On September 11th, the United Nations’ top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, accused the country of Myanmar of being “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” at a council in Geneva. Ethnic cleansing is the process by which a group removes a religious or ethnic community through violence. In this case, the victims are the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim group who have been dubbed by the U.N. as “the world’s most persecuted minority.”
The Rohingya have lived for centuries in the Buddhist-majority country of Myanmar (known as Burma until 1989). Nearly all of the Rohingya live in the state of Rakhine, where they are not allowed to leave without government permission. Despite being able to trace Rohingya roots in Myanmar back to the 8th century, this ethnic minority has been denied citizenship under the law since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless. Further, because they are considered illegal, the government can deny them public education, employment, marriage, property, and freedom of movement. The result is a meager literacy rate of just 20%.
Hostility towards the Rohingya is traced to 1886, where then-Burma was under British rule. The British had been controlling Burma since 1824 and encouraged migrant labor by implementing colonialist policies. As the Muslim population tripled in Burma, the British promised the Rohingya a separate “Muslim National Area” in exchange for support in conflicts like World War II. During that war, the Rohingya fought against the Burma nationalists, who supported Japan. Despite the British promise, the Rohingya were not given an autonomous state.
Rohingya statelessness led to a conflict surrounding the issue of citizenship in 1948 when Burma achieved independence from the British. Myanmar officials argued that the Rohingya were foreigners who benefited under colonial rule. By 1962, the country had condensed into a one-party military state where the minority group of Muslims was seen as a threat to the national identity. For the next four decades, military operations closed Rohingya businesses, social organizations, and political groups, leaving the Rohingya subject to forced labor, arbitrary detention, beatings, rape, torture, and death. These military crackdowns were enforced in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015, 2016, and are escalating presently. In February of 2017, a U.N. Human Rights report detailed the nature of Myanmar army massacres: of 101 women interviewed, more than half had been raped. According to refugees, they saw Rohingyas killed by being forced into burning structures. This treatment, labeled by many as genocide, has led to internal mass displacement and a Rohingya refugee population that is growing by over a thousand people per day.
Myanmar’s army has said it is only responding to a Rohingya militant attack that took place on August 25th, when a Rohingya resistance organization known as Harakah Al-Yaqin (the Faith Movement) staged a deadly attack on security forces and killed 12 officers. This resistance movement handed the military justification to target the Rohingya. Human rights investigators reported that in the days following the attack, as many as 5,000 civilians in Rakhine could have been massacred by government soldiers. An exact number cannot be known because Myanmar refuses to allow humanitarian aid into affected areas. Satellite images show 288 separate Rohingya villages burned, most down to the ground.
Since August 25th, some 590,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, a significant portion of whom are children. There, they join the 300,000 refugees who had fled during previous military crackdowns in the past decades. According to the U.N., the overall number of refugees is expected to exceed one million in the coming days or weeks.
Currently, the Myanmar army claims that they are conducting counter-terrorism operations. At the center of these military claims is the State Councilor (president of the country) Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate, who won her country’s first openly contested election in November of 2015. She spent her life in detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to then military-ruled Burma. In 1991, the Nobel Peace Prize chairman called her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless.” However, if she speaks to protect the Rohingya, she will face a backlash from Buddhist nationalists, voters, and the military itself. If she stays silent as she is doing now, many experts argue that she will be perpetrating the fastest growing humanitarian crisis of our time.
“To be forgotten, is to die a little.” Those were the words that State Councilor Suu Kyi delivered in her 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture. The future of the Rohingya people—whether or not they will continue to be forgotten—remains unclear.