The Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have been facing persecution for years, with people fleeing from their homes to escape the atrocities of military actions which have been called ethnic cleansing and a violation of human rights and which have created a severe humanitarian crisis.
Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-), state counselor of Myanmar.
Kofi Annan (1938-), chair of the advisory commission on Rakhine State.
Summary of Event
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who have been living in Buddhist Myanmar (Burma) for centuries. Most of the one million Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. Many can trace their roots back to Myanmar for centuries, while others are descendants of laborers who migrated under British colonial rule from 1824 to 1948 from what is now India and Bangladesh. Myanmar was considered a province of India, then under British rule. Today, Myanmar does not formally recognize the Rohingya as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups; they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya have faced persecution and repression since the country's independence.
When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the Rohingya were able to apply for identity cards. While this did not grant citizenship, it did offer limited rights. However, the Rohingya lost even this status in 1962 after a military coup in Myanmar. They have been denied citizenship for generations and have never been provided with legal documentation of their roots. Thus, the Rohingya people have no national identity.
The Rohingya have been living under conditions of extreme poverty in Myanmar's least developed state. Tensions with the Buddhist majority have erupted into conflicts, and the Rohingya have suffered from brutal military actions over the years. The government of Myanmar restricts almost every element of Rohingya life. Couples need permission to marry and are only allowed to have two children. Rohingya must have government approval for any travel or movement outside their towns. They are restricted in education and employment and are denied land and property rights and ownership as well as voting rights.
Violent clashes took place when the military government transitioned to a civilian democracy in 2011, with surges in 2012, 2015, and 2016. In October of 2016, Rohingya militant groups were blamed for rebellion and attacks on Myanmar border police, which led to another military crackdown, and more Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.
Extreme violence erupted again in August of 2017, and this led to another mass exodus of Rohingya and an extreme refugee and humanitarian crisis. Clashes in Rakhine killed more than 500 people after a Rohingya militant group, called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked police and army posts. ARSA was declared a terrorist organization, and the Myanmar military destroyed hundreds of villages in a scorched-earth campaign. Since late August, more than 500,000 Rohingya have sought asylum in Bangladesh, where they are considered refugees.
The majority of Rohingya went to live in refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar District of Bangladesh, under dire conditions. Those who remained were considered illegal immigrants. Some have been sent back to Myanmar. Their situation has led many Rohingya to undertake a perilous voyage across the Bay of Bengal in hopes of reaching Southeast Asia. They have been crowded on boats and sent between countries that do not want them. In October of 2017, an overcrowded boat carrying Rohingya refugees capsized off the coast of Bangladesh, killing at least a dozen people, mostly children. This was just one in a series of deadly incidents. Evan Schuurman, a spokesperson with aid agency Save the Children said that people are willing to do anything. "So many people are still willing to get onboard boats that are overcrowded, potentially people unable to swim. They're literally putting their lives at risk to make it across to Bangladesh," he said.
The conflict between Myanmar security forces and Rohingya militias is ongoing as thousands of Rohingya continue to flee each day, despite condemnation of the atrocities from the international community and efforts of human rights groups. There have been reports of rape, murder, and entire villages being torched. According to U.N. human-rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the situation in Myanmar is a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." Myanmar military leaders continue to blame the unrest on the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar since 2015, was under house arrest for 15 years after winning a presidential election in Myanmar that the ruling military did not accept. Suu Kyi was considered an icon of democracy in her country, devoted to pursuing democracy by nonviolent means. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was praised for her refusal to incite violence, and for being "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless." However, Suu Kyi has been severely criticized for her inaction in the face of the atrocities reported against the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State and for abandoning her responsibility to protect human rights.
Suu Kyi broke her silence and spoke out on September 19, 2017, saying that Rohingya who have been acknowledged as refugees would be allowed to return, and she defended her handling of the crisis. "We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state," she said. Human rights groups remained unconvinced. James Gomez, Amnesty International director for Southeast Asia said Suu Kyi and her government "are still burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine. At times, her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming."
Impact of Event
In September of 2016, Myanmar established an advisory commission on Rakhine State, led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and comprising six local and three international experts. In August of 2017, the commission submitted its final report to Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw. Kofi Annan said, upon release of the report, "Unless concerted action--led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society--is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State." The report addressed human rights and humanitarian concerns, stating that the situation in Rakhine represents a human rights crisis, with the Muslim community vulnerable to human rights violations due to their prolonged statelessness and discrimination. The recommendations include monitoring the security forces, review of the citizenship law that does not recognize the Rohingya, and allowing freedom of movement, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or citizenship status.
In September of 2017, the Oxford City Council unanimously voted to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of the Freedom of Oxford award she received in 2012 for her "struggle for democracy," claiming that in the face of the violence and reported atrocities in Myanmar, it was no longer appropriate. Hundreds of thousands have called for the Nobel Institute to strip Suu Kyi of her Nobel Prize, but the institute said it is not possible to revoke an award.
The international community is facing an enormous humanitarian emergency. In October of 2017, Bangladesh announced that it would build one of the world's biggest refugee camps to house all the Rohingya refugees, more than 800,000 people. Bangladesh Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya said, "All of those who are living in scattered places ... would be brought into one place. That's why more land is needed. Slowly all of them will come."
Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, said that the situation was catastrophic. "I have never practically seen, around the world, people who are so traumatized by the experiences that they have suffered. And I mean not only the children but the women who have watched the male members of their family being slaughtered, they themselves sometime being raped," he said, referring to the atrocities the refugees faced before reaching Bangladesh. More than 60 percent of the refugees are children.
The needs of the Rohingya are growing at a faster pace than the ability to meet these needs, and the situation requires more than opening borders. According to U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, "The human tragedy unfolding in southern Bangladesh is staggering in its scale, complexity, and rapidity. It is the world's fastest developing refugee emergency." In October of 2017, the U.N. said it would make an appeal in Geneva for 430 million dollars in aid from the international community, double the amount calculated only weeks earlier. "We are imminently going to be publishing an update to the UN response plan and will be looking, in order to support the government of Bangladesh and Bangladesh's own institutions, to raise from international community something like 430 million dollars to enable us to scale up the relief operation. We have a fantastic set of proposals that come from all the response agencies and we are in a stage now where the main constraint we face is finance for those essential programs," Lowcock said.