The Rohingya people of wester Myanmar are considered by many as the most oppressed minority on the planet.
Currently more than 270,000 refugees have fled Myanmar since the end of August. This number has grown by the thousands every day since the mass exodus began in the last week of August.
Many experts suggest that as many as 400,000 of the Rohingya have fled or are fleeing at the present time with tens of thousands caught in no man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya communities by local Myanmar security forces include the burning of homes and villages, rape, and massacre.
Myanmar was founded as a Buddhist state in the 11th century.
Several dynasties and conquerors moved through the area after that time including the arrival of Islam around the 13th century. The modern Myanmar lands became known as Burma.
The British began making inroads into Burma with the Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26. This was the first of three wars that spread British occupation in the area. In 1886 Burma became a province of British India.
In 1937 Burma was separated from India and became a crown colony of the British Empire.
In 1948 Burma secured its independence as the European colonial system collapsed following World War 2.
In 1962 the country underwent a military coup that radically shifted the initial makeup of the country. The military has remained a dominant force in the nation’s politics ever since this time.
In the 1970s a growing sense of nationalism among the nation’s minority groups leads to rising levels of unrest and instability even as efforts toward greater democracy were achieved in Burma.
The 1980s were marked by significant economic downturns in Burma including a currency devaluation that wiped out many people’s savings.
Anti-government riots surged by 1988 resulting in the deaths of thousands. A reform initiative known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was formed at this time.
SLORC instituted martial law in 1989, clamped down and crushed democratic efforts and was accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Burma was renamed Myanmar. A high profile political figure and daughter of one of the founding fathers of modern Burma Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero during the drive for independence, General Aung San. He was assassinated just before independence was granted. Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old at the time of her father’s death.
She later moved to the UK where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. While living abroad she married and had two children.
She returned to Myanmar in the late 1980s and led a movement against the nation’s dictator at the time, General Ne Win. Her methods were said to be largely based upon those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi with a focus on protest and non violent resistance.
The military used violence to suppress the democratic movement of Augn San Suii Kyi and to effect another coup in 1988.
She was placed under house arrest at this time where she remained for more than 20 years.
In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for demonstrating the “power of the powerless.”
Her house arrest and exclusion from politics continued until 2010 when she was released right after the first democratic elections to be held in Myanmar for many years.
She returned to politics in 2012 leading the political party of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
In 2015 the NLD won a landslide election in Myanmar’s elections but the military still exerts significant influence on the country, holding 25% of the parliament’s seats.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim group who have lived in the majority Buddhist Myanmar for centuries. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar.
The government of Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya as one of the 135 official ethnic groups in the country. They are denied citizenship and are therefore a stateless people group. They face significant restrictions in access to education, healthcare, freedom of movement and other basic services.
During more than one hundred years of British rule over Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries there was significant migration from Southeast Asia. Because Burma was considered part of India during the British occupation this migration was perceived as normal. It was not until after independence that the migration was considered illegal and immigrants like the Rohingya deemed non-citizens.
The term “Rohingya” is not recognized by the Myanmar government or the wider Buddhist population. It is a term that surfaced in the 1950s.
Tensions between the national government and the Rohingya grew significantly after independence in 1948. This tensions was driven at first largely by nationalist groups among the Rohingya who insisted upon their own rights as citizens in the new country. The national government identified the Rohingya as immigrants.
In the 1950s some among the Rohingya population resorted to violence to push their political causes and rights to citizenship within Burma. The government of East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) worked to apply pressure to the government of Burma on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim community at this time. This external assistance from a neighboring Muslim country was seen as further evidence to the Buddhist of Burma that the Rohingya should be seen as citizens of Bangladesh – not Burma.
By 1954 the uprisings of the Rohingya had been put down by the national government in Burma.
After the 1962 military coup in Burma the political and social organizations of the Rohingya were dissolved. While other ethnic groups were allowed to apply for national identity cards the Rohingya were only allowed to obtain foreign identity cards. This official change in status drastically reduced the opportunities in education and work available to the people who identified as Rohingya.
In the late 1970s a national census was held in Burma to weed out immigrant populations. More than 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during this time. Refugees reported widespread humanitarian atrocities from the Burmese forces including forced eviction, rape, and widespread brutality and murder from the military.
In the early 1990s again more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled oppression and violence from the Myanmar military.
In 2013 a Human Rights Watch report stated Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
In October 2016 a renewed flare up of violence resulted in mass migrations of the Rohingya once again.
The government of Myanmar has institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya through restrictions on marriage, family planning, education, religious activity, employment and freedom of movement.
What Has Caused This Recent Migration
Anti-Muslim sentiment has swept through Myanmar since 2010 with the Rohingya often facing the greatest consequences of this trend.
In 2012 after violent riots in Myanmar the organization known today as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army was formed. According to many reports this organization is led by a Rohingya man who was born in Karachi, Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia.
The group claims to not be a terrorist organization but is working to defend the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Their first attacks formed against government forces took place in October 2016 which sparked violent retaliation from government security forces. These responses most frequently landed on the Rohingya civilian population. This was the impetus for the 2016 mass migration of the Rohingya into Bangladesh.
A senior UN official in 2016 reported that the Myanmar government was seeking to rid the nation of the Rohingya people. Human rights organizations repeated these allegations.
Similar events recurred most recently on August 25, 2017. The ARSA struck out against Myanmar security forces and the security forces have retaliated against the Rohingya people.
According to the New York Times:
The retaliation that followed was carried out in methodical assaults on villages, with helicopters raining down fire on civilians and front-line troops cutting off families’ escape. The villagers’ accounts all portray indiscriminate attacks against fleeing noncombatants, adding to a death toll that even in early estimates is high into the hundreds, and is probably vastly worse.
Fortify Rights, a human-rights group based in Bangkok, interviewed villagers remaining in Maungdaw township who said that ARSA was forcing men and boys to stay and fight. The refugees flowing into Bangladesh have been predominantly women and children, leading to speculation as to where the men are.
Meanwhile Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is facing international scrutiny for remaining silent in the face of this growing crisis. Some believe that her silence is evidence of her hands being tied in the political arena by the continuing influence of the military in Myanmar.
Sources and Additional Reading
Human Rights Watch: Historical Background of the Rohingya (from 2000)
Myanmar: Who Are the Rohingya Muslims