses were set on fire after being locked, and corpses were burned and buried in mass graves after transportation in military trucks. This is a clear indication of genocide, which is the intent to eradicate a group specifically based on ethnicity, race or religion- the predominantly Muslim group of ethnic Rohingyas of the Northern Rakhine State.
Sister Samia Majid is an Imams Online Writer. She is a third year English and History university student, and British Muslim who enjoy dissecting politics and it’s relation to Islam.