Over the past four years, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in the Rakhine state northwest of Myanmar, has been living in apartheid conditions while subjected to persecution and discrimination by extreme nationalist Buddhist monks and the Myanmar army.
Pope Francis strongly condemned the continued violent treatments of the Rohingya, including mass killings and mass rapes, saying that the Rohingya Muslims were treated thus “simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith”.
But are the expulsions and devastating cruelty against a community numbering around 1.1 million people, just an issue of ethnic and religious divide? New reports and investigations into the issue raise questions of economic and political interests that are involved in the public persecution of a people.
Marginalization as a political instrument
The Rohingya have long been a part of Myanmar’s fifty-million population, even though their presence in the country has been a source of contention as the Myanmar government views them as illegal Bengali immigrants despite the fact that the majority have been living in the country for generations.
Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya are denied Myanmar citizenship on the basis of discriminatory ethnic grounds which require proofs that their ancestors had settled in Myanmar before 1823. General Than Shew’s government ceased to issue birth certificates to Rohingya children in 1994. The Rohingya are thus not considered one of the 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar. As a result, their rights to study, work, marry, vote and travel have been strictly limited, many without an access to proper medical care.
Despite the legal and social discrimination that has been going on for more than 38 years, there have been no major physical confrontations between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and the Rohingya from the 1990s to 2012. Violence however erupted in 2012 when three Arakanese Muslims were accused of gang raping and killing an Arakanese Buddhist woman (Arakan is the former name of Rakhine). The incident fueled jointly conducted attacks by Buddhist extremists and community leaders against Muslims in the Rakhine state, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and houses burned. According to a U.S. State Department estimate, the 2012 intercommunal unrest in the Rakhine state resulted in 140,000 displaced and roughly 200 deaths.
A great many of reports and coverage of the extrajudicial killings, tortures and forced displacements of the Rohingya consider the ethnic and religious conflict between the country’s Buddhist radicals and Rohingya Muslims a major factor behind the attacks. Many say the anti-Muslim riots in 2013 and growing resentments against the Rohingya may serve as good politics for the Myanmar government and the military which want to profit from the marginalization of the Muslim minority for their own political gains. This argument is not entirely baseless when Myanmar government’s policies and responses to the humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine state has been discriminatory and overtly anti-Rohingya. There are various reports of incidents where the Myanmar military is accused of being complicit in the arson, raping and extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims.
A research recently published on the Guardian reveals that the increasing uproots of the Rohingya from Rakhine state also generate an economic interest. According to an in-depth research on the economy of forced displacements by Saskia Sassen, land grabbing in Myanmar’s countryside has been practiced for decades since the 1990s, usually with force by the military who were however met with great resistance from the smallholders. By the time of the 2012 riots and attacks, land areas located to corporate rural development projects had soared to 170% between 2010 and 2013.
From 2012 until 2016, land allocations for such projects in the Rakhine state increased from 7,000 hectares up to 1,268,077 hectares. The overwhelming international focus on the role of religion and ethnicity within this conflict, the author argues, has undermined the consequences of the vast area of land grabs on the livelihoods of not just the Rohingya but also other Myanmar minority groups.
A commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan visited state capital Sittwe in Rakhine last December 2016 to address the communal conflict and divisive issues between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar. He was however met with frosty receptions and protests by hundreds of Buddhist nationalists who were angered by the foreign intervention in a conflict that was perceived as an internal issue.
The purpose of the trip was to meet local leaders to amend broken ties between the Arakanese Buddhists and the Muslims, but the Arakan National Party (ANP) which is the biggest party in the area and which represents the interests of Rakhine state, strongly opposed to meeting with Annan. Many sources previously cited that the ANP was the main agent responsible for instigating the violence against the Rohingya Muslims.
Such public denunciation of foreign intervention in the plight of the Rohingya in a country that was once ruled by the military junta is backed by the systematic abuses of the military and the policies of silence by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, who receives backlash for remaining shamefully silent on the issue.
A forgotten humanitarian crisis
According to a UN source, after an attack on a border post last October that killed nine police officers in Rakhine’s north, aid access as well as international media have been largely sealed off from the region. The UN reports accounts of serious human rights violations including torture, rape, summary executions and destruction of mosques and homes of Rohingya residents within the past few months.
A large number of Rohingya communities in the Rakhine state has since fled Myanmar through maritime departures for neighboring countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
While Bangladesh alone hosts between 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya Muslims, it has neither registered the Rohingya refugees nor accepted their asylum status, as Bangladesh is not a part of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The majority of the refugees in Bangladesh live in dire conditions in ramshackle camps in Cox’s Bazar which lacks the basic amenities and infrastructure to accommodate thousands of refugees.
Due to the increasing number of refugees especially since the Myanmar government’s crackdown on Rakhine’s northern state last October, Bangladesh has implemented tightening measures to stop the flow the refugees into its borders, as the Rohingya is seen as burdens to the already poverty-stricken country. There are also plans to relocate refugees in Cox’s Bazar to Thengar Char island, a remote, uninhabited and underdeveloped coastal island, an act which would restrict the refugees’ freedom of movement and access to food and healthcare.
Neighboring countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have also been unwelcome of the Rohingya Muslims who are at high risk of being trafficked and sold by human smugglers as modern-day slaves. Many others are stuck in limbo and stranded at sea while on their ways to these countries.
Following the public and international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia decided to take in around 2,900 refugees. While Malaysian PM Najib Razak strongly condemned the discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims and called for other Islamic countries to open doors to the Rohingya, many doubt a self-serving political motive behind the call when thousands of Rohingya refugees have also been treated deplorably in Malaysia.
On the other hand, other Southeast Asian countries have largely been silent on the issue which seems to be absent on the ASEAN’s working agenda. Cambodian PM Hun Sen has recently called the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar “a domestic issue” and denounced any effort to internationalize the Rohingya crisis.
Myanmar’s systematic abuses and campaigns of violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority have been categorized by human rights groups as crimes against humanity.
Cover photo: In a makeshift displacement camp near Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Rohingya Muslims face desperate conditions. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)