The persecution of Rohingya muslims in Myanmar

Myanmar recently entered the 69th year of what is considered to be the world’s longest running civil war. There are at least 15 armies involved in the conflict against Myanmar’s government, each representing a different ethnic group or region, and each involved in a series of fragile alliances and ceasefires. One aspect of this conflict that has received particular international attention in recent years concerns alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar’s armed forces against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the eastern state of Rakhine. This month the State Counsellor, and de facto leader, of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she would refuse to allow a proposed UN fact-finding mission permission to enter Myanmar to investigate these allegations, further increasing suspicion concerning the severity of the offences taking place in the region.

A troubled history

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, a country in which roughly 90% of the population identify as Buddhist. They have lived on the western coast of Myanmar in the state of Rakhine since the 15th century, with their numbers increasing dramatically through immigration from neighbouring Bengal during British rule. Throughout this time there has been tension and sporadic violence between the Rohingya and native Burmese groups, such as the Rakhine Buddhists.

This ethnic tension increased throughout the 20th century. During the Second World War, the Rohingya sided with, and were armed by, the British; whilst the Rakhine Buddhists generally fought on the side of Japan, as they believed the Japanese would offer them independence if victorious. After the British reclaimed Myanmar, the Rohingya unsuccessfully demanded that Rakhine be annexed to Pakistan; the legacy of these events served to divide the groups even further.

Since the Second World War, the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar has steadily worsened against a background of almost continuous ethnic warfare throughout the country. The civil war began in 1948, immediately after Burma gained independence from Britain. Initially the conflict involved a fight for power between the newly formed nationalist government and communist rebels; there was also a second conflict between the government and the separatist Christian Karen minority. Over the decades these conflicts have multiplied, and now involve upwards of 15 armies and separatist groups.

Fighting in Rakhine state has been sporadic, with most of the conflict in the civil war involving separatist groups in the east of Myanmar. However armed Rohingya insurgency movements have existed in various iterations throughout this time, although they have never numbered more than a few hundred soldiers, and have offered little threat to the nation’s military. 
In spite of this limited threat, the actions of these small resistance forces have often been used by the military as a pretext for repressive measures against Rohingya civilians. For example, in 1977-78, 200,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh due to brutality and repression by Myanmar’s army, before eventually being repatriated back to Rakhine state. Since this period, neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar have been willing to accept the Rohingya as citizens, so the process of refugees fleeing and then being forcibly repatriated has been repeated several times, most notably in 1992, and again over the last few years.

Recent developments

The latest phase of the conflict in Rakhine began in 2012 with a series of anti-Muslim riots in the north of the state, encouraged by some local political and Buddhist groups. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of Rohingya were killed (including 70 in one day in the village of Yan Thei) and 140,000 were displaced. The role of the Burmese army in the riots is unclear, however Human Rights Watch suggests that “all of the state security forces…are implicated in failing to prevent atrocities or directly participating in them, including…the army and navy”. Furthermore, the authorities did not prosecute anyone for the human rights violations carried out during the riots, feeding the idea that Rohingya Muslims could be attacked with impunity.
In April 2016, Nobel peace prize winner and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as State Counsellor for Myanmar with the promise that she would transition Myanmar away from military rule, and work to end the civil war. Suu Kyi initially made concerted attempts at a rapprochement between the various parties in the conflict, for example by creating a government advisory committee on Rakhine chaired by Kofi Annan and by organising a series of peace conferences involving all sides in the conflict, the most recent of which took place in May 2017. 

However in general her response to the violence against Rohingya Muslims has been strongly criticised by human rights groups. She did not condemn the 2012 riots and repeatedly refused to acknowledge the evidence of state-organised violence against the Rohingya. This refusal is most likely an attempt to keep the still powerful generals on side, and to maintain support amongst Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, who largely support the army’s actions in Rakhine.
Her inaction on this issue became particularly obvious during the most recent escalation of the conflict, which began in October 2016 after nine Myanmarese border officers were killed by Rohingya militants during an attack on a military outpost. The response by Myanmar’s military forces was swift and brutal. It has been estimated that since November 2016 over a thousand Rohingya have been killed and over 168,000 have fled abroad. A report by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, based on interviews with displaced Rohingya, contains multiple accounts of child killing, gang rape and other human rights violations. These estimates are necessarily uncertain as a clear picture of the extent of the violence is not possible because journalists and aid workers have been prohibited from entering the state since the conflict began, despite the fact that the military claims the conflict ended in February 2017. 

Very recently in May 2017, the UN belatedly led a fact-finding mission to investigate these allegations against Myanmar’s military forces. However this week, Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected this mission, saying that it would create “greater hostility between different communities”. The situation therefore shows little sign of improving, with a report by the International State Crime Initiative even suggesting that an escalation into genocide against the Rohingya is possible. 

Conclusion

Violence against the Rohingya appears to be on the increase, with elements of the government and military in Myanmar seemingly set on driving the group out of the country. The initial hope of many that Aung San Suu Kyi would prevent further ethnic violence has proved naïve, as internal politics in Myanmar militates against defending an unpopular minority. Whilst this issue is receiving increased media coverage in the West, there appears to be little prospect of action by the international community against Myanmar. Currently the best hope for the Rohingya is that the UN develops a tougher stance against Myanmar, or that other regional powers become more amenable to accepting refugees.