Analysis: Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing Myanmar?

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority Muslim group who follow a Sufi variation of Islam. The group are based mostly in Rakhine State on the Western coast of Myanmar and make up around one third of the demographic of this region. They differ significantly in ethnicity, culture and language from the Buddhist majority throughout Myanmar, with whom tensions are rising.

The Rohingya trace their origins in the country back to the 15th century, when many Muslims flocked to the former Arakan Kingdom (not conquered by the Burmese until 1784). Those who identify as Rohingya continued to arrive during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Bengal and Rakhine region was under colonial rule, as part of British India.

Although the Rohingya have claimed their lineage for centuries in the Rakhine state, since Myanmar (formerly Burma) gained independence in 1948, successive governments have refused to recognise Rohingyas as one of the the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Instead, they are labelled illegal Bengali immigrants.

The term ‘Rohingya’ is interpreted by the government and the dominant ethnic Buddhist group in the region, known as the Rakhine as a divisive political term. The term Rohingya is thought to be a derivation from the word ‘Arakan’ in the Rohingya dialect and ‘gya’ can be understood as ‘from’. As a result, many people in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar interpret the use of this term as ethnic Muslims asserting ties to a land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom.

Because of this, identifying as a Rohingya is interpreted by some as questioning the legitimacy of the current government’s rule over the area. Others see it as simply identifying with the ethnic origins of a group that has been in the region for centuries.

Why are they fleeing?

In 2016, following a series of attacks on police posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border during October, the Burmese government launched of a military campaign to root out the insurgents responsible.

The United Nations estimates that more than 65,000 ethnic Rohingyas have now fled the northern Rakhine state. 22,000 of these refugees fled in one week of January 2017 alone. This was a mass exodus that showed the escalation of an ethnic conflict and the rapid deterioration of humanitarian conditions.

But the situation is not new. According to The International Crisis Group, “the situation in Rakhine State contains a toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious inter-communal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim communities, and extreme poverty and underdevelopment.”

The World Bank estimates that Rakhine State is the least developed region in Myanmar, with 78% of households living below the poverty threshold.

Worse, Amnesty International claims that the Rohingya face regular and severe restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, limited access to life-saving health care, and denial of their rights to education, marriage and family planning facilities, and equal employment opportunities. There have been reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and general mistreatment of the Rohingya while in government detention, and deaths in custody at the hands of security forces.

In 2012 ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists erupted after claims that a group of Rohingya men raped a Buddhist woman. Buddhist nationalist groups burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of people according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Human Rights Watch says that violence against the Rohingya in 2012 amounted to crimes against humanity, as part of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. Since the 2012 clashes, regional rights organisation Fortify Rights estimates that more than 120,000 Muslims from the Rohingya minority have been forced into refugee camps with squalid conditions.

The refugee crisis

Many Rohingyas escaping Myanmar resort to using people smugglers, usually under highly dangerous circumstances. In 2015, this led to the “Rohingya boat people crisis”.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, between January 2014 and May 2015 more than 80,000 Rohingya risked their lives by fleeing the country on smuggler boats. These then transferred them to larger cargo ships, mostly destined for Malaysia.

During this crisis, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged South Eastern Asian leaders to uphold international law and specifically the “obligation of rescue at sea”. Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia initially refused to accept these stranded migrants, which led to a regional conference held in Thailand in May of 2015. Then-President Thein Sein made it clear Myanmar would not participate in these discussions if the name Rohingya was used, and therefore puts tens of thousands of lives at risk. He said:

“If we recognise the name, then they will think they are citizens of Myanmar… Myanmar cannot take all the blame for these people who are now at sea. We need long term (solutions) and you can’t just explain it by saying Myanmar is the source of the problem. A long term solution is needed.”

Ethnic tensions continued to escalate, culminating in the attacks on three police border posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in October 2016, by what local authorities described as Rohingya militant groups. This led to a massive police and military operation in a so called manhunt for those responsible. Dozens of people were killed in raids, tens of thousands displaced internally and over 65,000 Rohingya exiting Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh, with over 22,000 fleeing in one week in January.

Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to confirm widespread destruction of Rohingya villages and identified a total of 430 destroyed buildings in three villages of northern Maungdaw district.

The Maungdaw district has been declared an “Operation Zone” by the authorities, who say they are still searching for the gunmen from the October attacks. The security forces have severely restricted the freedom of movement of local populations and imposed extended curfews, which remain in place.

Following government intervention in the region, human rights groups and local media say government security forces have committed summary killings, sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrests, arson, and other abuses against Rohingya villagers in Maungdaw.

Amid escalating tensions, a second attack on a border guard post in Maungdaw occurred on November 3rd, resulting in the death of one police officer.

Human rights organisations and international media have been kept out of Rakhine state, making it impossible to know the full and true extent of the conflict. The authorities are routinely accused by international monitors of failing to investigate human rights violations.

However, John Mckissick, the head of the UN Refugee Agency, says the Myanmar government carried out “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people. This was  reiterated by Malaysia’s foreign minister, who called on the state to stop the practice. India, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh have seen protesters gather to condemn the military operation against the Rohingya people.

It is increasingly difficult for the Myanmar authorities to deny these allegations. A video recently surfaced online in January 2017,of police officers beating unarmed Rohingya villagers in Rakhine State in November 2016. Some of these officers have since been arrested and the authorities say they are investigating the incident. However, ongoing restrictions make it extremely hard to establish how many other cases of abuse have taken place off-camera.

Despite international condemnation, President Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to change government policy. The Nobel Laureate instead warned that outsiders are “concentrating on the negative side” of the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. She urged the international community to remember that the military operation was launched in response to attacks on her government, saying:

“I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment”.

Legal Status of the Rohingya

The legal status of the Rohingya is a complicated issue. The notion of the Rohingya simply being an ethnic group and not a political construct is often not given enough respect in these discussions. According to Jacques. P. Leider, in his analysis ‘ Rohingya: The Name, The Movement, The Quest for Identity :

‘The narrowing of the the debate on the Rohingyas to legal and humanitarian aspects, editorialists around the world have taken an easy approach towards a complicated issue… where issues like ethnicity, history, and cultural identity are key ingredients of legitimacy’.

The government and many Buddhists of Rakhine State see the term Rohingya to be contentious. A significant number of muslims are thought to have immigrated to Myanmar from the bay of Bengal, in what is now Bangladesh. According to Benedict Rogers (who is, in fact a prominent critic of the regime’s treatment of Rohingya) the muslims who originally stem from the bengal region, who are known as the Rohingya actually display a vast collection of ethnic origins. It can therefore be difficult to establish exactly what it is that would make someone identify as Rohingya. Much of the discrimination and mistrust of the Rohingyas can be traced back to the ambiguity attached to this ethnicity. Many in the government and much of the buddhist majority in Rakhine state fear that  muslims who can not actually trace their origins back in Myanmar, could label themselves as such to gain citizenship, this fear includes muslim extremist groups.

Anti Muslim propaganda has become part of life in Myanmar. In Kyaw Yin Hlaing’s analysis of Buddhist opinion towards Rohingya and muslim groups, surveys were conducted in seven cities across the country, with 500 participants in total. Of the survey respondents, 85 percent cited fear of Muslims turning the country Islamic as the main reason for their dislike of Muslims.

In Rakhine state, this discourse is repeated and amplified due to the outbreaks of communal violence. It is partly because of these reasons that despite evidence showing the Rohingya existing in Myanmar for several centuries, the State refuses to grant members of this group a legal status. The vast majority of the group have been given no legal documentation and are therefore, effectively stateless.

The legal status of the Rohingya in Myanmar was doomed following the 1982 citizenship law. Prior to this law being imposed, the Rohingya were still excluded from citizenship under the 1948 Citizenship Act, but they had been able to register as temporary residents of Myanmar with an identification documentation known as a ‘white card’. These cards held no legal value although the cards were seen to represent some minimal recognition of rights for the Rohingya to temporarily stay in the country. These rights were still extremely limited, and the Rohingya were widely reported to have faced routine discrimination. The 1982 law prevents anyone from having a claim to any form of citizenship of Myanmar, who is not considered one of the ‘national races’. The government disputes Rohingya claims that the they have been in the country for centuries, and will not allow any group to be an official race if they are considered to have settled in the country prior to 1824 (the first occupation by the British). The 1982 law was based on perceptions of race and ethnic identity that were prevalent during the colonial period in Myanmar, which have now left hundreds of thousands of Rohingya stateless.

In 2014 the United Nations attempted through a national census, to permit the group to self identify as Rohingya. They were initially permitted to do so, however tensions with the Buddhist nationalists led to the government deciding the Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali. This trend continued in 2015 when Buddhist nationalist groups protesting the Rohingya right to vote, pressured then- President Thein Sein to revoke this right. Previously the Rohingya had been able to vote at certain times, (such as the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections) but are now, in an apparent regression of their liberties and standing in Myanmar, no longer can.

What happens now?

It’s hard to say. Before any real progress can be made, the countries affected need to agree on whether the term “Rohingya” is a political or ethnic term – and that’s a more complex issue than those hoping for a quick end to the humanitarian disaster would hope for. In the mean time Myanmar should allow independent human rights monitors into Rakhine State and the international community should continue to pressure the government to do so. Other countries in the region should begin to share responsibility for the continuing influx of Rohingya refugees.

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