Amidst the latest wave of brutal violence unleashed by security forces in Rakhine state, Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya stand on the precipice of genocide. The final months of 2016 witnessed untold state-sponsored devastation and suffering in the isolated communities of the country’s remote far western region, home to almost all of Myanmar’s minority Muslim population.
The present bloodbath however is far from an isolated occurrence and should not be labeled merely as an overzealous reaction to the killing of nine border guards in an attack by unidentified gunmen on October 9, which provided the initial spark for the onslaught. Instead, the current campaign follows decades of systematic discrimination, persecution, and dehumanization, which has served to legitimize multiple waves of violence and now leaves the increasingly-helpless Rohingya on the edge of genocide.
Soon after security forces launched a crackdown in the wake of the October incident, reports began to emerge of indiscriminate and widespread human rights violations being committed in Rakhine state. Human Rights Watch reported that the army imposed strict curfews on the local population and denied access to journalists, before proceeding to carry out a sustained campaign of destruction encompassing extra-judicial executions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests.
High-resolution satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch provided evidence of the destruction of 1,250 buildings – including several mosques – across the five worst-affected villages since the violence erupted. In addition, thermal satellite data showed the presence of multiple active fires across the affected areas, which were later blamed on unspecified “terrorists” by the government. Myanmar’s leaders have labeled the violence as “communal” in nature, and have continually denied complicity in human rights abuses.
Amnesty International, however, has accused Myanmar’s authorities of subjecting the Rohingya to “collective punishment.” The respected human rights group has obtained first-hand accounts of security forces “firing at villagers from helicopter gunships, torching hundreds of homes, carrying out arbitrary arrests, and raping women and girls.” Amnesty has also described the response of the army to the October attack on the border guards as disproportionate, accusing the military of targeting “whole families and villages” of Rohingya, solely “on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.”
Despite the difficulty in obtaining information due to journalists and international observers being barred from the area, it is estimated that hundreds were killed and around 30,000 Rohingya displaced from their homes in the last few months of 2016, according to the UN. This is in addition to thousands already killed and up to 500,000 Rohingya previously displaced in earlier waves of violence. Many of the displaced live in extreme vulnerability and hardship as undocumented refugees in overcrowded and squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh.
Considering the multiple reports of atrocities carried out on the basis of identity, it becomes apparent that recent events in Rakhine state may amount to genocide. According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, its occurrence is defined as when specific acts – such as killing, or deliberately seeking to make life intolerable for certain elements of the population – are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The UN definition allows considerable room for interpretation when applied in practice – assigning a specific moment or certain number of deaths after which a campaign of killing should be labelled as “genocide” is not easy, and the boundaries will remain indefinitely blurred. However, the plight of the Rohingya appears to be heading in this direction.
So how did we get to this desperate stage – where a country which had seemingly embraced democracy after the 2015 election of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi stands on the verge of being complicit in genocide against a minority group living within its borders? To answer this question, it is necessary to trace the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar, exploring how their long-term alienation and marginalization from society has legitimized continual persecution and violence.
The primary cause of their marginalization dates back to the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, drawn up by the military government of General Ne Win. The law lists 135 ethnic groups that are officially recognized as having permanently settled within the boundaries of modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823. Notably, that list excludes the Rohingya. The Citizenship Law still applies today and serves to deny the Rohingya citizenship, which effectively renders the minority group’s 800,000 members in Myanmar stateless. As a result, the Rohingya are denied even the most basic of rights – they have been prevented from traveling to other parts of the country and have been denied access to education, healthcare, land ownership, and job opportunities.
Many people in Myanmar firmly support the government’s stance, justifying the Rohingya’s exclusion from society on the basis that they do not constitute an indigenous ethnic group. Instead, they claim the term “Rohingya” is only a recent invention, used to describe colonial-era immigrants who arrived in Myanmar from modern-day India and Bangladesh during the period of British rule. This wave of migration caused much resentment at the time, due to the belief that the new arrivals were taking over jobs and land rightfully owned by native residents. The resentment lingers, with many in Myanmar still referring to the Rohingya in pejorative terms as “Bengalis” or “illegal immigrants.”
This narrative has been contested as representing only a partial truth, with historical records suggesting that a sizeable Muslim minority has lived in Arakan – the area now known as Rakhine state – for centuries, descending from Arab traders who were later assimilated by further immigration from the Indian subcontinent. However, even if the dominant narrative was wholly accurate, it should in no way serve as justification for decades of discrimination, persecution, and indiscriminate violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Over the decades, a strong sense of Buddhist nationalism has fueled anti-Rohingya sentiments, resulting in the group being subjected to periodic cycles of violence. Thousands fled to Bangladesh after large-scale crackdowns in 1978 and 1991. Yet the worst outbreak of violence came in 2012, when according to Human Rights Watch, the authorities – along with mobs of local Arakanese men – committed crimes against humanity across Rakhine state. It was reported that mobs attacked Muslim communities and razed entire villages, whilst the security forces stood aside – and in some cases participated in the violence. The deadliest incident occurred in October 2012, when 70 Rohingya – including 28 children – were massacred in Yan Thei village.
Human Rights Watch found evidence of at least four mass grave sites after the 2012 crackdown, during which more than 125,000 Rohingya were displaced from their homes and forced to live in overcrowded camps lacking adequate food, water, and medical supplies. In the years since, around 110,000 refugees have left the country on flimsy boats – becoming known as the “boat people” and raising global awareness of the Rohingya’s plight – in an attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing and claim asylum in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
In light of the latest round of bloodshed, many observers have strongly criticized Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her failure to condemn the violence in Rakhine state. There was considerable hope that things would change for the Rohingya after her sweeping electoral victory in November 2015, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) ended decades of military rule. Whilst Suu Kyi has acknowledged there are “difficulties” in western Myanmar, she has remained reluctant to speak out in defense of the Rohingya, and has instead suggested that the international media often fail to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s internal affairs.
In reality, Aung San Suu Kyi is in an extremely difficult position. Criticism of her silence on the issue must be muted by recognition of the fact that Myanmar’s fragile democracy is still in its infancy, whilst the military retains a dominant influence over defense and security affairs. As a result, she may be reluctant to challenge the establishment on the Rohingya issue for fear of hard-earned progress being reversed, and the even more daunting prospect of the country returning to full military rule. In this context, her ability to intervene on the Rohingya issue is severely restricted.
As long as there remains little political will within Myanmar to avert the bloodshed in Rakhine state, the situation of the Rohingya will continue to deteriorate despite widespread international outcry and growing calls for action. The recent spike in violence is indicative of a renewed campaign to remove the Muslim minority group from Myanmar – at the very least by spreading fear and forcing thousands to risk their lives and flee across borders or the open seas. Until institutionalized and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya – sustained across decades – is meaningfully challenged within Myanmar itself, violence will continue to be legitimized, and the Rohingya will always seemingly stand on the brink of genocide.
Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has run the website Geopolitical Conflict since December 2015, which was established to provide news and analysis of conflicts which are under-reported in the mainstream media.