On August 25, 2017, a small faction of Rohingya militants known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out an attack on three border posts in the Rakhine state, leaving twelve police officers dead. This prompted a brutal government-approved military retaliation, which in turn led to the outbreak of one of the world’s fastest growing refugee crises of the 21st century. Nearly half a million Rohingya were displaced and more than five hundred were killed – all within the span of a month.
To the international community, the Rohingya crisis appears sudden. It was only recently that the word “Rohingya” has been mentioned in newspaper headlines and on social media with the question, “who are the Rohingya?”, often taking the center stage. The question itself is not so strange – a basic journalistic inquiry – but it is proof of the lack of coverage the Rohingya have received prior to the recent refugee crisis. The purpose of this article is not to blame and shame the international community for looking the other way all this time, but rather to shed light on a crisis that has been in the making for years.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who practice a form of Sunni Islam and are mainly concentrated in the Rakhine state, one of Myanmar’s poorest areas. Also called “the world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya have suffered marginalization for decades. To begin with, they are not even regarded to be from Myanmar, but are considered to have illegally immigrated from the country now known as Bangladesh. Following Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 a Citizenship Act was passed in order to define which ethnicities could gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not included, although the act did allow families who had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. However, their chance to gain citizenship was squandered in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which did not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic groups, effectively rendering them stateless. The law led to a long list of discriminatory practices and state-sanctioned violations of their civil rights. Myanmar has restricted nearly every aspect of the Rohingya’s life including marriage, family planning and employment. In some areas of Rakhine, the Rohingya are subjected to a two-child limit per household. Furthermore, since the 1970s there have been a number of military crackdowns on the Rohingya. The military violence in combination with systematic persecution in the last decades has forced more than 1 million Rohingya to seek refuge in sympathetic countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Thus, the current refugee crisis was neither sudden nor without warning signs, but a result of the longstanding persecution of a minority group.
Many had high hopes that newly-elected state counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi would step forward and denounce the military’s actions, but up until now she has stood by as her country’s military wages a campaign of violence against the Rohingya. In a speech held in September in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, Aung Sang Suu Kyi pleaded to the international community to view Myanmar and its problems as a whole, and “not just little afflicted areas.” In another speech she claimed that the government did not know why the exodus was happening. However, it is unfair to say that nothing is being done as Aung Sang Suu Kyi recently unveiled a relief-plan to set up a civilian-led agency that would deliver aid and resettle refugees. Nevertheless, she made no mention of the military’s actions. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s handling of the situation has received a harsh response from the international community. Many consider her silence to be inexcusable given her moral standing on upholding human rights. Petitions have been made to strip her of her Nobel Peace Prize and to remove her name from the junior common room at Oxford University where she studied.
This being said, Aung Sang Suu Kyi is in a difficult political situation to denounce the violence against the Rohingya, given the military’s political power. Myanmar is currently in the middle of a democratic transition. After several decades of a military-led government, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, has stepped in. However, the military’s power and influence are far from gone. As of now, the military appoints 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and controls the home, border affairs and defense ministries. On top of that, Aung Sang Suu Kyi legally has no power over the military. Thus, the civil government is wary of any harsh criticism towards the military, given its position and the fragility of the democratic transition.
Another factor that contributes to the government’s lack of response and Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s refusal to denounce the violence is the widespread racism against the Rohingya minority within the Buddhist majority. From noodle sellers to human rights lawyers, the Rohingya are strongly viewed as Bengali immigrants with questionable moral character. Many fear that the Rohingya’s Muslim faith will challenge their Buddhist religion. This fear is deep-seated within Buddhist nationalists, who worry that Myanmar is losing its unique culture, and in the worst case scenario that the Rohingya will “grab the land of Myanmar.” The bulk of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s supporters are part of the Buddhist majority and denounce any criticism of how she has handled the crisis as “fake news and rumors.” It is likely that Aung Sang Suu Kyi is not condemning the violence against the Rohingya in order to maintain the support from her base. Regardless, her silence on the issue makes her part of the problem, not the solution. So what should be the next step forward?
Some believe it is not too late for Aung Sang Suu Kyi to make a difference by speaking out about the military’s actions, which in turn would boost international aid efforts. Others put the burden on the United Nations to officially label the Rohingya as victims of genocide. The Rohingya have met most of the criteria laid down in the 1948 Genocide Convention for years, but the label is still being resisted. The situation for the Rohingya is at the brink of a full-blown human catastrophe and calls for immediate action. There is nothing that suggests Aung Sang Suu Kyi will break her silence any time soon. Therefore, designating the crisis as genocide would be an effective first step to aid the Rohingya, since the United Nations would be legally bound to intervene and the international community would be pressured to take action.