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The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

Ashutosh enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including politics, current affairs, and social and religious issues.

Protests seeking support for the Rohingya

Protests seeking support for the Rohingya

Who Are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority mainly confined to the Rakhine state of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Often described as the most "persecuted and suppressed" minorities in the world, the Rohingya are not recognized among the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar, which is a predominantly Buddhist nation. They have hence been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless and depriving them of basic fundamental rights as citizens.

Estimates reveal there are more than a million of them residing in Myanmar, the majority of whom currently face exodus. The Buddhists in Myanmar to this day refer to them, often pejoratively, as "Bengalis," or illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Even the term "Rohingya" is not recognized in Myanmar.

As far as their origin is concerned, a lot of historians are of the view that many Muslim groups, including the Rohingya, have been residing in Myanmar since the 9th Century in the Arakan, which is now Rakhine. During the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, a lot of Bengali Muslims from what is now Bangladesh (then a part of British India) migrated to Myanmar (then Burma) as labourers or daily wage earners and eventually settled there and integrated into the existing Muslim population. They were, however, widely resented by the native population.

“If Buddha happened, he certainly would protect those Muslim brothers and sisters.”

— Dalai Lama

Persecution and Exodus

To date, the Rohingya have remained a pariah community not just for the native Rakhine population or the Myanmar Buddhists as a whole, but also for the world and even the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither their persecution nor their suffering has been a recent development. It's been happening for decades, and ever since the Military Junta in Myanmar introduced new citizenship laws in 1982, the Rohingya have officially been labeled as an outcast and stateless entity, which only added to their woes.

For the past three or four decades, Rohingya have been escaping persecution and seeking refuge in neighboring countries in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and elsewhere. Prior to the violence and the resulting exodus, the UN had put the number of Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia at 420,000, though the exact number may be higher with the bulk of refugees confined to Bangladesh.

In May 2017, the United Nations stated that more than 168,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar since 2012—precisely the time when the Rohingya crisis first became known to the outside world with wide-scale arson and communal riots. It all started on May 27, 2012, when a Rakhine Buddhist female from the Kyauknimaw Village, Yanbye Township in her late twenties was gang-raped and brutally murdered. That was the trigger, and the local media ran the story accusing three Rohingya Muslims. In retaliation, 10 Muslim men were lynched at the beginning of the very next month by an enraged Rakhine mob in Taunggoke.

What followed was widespread unrest with a communal outbreak between the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities. Several cases of looting, arson and killings were reported. The unrest carried on until October 2012, and the situation has more or less remained volatile ever since. At least 200 lives were lost and about 120,000 Rohingya were driven into displacement camps, where most subsist to this day.

In October 2016, the Myanmar military carried out "clearance operations" in the Rakhine state post an attack on three police outposts by a group of Rohingya insurgents belonging to Harakah Al Yakin (HAY) that left nine police personnel dead. Human rights bodies then severely criticised these military operations, pointing out extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses under the garb of counterterrorism. In the aftermath of the operations, more than 50,000 Rohingya were believed to have fled to Bangladesh. After the August 25th attacks, the mass exodus of Rohingya has continued in numbers as high as 400,000 and counting.

If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

— Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Rohingya fleeing their homes in search of refuge

Rohingya fleeing their homes in search of refuge

The Current Crisis in Myanmar

Less than a year and a mass exodus is underway yet again in the Rohingya-dominated Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in Northern Rakhine. Back in September 2016, Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had invited former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, to head an Advisory Commission to find ways to resolve the Rohingya crisis and mend the long-standing divisions amongst the Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines. But an attack in the following month on police outposts by an insurgent Rohingya group thwarted the efforts. And even before relevant measures could have been considered, a massive humanitarian crisis is yet again unfolding in the same region. Needless to mention it's only gotten worse this time around as the numbers are staggering enough to raise eyebrows even amongst the sharpest critics.

Again it's important to note that on 24th August 2017, Kofi Anan and the advisory committee recommended that Myanmar scrap restrictions on the movement and citizenship of Rohingya people to avoid fuelling extremism. The findings were accepted by Suu Kyi for further consideration however various opposition parties and the military didn't quite share the same understanding. The very next day, August 25, an insurgent group that calls itself the 'Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army' (ARSA) carried out coordinated attacks on more than 30 military and border police posts, reportedly killing a dozen security personnel.

In response, the army, also known as Tatmadaw, launched a counter-offensive in the conflict-torn Maungdaw region in Rakhine. That in itself was the trigger for the mass exodus that immediately followed. More than 400,000 refugees have since arrived in Bangladesh, especially the bordering Cox's Bazar area. There's however little clarity on the death tolls as well as the specifics of the counter-offensive as the government since then restricted access to the area for media personnel as well as human rights groups. There have been allegations and counter-allegations from the Myanmar Government and human rights groups. Much of the information circulating in the media are unverified accounts of the harrowing tales narrated by those that escaped from the conflict-hit region with little to negligible on-the-spot coverage. Fake news, photoshopped images, and brutalities of historical genocides have been bombarding social media forums and elsewhere, only to create an exasperating farrago of distortions. The indiscriminate and brutal response by the military, however, has been unequivocally criticized and many in the international community termed it as 'approaching genocidal'. The government has officially claimed the death toll at 400 mostly insurgents or ARSA members or sympathizers.

What Is the ARSA?

Association of Rohingya to the insurgent groups isn't a new development, the ARSA, however, is a relatively new insurgent entity that came into the limelight post the August 25th attacks on Myanmar police posts in Rakhine state. The militant group led by Pakistan-born and Saudi-raised Atullah Abu Amar Jununi, claims to seek an autonomous Muslim state for the Rohingya and distances itself from affiliations with any other Islamist terrorist groups in an attempt to strengthen its cause and gain a larger base among the Rohingya. Its Saudi links, however, are out in the open. Myanmar's government has already declared it a terrorist outfit. This is actually the revamped or reorganized and strengthened version of the insurgent group that carried out the October 2016 attacks, except then it called itself 'Harakah al-Yaqin', or 'faith movement' in Arabic. In 2017 Atullah joined forces with Hafiz Tohar, a Pakistani trained militant who is also the founder of the militant faction Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM), and rebranded themselves as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Response From Human Right Groups

The action by the Myanmar military and the silence on part of Myanmar Authorities has drawn global condemnation. Further, the government's action to restrict access to the northern Rakhine States for journalists and aid workers has sent serious shock-waves and only raised further doubts punching holes in their claims.

Human Rights Group and Amnesty International have been at the forefront of accusing the Myanmar Government of being complicit and turning a blind eye to the human rights violations taking place in Rakhine state. Earlier this week it released satellite imagery of burned villages in Rakhine, highlighting deliberate wide-scale arson carried out by the military. In its report, it also alleged "a wide range of human rights violations" since the crackdown began. Based on interviews with witnesses and analysis by its experts, Amnesty also claimed a targeted use of landmines along a narrow stretch of the northwestern border with Rakhine state. These mines according to the observers were being deployed to deter the refugees from returning back.

The Human Rights Watch also accused the Myanmar military of widespread arson, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape and other sexual violence. The South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, stated that Rohingya refugees have harrowing accounts of fleeing Myanmar army attacks and watching their villages destroyed.

Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights referred to the current crisis as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
“I call on the government to end its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred, and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population,” al-Hussein said.

On 13th September 2017, an open letter was sent to the UN Security Council by eminent global citizens calling for immediate UN intervention to end the violence and repression against the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State. The signatories to the letter included twelve Nobel laureates, including Professor Muhammad Yunus, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Malala Yousafzai. Other signers were musician Bono, writer and activist Richard Curtis, human rights activist Asma Jahangir, actor and rights activist Shabana Azmi, and poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar.

It's a daunting task ahead for the aid workers and the medical staff as the crisis doesn't seem to be ending soon. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has been operating in Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh since 2014 and throughout the state of Rakhine in Myanmar since 2012. The ICRC has begun supplying first aid, medical supplies, clean water, food and other emergency items and is working closely with the Myanmar Red Cross (MRCS), the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), and community volunteers to respond to this emergency.

Rohingya Refugees desperate to receive aid

Rohingya Refugees desperate to receive aid

The authorities in Myanmar must take determined action to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and provide security and assistance to all those in need.

— António Guterres (UN Secretary General)

Bangladesh Lends a Helping Hand

A humanitarian crisis of an epic proportion is currently unfolding in Bangladesh as hordes of refugees enter Bangladesh from Northern Rakhine. Nearly three and half decades back, something similar was unfolding in this part of the world, when ten million Bangladeshis had escaped persecution and genocide and sought refuge in the bordering states of India. A deja vu moment for many Bangladeshi's. When the rich, elite and influential Muslim nations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, had turned a blind eye to the suffering of this stateless and voiceless Muslim community, credit must be given to Bangladesh, despite the plethora of issues that the nation is already entangled in including poverty, population crisis, terrorism etc, for having shown a bigger heart. Although the influx of refugees has died down, as per the UN estimates, the number currently is easily beyond 400,000 refugees.

As Bangladesh gears up to take up this daunting task it looks up to the global community for support and countries like Turkey and India have already commenced sending relief aid for the refugees, While other nations have offered aid or are in the process to send relief. Currently, the refugees have been confined in the Cox's Bazar area in temporary or makeshift shelters and the government of Bangladesh plans to construct 14,000 new shelters with each shelter capable to house six refugee families and equipped with sanitation, water, and medical supplies. Simultaneously they have also initiated the registration process for them.

Earlier in September, while visiting a Rohingya refugee camp, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had urged the UN and the international community to put pressure on Myanmar's government to allow the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees and curtail the violence.

Where Does Myanmar Stand?

Myanmar at this juncture certainly has a lot of issues to handle and with its democratic structure still in its infancy and a shared authority between the civilian government and the military leadership, the task only gets more complex and difficult. While the State Counselor and the de facto leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi face a severe backlash in light of the recent Rohingya exodus, it's imperative to note that the nation's defence, home affairs as well as border affairs are totally in hands of military and independent of the civilian government authority. The aspirations of the military to re-establish the Military Junta are also not hidden as it still controls a quarter of parliamentary seats. The current government in its eighteen months tenure has definitely made some right noises towards establishing peace and bringing sustainable development in the country as well as the conflict-torn regions. I suppose it's too early to pass judgment on what the motives of the government are or whether or not they are making efforts to resolve the crisis. There are nationalist hardliners who reject the very idea of peace with Rohingya as they see them as illegal migrants and trouble creators. Some of their concerns may certainly be valid like the threat posed by a booming population. History has its own share of conflict amongst the native Rakhines and the Rohingya and then there are cases of radicalization and related terrorism which has only strengthened the notion. Let's also not ignore that organizations like Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Rohingya Liberation Organization (RLO) have been active in the region for decades and even made attempts to seize control in Rakhine by force. They are also accused of destroying Buddhist monasteries, carrying out arson in Buddhist neighbourhoods and killing several Rakhines. The reason why these facts cannot be sidelined is because they build perceptions and put a question mark on the community as a whole, even though it may just be the actions of a handful of people. What we as outsiders might see as a struggle for existence, the natives may certainly have a different opinion vis a vis past experiences or prejudice, whichever way we put it.

While the world is pointing the finger at Suu Kyi's leadership, even some demanding the withdrawal of her Nobel Peace Prize, neither the terrorism emanating in the region and across the border nor the accountability of the CIC of Myanmar Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing is being discussed. I personally have a strong objection to all the champions of Human Rights who have conveniently turned blind eye to the ruckus and instability in the Middle East and the refugee crisis there but are sermonizing the Myanmar Government on lessons of morality.

Having said that, Myanmar definitely has a lot riding on what it does from here on to resolve this ongoing crisis. Reeling under sharp criticism from the global community and even her fellow Nobel laureates, Aung San Suu Kyi finally addressed a gathering of foreign diplomats on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar's capital on September 19th, 2017.

Key Points From Aung San Suu Kyi's Address

  • Condemned the violence and spoke of peace and reconciliation
  • Myanmar and Bangladesh are working towards resolving the humanitarian crisis caused by the exodus of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State
  • Highlighted the sustainable development measures and invited the diplomatic community for assistance and to coordinate in the peace process.
  • Warned of action against the human rights violations, independent of the accused political clout.
  • Highlighted that no conflicts occurred post-5th of September and no clearance has been carried out since.
  • More than 50% villages of the Muslims are intact as they were before the violence.
  • Repatriation of the refugees could begin immediately for those that wish to return post the bilateral verification process which has been in place since 1993.

It's imperative that the global community not look at this event in isolation and rather with a shared sense of responsibility to work towards bringing peace and stability to the country and help find solutions to resolve the crisis. The problem is certainly multi-faceted and besides, we may also want to consider the vested interests. Theories around the United States and Saudi involvement are already doing rounds and all focused on the oil and gas supply lines to China from Myanmar. Could be mere speculations but they do make sense.

As for the Myanmar authorities, they must consider that if the issue is further left unaddressed, then it would only facilitate a fertile breeding ground for the recruitment of extremists leading to instability in the entire region and not just the Myanmar state. The radical factions, as well as international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, are already calling out to wage 'Jihad' (religious war) and it's anybody's guess where this all would eventually lead. End of the day nobody would wish to see the Rohingya's fate from a persecuted minority to collateral damage!


  • The Rakhine Commission - Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State
  • Human Rights Watch - “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State
  • FIDH & ALTSEAN-Burma Research Paper on Rohingya policies and restrictions under Myanmar’s new government
  • World Media on the Rohingya Crisis

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.