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The Rohingya refugee crisis: ethnic cleansing in Myanmar


The Rohingya refugee crisis: ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

One IDP camp near Sittwe can only be accessed by sea with boats transporting vital aid supplies such as rice and cooking oil. / Rahkine State


400,000 of Myanmar’s 1.1 million ethnic Rohingya have fled the country amid a brutal army crackdown


– The civil administration is prepared to sacrifice the Rohingya to maintain its reform agenda
– The military could retake power if its perceives its autonomy is threatened
– Support from Islamic extremists abroad could encourage radicalisation among the Muslim Rohinyas
– The lack of a unified international response will see the violence continue unabated


In the early hours of August 25, members of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) attacked police posts in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, killing at least 12 officials. Since then, the region and its people have been beset by violence with Myanmar authorities undertaking ‘clearance operations’, forcing the exodus of up to 400,000 people, many of whom have attempted to cross the border to Bangladesh. With claims that the government is placing landmines along the border, either to keep Rohingya refugees from returning or to hinder their progress to Bangladesh, the deterioration of ethnic relations in Myanmar is increasingly evident. Human Rights Watch reports indicate the imposition of strict curfews on the local population and restricted access for journalists in Rakhine, in concert with a sustained campaign of destruction encompassing extra-judicial executions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests.

In light of the ongoing turmoil, ARSA members attempted to announce an informal ceasefire, saying via Twitter that the cessation was offered “to enable humanitarian actors to assess and respond to the humanitarian crisis” in Rakhine. The group “strongly urges the Burmese [Myanmar] government to reciprocate this humanitarian pause”, the statement added. The government rebuffed the offer and violence continues.


Buddhist citizens of Myanmar living in Thailand hold anti-Rohingya banners as they gather outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok
Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

Persecution of minority ethnic groups has been a staple of Myanmar’s governance for decades, particularly regarding the Rohingya; Burma Human Rights Network catalogues abuses dating back to 1938 under the Secretary of State for India and Burma and British Empire. Attempts to rectify the country’s differences through parliamentary government after independence initially achieved limited success with representation and the inclusion of minority issues in policy prescriptions. Unfortunately, a perception that such efforts to promote cooperation emphasised diversity (and were therefore ultimately divisive) saw the program derailed, particularly in the wake of Ne Win’s 1962 military coup.

Ne Win’s government sought ethnic homogeneity as a founding principle of its movement, and this racial prejudice and ethno-nationalism continues to inspire the military (the Tatmadaw) and its response to ethnic tension. For example, the Rohingya were purposefully denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, a key factor in the group’s persecution. As Ne Win stated in his 1982 speech on the law, “If we were to allow them to get into positions where they can decide the destiny of the State and if they were to betray us we would be in trouble” …“Racially, only pure-blooded nationals will be called citizens.” This sentiment is mirrored in the response of Tatmadaw officials to the latest attacks in northern Rakhine State. Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe argues that ARSA are trying to establish an “Islamic State” in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, despite ARSA continuously claiming that it is committed to securing citizenship and basic civil rights for the Rohingya.


Houses are on fire in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in the Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and where pages from the Quran were seen ripped and left on the ground.
Photo: AP

The situation has undoubtedly reminded observers of the difficulties within Myanmar’s civil-military relations. De facto national leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Aung San Suu Kyi has been noticeably distant while the Tatmadaw acts with seeming impunity. Despite many hopes that her National League for Democracy would bring a shift in the country’s troubled politics, she has faced criticism with her inaction, which is being widely viewed as tacit acceptance of the violence. Ms Suu Kyi said the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible” while also claiming the crisis intended to promote the interests of terrorists.

Though these statements are distinctly removed from the humanitarian and democratic positions she promoted in her campaign, they point to more salient factors Suu Kyi faces regarding her domestic constituencies. Of note, the spread of nationalist, anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar have fuelled a distrustful perception of the Rohingya as illegal, Bangladeshi immigrants. Halfway through her first term since the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi may be reluctant to challenge the established narrative for fear of jeopardising the progress her government has made with its reform agendas thus far.

Similarly, her administration must consider the Tatmadaw’s significant influence, particularly within parliament, where it is automatically allocated at least 25% of seats. The ministers for Defence, Home Affairs, and Security Affairs are all appointed by the Tatmadaw via constitutional mandate while the Tatmadaw retains the right to seize government in the event of any ‘national crisis’—as defined by Myanmar’s generals. These points have been significant in previous debates regarding the reform of 59F, the constitutional clause that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Much in the manner of the present Rohingya crisis, reform of 59F represents a potential “red line” for the army that could threaten Suu Kyi’s government’s survival. Were a situation to arise that threatened the Tatmadaw’s autonomy, it would be well placed to oust Suu Kyi and return Myanmar to authoritarian rule. As such, recent events have sought to highlight the impotence of Myanmar’s parliamentary government under Suu Kyi, particularly concerning the limitations it faces as a de facto transitional administration.

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Though not yet immediately apparent, these limitations could have severe implications for Myanmar’s domestic security and presence abroad. The crisis has drawn the attention of extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots in Bangladesh. Al Qaeda has warned Myanmar will face punishment for its “crimes against the Rohingyas”, inspiring fears extremists may migrate to Rakhine state and bring with them high-powered weaponry and radical ideology. While it is unclear whether foreign fighters would be well received by the Rohingyas, the present situation could contribute to radicalisation.

Unfortunately, the timing of the crisis has left little room left for manoeuvre. Both within Myanmar’s domestic politics and its engagement with the international community, efforts to promote a constructive, conciliatory framework to resolve the crisis face seemingly insurmountable odds. Myanmar National Security Adviser Thaung Tun has said, “[Myanmar] are negotiating with some friendly countries not to take it to the Security Council”, referring to Russia and China. Similarly, China’s ambassador Hong Liang stated that “the stance of China regarding the terrorist attacks in Rakhine is clear, it is just an internal affair”. As such, though the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State is expected to present its recommendations to Suu Kyi’s government later this year, such prescriptions will be too little and too late.

As UNICEF cites critical shortages of all resources, international relief organisations must re-evaluate current practice while critically assessing the efficacy of global responses to humanitarian crises. Despite the fact that the UN is receiving “constant reports of violence by Myanmar’s security forces, including indiscriminate attacks”, a shift in domestic perceptions is essential before practical remedies can emerge. The foremost challenge is that, without an investigative approach to human rights violations and revision of ethnicity relations, the Rohingya people will remain, as a UN spokeswoman in 2009 described them, “probably the most friendless people in the world”.


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