But it is her international reputation that is most in tatters.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, imprisoned for 15 years over a 21-year period in her struggle for human rights and democracy, has suffered a swift and dramatic fall from grace as a global icon. She is now widely seen as an enabler of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In just the last few days, Canada stripped Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship and the Malaysian prime minister stated publicly that she has lost his support.
As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group put it recently:
Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast.
Failures of Suu Kyi’s government
Suu Kyi has been the subject of much criticism since taking power 2½ years ago, but the most recent and vociferous condemnation has centred on two events: the jailing of two Reuters journalists who exposed a massacre of Rohingya civilians by the military, and her government’s failure to respond to international investigations into allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It is notable that it was Suu Kyi’s civilian government that prosecuted the journalists, not the military. Suu Kyi could have ordered the charges dropped, as she did for student protesters during her early days in office. Instead, before the trial was over, she commented that the reporters were guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act, and once even allegedly referred to them as “traitors”.
The second great disappointment has been the government’s response to the UN Human Rights Council’s report into the violence that drove almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh last year.
The report, released in full in September, found conclusive evidence that security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with genocidal intent. It went on to accuse Suu Kyi and her government of contributing to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”.
The HRC recommended the UN Security Council refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Human Rights Council also set up a body to prepare evidence for trials.
Rather than pledge to cooperate with the investigation, however, Suu Kyi has consistently defended the military action against the Rohingya and repeatedly pointed to a lack of understanding of the complexities of the situation.
Her only concession to the increasing international condemnation of her government has been this muted statement:
There are, of course, ways in which, with hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better.
Limitations on Suu Kyi’s power
The military remains a very powerful force in Myanmar. It has the power to appoint its own personnel to a quarter of the seats in parliament and oversees the three powerful ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs.
The government has no power to hold the military accountable for actions against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is therefore in a very weak position.
She has nonetheless gone out of her way to not just defend the military, but praise it. In Singapore last month, she made headlines when she declared that the three generals in her cabinet were “rather sweet”.
Suu Kyi has stressed that her government’s aim of removing the military from politics would eventually be achieved through negotiation, keeping in mind the need for national reconciliation. However, her dream of constitutional reform depends entirely on military approval.
This would appear to inhibit any ability for her to censure the military. She also has no means to compel the military to cooperate with international investigators.
A path to redemption
Suu Kyi still has considerable moral authority within Myanmar, and the military is still widely unpopular. Thus, despite the severe limitations on her power, she does have other options to lead effectively on issues like human rights, the Rohingya and press freedom.
Suu Kyi and her government should start by recommitting themselves to a belief in universal human rights. She should also express empathy with the victims of the atrocities in Rakhine state, which may begin to shift popular opinion against the actions of the military and engender more public sympathy for the Rohingya.
Further, Suu Kyi needs to pledge full cooperation with the ICC investigation into the serious allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and call for a genuinely independent domestic inquiry to pave the way towards true reconciliation.
Suu Kyi may not be able to compel military cooperation with the ICC investigation, or even unfettered access to the country for investigators. But drawing on her moral authority could go a long way to help. She could pave the way for visas and travel approval, for instance, both of which were denied to investigators by her government.
Finally, the government must develop robust, urgent repatriation plans for the Rohingya – in cooperation with Bangladesh and the UN – that guarantee their security, human rights, a pathway to full citizenship and an end to segregation in Rakhine. They need a plan for inclusive development policies in the state, and to restore both media freedoms and humanitarian access to the region.
The opportunity for such moral leadership is quickly evaporating.
Suu Kyi and her government were elected by a landslide in 2015, winning about 80% of seats up for election. Polling released last week showed that only about half those surveyed believe the rights of people have improved in the 2½ years that she has been in power and less than half the population feel there has been any political or economic improvement.
With her support eroding both home and abroad, Suu Kyi appears to have a limited window to adequately address the Rohingya crisis and regain her moral authority. Otherwise, Myanmar risks slipping back into isolation and again becoming a pariah state.
Released almost exactly a year after the start of devastating violence that drove 671,500 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh within a matter of months, the report found conclusive evidence that Myanmar’s armed forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Using the strongest language to date, the report calls for the Myanmar commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five generals to be prosecuted.
What was the UN investigating?
The UN Human Rights Council formed a Rohingya investigating commission in March 2017, five months before the start of the violence that led to the mass flight of Rohingya refugees. The initial reason for the commission was a five-month military “area clearance operations” in Rohingya communities from October 2016 to February 2017, which resulted in widespread allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes.
The commission was set up to investigate alleged human rights violations by military, “with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” The August 2017 violence occurred after the commission had already begun, but obviously gave it more to investigate.
The “area clearance operations” were triggered by attacks against security forces on October 9, 2016, by a new militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). What really spurred the military into action was that the same day as the attacks, the organisation uploaded a series of 11 videos calling for international funding and fighters to join their jihad to liberate northern Rakhine State for the Rohingya – links were quickly found between the leader and the Taliban.
Apparently fearing a situation similar to the ISIS-linked Marawi crisis in the Philippines, the Myanmar army launched massive operations. But this military action failed to root out ARSA, and they responded with a second, much larger attack on August 25, 2017.
The Myanmar government quickly labelled the coordinated attacks by ARSA on over 30 security posts on a single night as “terrorism”. In response, the military quickly launched even more brutal counter-terrorist operations.
Obviously, any government must respond to violence perpetrated against its security forces. But the UN commission has been investigating alleged human rights abuses by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya people as a whole, as they tried to contain the armed threat.
What is the state of the Rohingya crisis?
The onset of brutal military action in their communities led to mass panic by Rohingya communities. Over half the Rohingya in Myanmar were so terrified they abandoned everything and fled to Bangladesh. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) quickly estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya died in the military violence in the first month alone. Total Rohingya deaths were perhaps over 13,000 people.
By March 2018, the UNHCR counted 671,500 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017. Counting those who had fled earlier violence, the UNHCR was looking after 836,210 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh.
Given some remain outside the camps, the Bangladeshi authorities claim 1,092,136 Rohingya refugees are now sheltering in their country. Only about 500,000-600,000 Rohingya Muslims now remain in Myanmar, and their situation is very vulnerable.
With allegations of Rohingya links to terrorism, some elements are trying to isolate these Rohingya villages and drive them out. On the other hand, there are many others locals rebuilding relations with local Rohingya.
What did the report find?
The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released this week found conclusive evidence that the army and security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with “genocidal intent”. It therefore recommended that the UN Security Council should refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. The report also suggested that ARSA might be guilty of war crimes too, and should be held to account.
The report said that Nobel Peace Prize-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her government “contributed” to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”. This is a serious critique, and the international community must continue to demand she and her government change policy direction on the Rohingya.
The report authors strongly criticised Suu Kyi in particular, for not using her moral or political authority to stem the hate speech or apparently attempt to limit the military response. However, the passive role described in this report does not leave her open to international prosecution.
How can the crisis be brought to an end?
With serious mass atrocity crimes now documented, it is now urgent that the power of the army be reined in. The Myanmar army must be brought under civilian, parliamentary oversight, and the key perpetrators be at very least removed from position. The military have clearly demonstrated that they need formal oversight, and that their current senior leadership are unfit for command.
Myanmar has long demonstrated its ability to be belligerent to the international community, and that it is prepared to isolate itself in the face of international criticism. If this occurs now, 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and up to 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain in peril.
The perpetrators of mass crimes must be removed. But we must be careful that dogged pursuit of individuals for prosecution does not so undermine any hope of cooperation by the military and government, and thus further jeopardise the future and wellbeing of the Rohingya themselves.
The repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar is urgent, before all chance of them returning to their own land is removed. But repatriation plans to date don’t sufficiently guarantee their security and human rights guarantees. The international community needs to push for this, and engage more strongly than ever with the Myanmar authorities in achieving this outcome.
Likewise, the international community must commit resources now to ensure the security and future of the 600,000 or so Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. Much work must be done on strengthening social cohesion, and facilitating the sort of social change that would prepare the local population for accepting all the refugees back too. Now is not the time for broad sanctions and isolation, but engagement for the sake of the Rohingya.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh from Myanmar since September 2017. The Bangladeshi government’s plan to start repatriating them beginning this Tuesday, Jan. 22, has been postponed due to concerns about their safety.
That the Bangladesh government agreed to the delay, speaks to its benevolent attitude toward the Rohingya refugees. In a recent trip to Bangladesh I witnessed this benevolence firsthand. I saw roads adorned with pro-refugee banners. Even those with opposing political views have come together to support the Rohingyas.
During the first few days of January, I visited the camps and witnessed firsthand the scale of operations necessary to manage the camps.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Bangladeshi government set up a separate civilian authority to manage the refugee crisis. All domestic and international aid agencies must gain approval from this governing body to work in the country.
In addition, since September 2017, the government has deployed thousands of soldiers from the Bangladeshi military to manage the camps. The soldiers manage camp headquarters, where supplies are stored and guard the roads leading to the camps. To understand how big this camp is, and how widespread, think of a city as large as Austin, Texas.
I found the camps to be to be efficiently run and well-organized. They have been divided into administrative zones led by Rohingya leaders chosen by the Bangladeshi military. The all-male leaders are responsible for around 200 families each. They ensure that everyone under their watch gets provisions from the distribution sites and serve as the main contact for any kind of issue, be it finding information, or resolving disputes.
The government has also set up a large surveillance system, which includes a network of internal and external intelligence officers. They control who can or cannot enter into the camps. For example, I had to register the donations I took with me before being allowed to enter the road to the camps. No cash donations are allowed. Government officials told me that they are taking these precautions to prevent drug and human trafficking and also to minimize the possibility of Rohingya recruitment by militant groups.
But there are other issues that the government cannot completely control. Among them is the spread of communicable diseases. Last November, an outbreak of diphtheria, a deadly bacterial throat infection, quickly claimed at least 31 lives. Additionally, I observed that there are concerns about environmental damage and loss of biodiversity as the government cleared forest reserve land to build the camps.
Furthermore, Bangladesh has been a part of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations since 1988. This experience has allowed its military to understand how to manage a crisis where vulnerable populations are affected. Among other things, I observed how the military created “safe spaces” for women, children and the elderly in the camps.
In addition to peacekeeping experience, as the soldiers explained, it is a mix of military discipline and Bangladeshi culture of hospitality that has enabled their success.
It helps, of course, that the Rohingya are devoutly Muslim and share a religious identity with Bangladeshis, though not language or ethnicity. These similarities might make empathy and compassion more possible, but soldiers and aid workers point to something else that motivates them to care for the Rohingya: Bangladesh’s own history. They point to the parallels between the Rohingya crisis and the violence during 1971 liberation war, when East Pakistan won independence from Pakistan and became Bangladesh.
One aid worker, in particular, mentioned that she heard reports of Burmese military camps in which Rohingya women were forced to visit soldiers at night. She recalled how sexual violence was rampant during the liberation war as well. She told me that she felt a particular affinity for helping the Rohingya for this reason.
What will happen in the future?
The question is, will this treatment last?
Rohingya refugees I spoke to do not want to go back to Myanmar. Several women described to me the violence they had been through. One woman showed me how she had been shot in the neck and another pointed to the extensive burns on her face.
In the camps, they have food, shelter, schools, sanitation, and most importantly, peace. They are receiving goods and amenities that they have not seen before. This was also confirmed by aid workers, who told me that the refugees have come from such deprivation that, at times, they have to be told not to eat the soap that is given to them. Many have never seen daily toiletry items such as soap, toothpaste and moisturizers.
But the government of Bangladesh is also apprehensive about integrating the refugees too well into Bangladeshi society. I observed, for example, that the Rohingya children are prohibited from learning the local Bangla language in camp schools and are only taught Burmese and English. Any integration into Bangladeshi society would give fodder to the Burmese government’s claim that the Rohingya are Bangladeshi immigrants to Myanmar.
The plan to repatriate the refugees has been put on hold because of continued violence in Myanmar and an anti-Rohingya sentiment. With repatriation delayed, Bangladesh will need more international help. This is not a crisis it can manage alone.
If there’s anything positive about the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, it’s that the residents – despite their appalling recent experiences and obvious deprivation – are at least safe here from Myanmar’s military.
I’ve been visiting Rohingya refugee camps close to the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, and the scale of the forced migration is truly horrifying. Land unoccupied in late August is now a cramped shanty city of bamboo, tarpaulin and mud that seems to go on forever.
Interviews in the camps paint a desperately sad picture. The details of these interviews are invariably confronting and often distressing, and explain why so many Rohingya fled Myanmar so quickly.
A farmer becomes understandably emotional when he tells me:
I lost my two sons, and two daughters. At midnight the military come in my house and burnt the house, but first they raped my two daughters and they shot my two daughters in front of me.
I have no words to express how it was for me to suffer to look at my daughters being raped and killed in front of me. My two sons were also killed by the government. I was not able to get the dead bodies of my daughters, it is a great sorrow for me.
Background to the refugee crisis
The military’s ongoing “clearance operation” began in late August with the supposed aim of ridding Myanmar of a recently emerged militant group. But this campaign’s real intent is now widely regarded as being to force the ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority, from their homes, away from their land, and out of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has used tactics that are brutal, indiscriminate, and yet sadly familiar to the Rohingya and other groups in Myanmar such as the ethnic Kachin and Karen.
Witnesses described to me how, when the Tatmadaw arrived at their village, the soldiers fired weapons and killed people inside wooden homes, arrested young men, raped women, told residents to leave, and then burned homes to prevent the residents’ return.
Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the Rohingya have mostly lived, remains locked down by the Tatmadaw, preventing media and humanitarian access. But NGO Human Rights Watch has released satellite images showing almost 300 Rohingya villages razed.
In some instances, these burnt Muslim villages stand adjacent to fully intact Buddhist communities. Disturbingly, at the camps in Bangladesh, UN doctors have treated dozens of Rohingya women for injuries consistent with violent sexual assaults.
In 2015, the International State Crime Initiative published a detailed research report that concluded the Rohingya were victims of a process of genocide, and predicted the ferocity and intent of the current Tatmadaw campaign.
Stories from the ground
The result of this crackdown has been one of the fastest and largest forced migrations in the region since the second world war. Within just eight weeks, and during the monsoon season, a staggering 600,000 people have fled Myanmar on foot.
These new arrivals are not the only Rohingya here. They are joining hundreds of thousands already forced to live in Bangladeshi camps who are victims of previous intensive Myanmar military persecutions. This highlights the decades-long discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
I conducted interviews with male residents of unregistered camps and at Kutupalong Camp. One elderly man who has recently arrived in Kutupalong Camp explained that ten men were arrested in his village. Their families, he said, had not heard from them since. He said the military told his village’s residents to leave:
The military led us to prayer and some kind of religious work, and they openly told us to go to Bangladesh – otherwise you will be killed.
A Rohingya man, dressed in a traditional Burmese Longyi skirt, said his village was “friendly” and “quiet”:
We were living there, very friendly. At midnight we heard the sound of bullets, we went outside to see what is happening. I think they behaved like this – arresting, torturing, shooting, hitting – because we are Rohingya and Muslim. We’re not at fault, we are really innocent.
When asked if anyone in his village was hurt, he said:
No-one in my family was killed, but some near my home were killed.
A 60-year-old man from Buthidaung explained his village was burnt, showing me a large bandaged leg wound he said was from a bullet injury:
Among my four sons, one was killed by the military in front of me, and one arrested, and one of my daughters – my adult daughter – was arrested but I don’t know where she is.
Explaining how he travelled to Bangladesh, a man in his 20s said:
When our village was burned we moved to another village, and then they came to burn that village, and we moved another village, and when they came to burn that village and we moved, and that’s how we came here at last. They used the helicopter to burn the villages.
I am grateful to camp residents for their courage in sharing still-raw experiences with me in the hope the international community would hear them and help them.
Myanmar has denied the Rohingya their human rights, so it’s up to the international community to provide the Rohingya with the protections they are entitled to as human beings. They deserve no less.
A Rohingya man in his 20s asked:
I humbly request to you that, we want to be human, live as a human, but Myanmar treats us as animals. We want to go back there as humans.
He should not need to ask.
Yahiya Khan contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: The syntax and grammar has been edited in some of the quotes to ensure they are comprehensible for readers.
Religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play. Especially given that Myanmar is home to 135 official recognised ethnic groups (the Rohingya were removed from this list in 1982).
In analysing the recent violence, much of the western media has focused on the role of the military and the figure of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a Nobel Peace prize laureate has been widely questioned since the latest evidence of atrocities emerged.
She continues to avoid condemning the systematic violence against the Rohingya. At least the media gaze has finally shifted somewhat towards their plight.
But there remain issues that are not being explored. It is also critical to look beyond religious and ethnic differences towards other root causes of persecution, vulnerability and displacement.
We must consider vested political and economic interests as contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar, not just of the Rohingya people but of other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the Mon.
Land has often been acquired for “development” projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure and tourism. For example, in Kachin state the military confiscated more than 500 acres of villagers’ land to support extensive gold mining.
Development has forcibly displaced thousands of people – both internally and across borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand – or compelled them to set out by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.
These moves were severely criticised for reinforcing the ability of large corporations to profit from land grabs. For instance, agribusiness multinationals such as POSCO Daewoo have eagerly entered the market, contracted by the government.
A regional prize
Myanmar is positioned between countries that have long eyed its resources, such as China and India. Since the 1990s, Chinese companies have exploited timber, rivers and minerals in Shan State in the North.
This led to violent armed conflicts between the military regime and armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its ethnic allies in eastern Kachin State and northern Shan State.
In Rakhine State, Chinese and Indian interests are part of broader China-India relations. These interests revolve principally around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. Such projects claim to guarantee employment, transit fees and oil and gas revenues for the whole of Myanmar.
Among numerous development projects, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, began operations in September 2013. The wider efforts to take Myanmar oil and gas from the Shwe gas field to Guangzhou, China, are well documented.
A parallel pipeline is also expected to send Middle East oil from the Kyaukphyu port to China. However, the neutral Advisory Commission on Rakhine State has urged the Myanmar government to carry out a comprehensive impact assessment.
In fact, the Commission recognises that pipelines put local communities at risk. There is significant local tension related to land seizures, insufficient compensation for damages, environmental degradation, and an influx of foreign workers rather than increased local employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Sittwe deep-sea port was financed and constructed by India as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project. The aim is to connect the northeast Mizoram state in India with the Bay of Bengal.
Coastal areas of Rakhine State are clearly of strategic importance to both India and China. The government of Myanmar therefore has vested interests in clearing land to prepare for further development and to boost its already rapid economic growth.
All of this takes place within the wider context of geopolitical maneuvering. The role of Bangladesh in fuelling ethnic tensions is also hotly contested. In such power struggles, the human cost is terribly high.
Compounding the vulnerability of minorities
In Myanmar, the groups that fall victim to land grabbing have often started in an extremely vulnerable state and are left even worse off. The treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is the highest profile example of broader expulsion that is inflicted on minorities.
When a group is marginalised and oppressed it is difficult to reduce their vulnerability and protect their rights, including their property. In the case of the Rohingya, their ability to protect their homes was decimated through the revocation of their Burmese citizenship.
With no country willing to take responsibility for them, they are either forced or encouraged to continuously cross borders. The techniques used to encourage this movement have trapped the Rohingya in a vulnerable state.
The tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries.
The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But we cannot ignore the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement that often go undetected.
A new phase of massive violent ethnic cleansing is under way in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. An estimated 160,000 men, women and children of the Muslim Rohingya community have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing indiscriminate attacks by the armed forces.
The military crackdown was in response to a co-ordinated assault against police posts by a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The militants killed 12 security personnel. In the armed forces’ “clearance operations” that followed, 400 people have died so far.
This is the latest wave of violence involving the local Buddhist Rakhine ethnic community and the Rohingya since 2012. Around 1,000 have died over this period, amid reports of mass rape and the deliberate razing of villages by the military.
About 250,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh in the past five years. Others have embarked on an often deadly journey to find asylum, while many more remain in squalid detention camps within Myanmar, to which aid workers or outside observers are regularly denied access. Satellite images suggest that over 100km of land has been burned in the recent attacks.
Survivors have recounted numerous atrocities such as beheadings and the slaughter of children. These are often acts of intimidation intended to ensure communities do not return. It seems likely that another round of violent, intentional and perhaps permanent expulsion has occurred.
History of the conflict
The causes of the turmoil are as complex as they are old. Rakhine State is the poorest region in Myanmar. Both the Muslim Rohingya and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine community have suffered longstanding injustices at the hands of the military regime and each other.
Many Rakhine believe they lost large tracts of traditional land when the British encouraged Bengali labourers to move into Burma after assuming control in 1824. Large-scale violence between the two communities has occurred several times since the second world war.
Many Rakhine died when the Rohingya fought for Muslim-majority parts of northern Rakhine State to be integrated into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Subsequent military campaigns drove many Rohingya into Bangladesh: 250,000 in 1978 and a further 250,000 in 1991 and 1992, although many were forcibly repatriated to Rakhine.
Many Rakhine now seemingly support the expulsion of the group from the state, with some participating in recent military-led attacks. The ARSA attacks have dramatically worsened the already perilous position of the 1 million Rohingya left in Rakhine.
The broader political context
Also driving the contemporary violence are two broader phenomena. The first is political liberalisation since 2005; the second is a national discourse that denies the Rohingya rights as citizens of Myanmar.
A 1982 citizenship law stripped the Rohingya of the status of one of Myanmar’s “national races”, deeming them to have entered the country after 1823. This means they have no citizenship, voting rights or the right to travel. Any property they own remains vulnerable to expropriation.
The historical record suggests that these claims of the Rohingyas’ recent arrival in Myanmar are questionable. Many are descended from Bengali labourers who arrived after 1823, but this means they have resided in the state for almost two centuries.
And 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 (Rakhine), and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. Many Muslims were living in Rakhine under the Kingdom of Mrauk-U between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Has the hatred become genocide?
Buddhist nationalists, in particular the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) led by the monk Ashin Wirathu, are promulgating much of the hatred of the Rohingya. Despite Muslims constituting only 4% of Myanmar’s population, he and other nationalists have portrayed the Rohingya as a potentially devastating cultural and physical threat to Buddhists in Myanmar.
Wirathu’s extremism has brought him a large following and, with it, political influence. He successfully pushed a series of “race and religion” laws through parliament, including a population control bill he described as necessary to “stop the Bengalis”.
Many observers now say that recent events in Rakhine constitute genocide. The bar to this most heinous of crimes is set very high, reserved for events intended to eliminate a group in whole or in part.
The difficulty of proving intent has left many large-scale killings uncategorised as genocide. But it seems increasingly apparent that the military’s campaign against the Rohingya meets this restrictive criterion. The repeated 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 commonly used in genocides around the world, the Myanmar army chief said recently that the Bengali problem was a longstanding one which has become an unfinished job.
How can and should the international community intervene?
It is difficult to see how these waves of killings and forced expulsions will cease without international involvement. While her supporters will say she can do little in the face of ongoing military power, government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to inflame rather than calm the situation. Her office has referred publicly to “Bengali terrorists”, claimed aid agencies are assisting Rohingya militants, stated Muslims are burning their own houses, and denied any wrongdoing by the military.
Regional and international states should intensify their pressure on the Myanmar government and the military to halt the violence and protect all civilians, whether citizens or not. ASEAN states in particular should pressure Myanmar to bring the crisis to an end.
Once this has been achieved, several measures might help reduce the frequency and intensity of the violence. The first and most important step is to grant the Rohingya naturalised citizenship and the rights that go with it. The group would then continue to live in the state, be allowed to vote and hold politicians to account.
To deflect the concerns of Rakhine, the Rohingya will need to rescind their claim to indigenous status and their ties to a traditional homeland in Rakhine. The implementation of certain electoral mechanisms – such as requirements for parties to win a portion of the votes from each community and for pairs of running mates to include a member from each group – will also slowly depoliticise ethnicity in the state.
The provision of aid, which must be rapid and substantial, must be carefully balanced so as not to cause further anger. It should be delivered to both displaced and non-displaced communities from both Rakhine and Rohingya.
None of these measures will be easy. All will face substantial resistance. But the alternative is ongoing mass killing and displacement, and further radicalisation.
Chris Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations