Rohingya face difficulty in Myanmar

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority, the majority of which are Muslim. They primarily reside in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar. The state of Myanmar reflects the larger ethnic Burmese attitude that perceives Rohingyas as illegal Bengali settlers. However, evidence of Rohingya’s migration into present-day Myanmar dates back to the 12th century.

On Aug. 25, 2017, the armed militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, coordinated attacks against police posts in the Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships, killing 12 security forces. In response, the state military initiated what Amnesty International calls a “grossly unlawful and disproportionate campaign” of ethnic cleansing that has resulted in a mass exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingya people.

While Myanmar’s military claims it is solely targeting militants, and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi insisted the campaign ended on Sept. 5, 2017, there is evidence suggesting otherwise. Starting in August, within six months, supported by local vigilantes, the Myanmar military has forcibly displaced nearly 700,000 Rohingya people, through murder, gang rapes, torture, enforced disappearances, razing Rohingya villages and planting landmines, among other tactics. And while this recent exodus has gained international attention, some consider it a continuation of racist and discriminatory state policies which have historically targeted Rohingya Muslims.

Mainstream media outlets have covered the crisis in Myanmar, but many believe they sensationalize the story. Many organizations leave out the complex, intricate history of Myanmar, which has contributed to the crisis that the country currently faces.

British colonialism and its policies played a significant role in Myanmar’s history and its ethnic conflicts. Two such policies are forced migration and continuous favoring of ethnic minorities. The pattern mirrors many intra-national, racial conflicts that continue to exist today.

Britain won over the Rhakine state after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, and the cost of the war led to economic crisis. Thus, the British employed laborers and civil servants from South Asia, many of whom were Bengali Muslims. The migrant workers settled in the lower western region of Myanmar for generations to come.

Despite their success in overthrowing the Burmese empire, Britain struggled to establish authority. The ethnic Burmese majority, known as Burmans, resisted colonial rule while ethnic minorities were more cooperative. Using a harsh military approach to suppress Burman rebellions, Britain pacified ethnic minorities using a tributary system. Living in geographically divided regions, the ethnic minorities, including Rohingyas, were allowed to live in relative autonomy under British colonial rule so long as they complied.

British policies of enforced migration, displacement, persecuting the Burman majority and favoring ethnic minorities were all part of a long tradition in British colonialism. Britain reified ethnic division and after Myanmar’s independence in 1948 left a legacy of hatred and mistrust between Burmese groups. In “Ethnicity, Conflict, and History in Burma” published in 2008, historian Matthew Walton writes, “In the eyes of the Burmans, ethnic minorities came to be associated with colonial rule.”

Since 1948, conditions particularly worsened after the coup d’état in Myanmar has politically and economically persecuted Rohingyas by denying their rights and circulating false propaganda framing them all as terrorists, among other violations. In its 2017 report, Amnesty International insisted “severe and arbitrary restrictions on their freedom of movement (has) negatively impacted access to healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities; (ed to) unlawful killings; arbitrary detentions; torture and other ill-treatment; forced labour; land confiscations and forced evictions in addition to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation.”

The Rohingya also do not have avenues to pursue legal status. While Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, insisting that they are undocumented Bengalis, the Bangladeshi government denies them refugee status. As a result, even those who flee violence are met with more state violence. Rohingya and other refugees are forced to live in makeshift camps. These camps are largely located in areas on Bengal considered uninhabitable due to severe monsoons that flood the area.

To learn more about the Rohingya refugee crisis, Guilford students can read Amnesty’s 2017 report titled, “Caged Without a Roof: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rhakine State.”