The international community needs to act to stop large-scale anti-minority violence against the Rohingya community in Myanmar, writes the University of Auckland’s Dr Chris Wilson
A new phase of large scale violent ethnic cleansing is underway in Rakhine State in western Myanmar (formerly Burma). Tens of thousands of men, women and children of the Muslim Rohingya community are fleeing indiscriminate attacks by the armed forces. Perhaps 70,000 have fled into Bangladesh. The military crackdown was in response to a coordinated assault against police posts by a Rohingya militant group known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The militants killed 12 security personnel, but 400 civilians have so far died in the ‘clearance operations’ which followed.
This is the latest wave of violence involving the local Rakhine ethnic community and the Rohingya since 2012. Around 1000 have died over this period, with credible reports of mass rape and the deliberate razing of villages by the military. More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh while many others have embarked on a perilous and often deadly journey by sea or through Thailand and Malaysia to find asylum. Many more remain in squalid detention camps within Myanmar to which aid workers or outside observers are regularly denied access. Satellite images suggest that in the recent attacks over 100km of land has been burned. Atrocities, such as beheadings and the slaughter of children – often an act of intimidation intended to ensure communities do not return – have reportedly occurred. Given these reports it seems likely that another round of violent and permanent expulsion has occurred.
Clashes between the Rakhine and Rohingya have occurred periodically since the end of World War II, often resulting in the army driving many Rohingya into Bangladesh. In 1978, 250,000 were expelled across the border. It is important to recognise that the Rakhine have also faced longstanding repression by the military regime. As is often the case in conflicts like these, one repressed minority has unleashed its frustrations on another group equally as marginalised. Anger from elsewhere is often displaced onto those you interact and compete with on a daily basis. Many Rakhine claim that the Rohingya have encroached on their traditional land and oppose granting them any rights which might see them compete for land or government assistance. As a result, many Rakhine support the expulsion of the group from the state, with some participating in attacks over the past several years.
But driving the contemporary violence are two additional broader phenomena: political liberalisation since 2005 and a national discourse which denies the Rohingya any rights as citizens of Myanmar. According to Buddhist and Rakhine nationalists, the Rohingya are illegal Bengali migrants. The government denies them the status of one of Myanmar’s ‘national races’ because they are deemed to have entered the country after 1823. This means they lack citizenship (of any country), possess no voting rights nor the right to travel or own property. Now that a partial democracy has come to Myanmar since 2005, both national and Rakhine-based politicians and parties (such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party) have derided the Rohingya as ‘Bengalis’. There is political capital in victimising a hated group which cannot vote.
The repeated nature of the mass violence, the execution of civilians, destruction of villages and atrocities designed to engender terror and effect permanent exodus, combined with the government’s ongoing denial of citizenship and other rights, all point to an intention to eliminate the Rohingya as a distinct group within Myanmar.
The historical record suggests that these claims of the Rohingyas’ recent arrival to Myanmar are questionable. Many are descended from Bengali labourers who moved to Burma under the British colonial administration during the 19th Century. But many Rohingya also lived in Rakhine before 1823. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a visiting representative of the East India Trading Company, reported meeting “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. There were also many Muslims living in Rakhine during the rule of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U between 15th to the 18th Centuries.
Much of the hatred and violence towards the Rohingya is promulgated by Buddhist nationalists, in particular the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) organisation, led by the monk Ashin Wirathu. Despite Muslims constituting only 4 percent of Myanmar’s population, he and other nationalists have portrayed the Rohingya as posing a serious cultural and physical threat to Buddhists in Myanmar. Wirathu’s extremism has brought him nationwide and international notoriety and followers. It has also brought political influence. He successfully pushed a population control bill through parliament restricting women to having no more than one child every three years, stating that the law was necessary to “stop the Bengalis”.
Many international organisations and observers are now labelling what is occurring in Rakhine genocide. The bar to this most heinous of crimes against humanity is set very high, reserved for only those events involving the intent to eliminate a group in whole or in part. The difficulty of proving intent has left many large-scale killings uncategorised as genocide. It seems increasingly apparent however that the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya meets this restrictive criterion. The repeated nature of the mass violence, the execution of civilians, destruction of villages and atrocities designed to engender terror and effect permanent exodus, combined with the government’s ongoing denial of citizenship and other rights, all point to an intention to eliminate the Rohingya as a distinct group within Myanmar. Using a phrase similar to those used in many other genocides, the army chief said on September 1 that “The Bengali problem was a longstanding one which has become an unfinished job”.
It is difficult to see how these waves of killings and forced expulsions will cease without international involvement. There seems little point of terms like genocide, or norms of humanitarian intervention or a Responsibility to Protect, if events like this can continue with little sanction from the international community. The erstwhile champion of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has chosen to inflame the situation rather than use her influence to calm it. Her supporters will say she can do little in the face of ongoing military power, but her office has also referred publicly to ‘Bengali terrorists’ and claimed aid agencies are assisting Rohingya militants.
When there is no domestic actor who might work to prevent large-scale anti-minority violence, the international community needs to act.