By Francesca Freeman
Francesca is the Program Assistant for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program at the Social Science Research Council in New York City. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in Anthropology and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies and a minor in Human Rights. She has previously worked on international grassroots mobilization against genocide and mass atrocities as the Student Director of STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities and as an intern for The Aegis Trust in Rwanda.
On 11 September 2017, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein announced that the Burmese Military operation against the Rohingya people is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” While violence had become more extreme in the weeks leading up to this announcement, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is not new. Often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya have faced significant discrimination by the majority Buddhist country since the country gained independence from the British in 1948.
Why are the Rohingya considered “stateless” despite living in Burma?
While the Rohingya have inhabited Burma since the 12th century, according to many historians, the Burmese government used the disarray of immigration during colonization as an excuse to label the Rohingya’s as “illegal,” and therefore refused their citizenship. This was made law in the 1948 Union Citizenship Act, which lists specific ethnicities, labeled the “indigenous races of Burma,” that were allowed to gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not included as an indigenous race. In 1974, the government required that all citizens obtain National Registration Cards but only allowed the Rohingya to obtain Foreign Registration Cards, which were not recognized by core institutions like schools and employers, leaving Rohingya little means for upward mobility. Finally, the 1982 Citizenship Law formally stripped the Rohingya of any possibility of citizenship or ability to gain equal status in society.
What is the history of forced displacement of the Rohingya?
There have been several instances of forced migration of the Rohingya people since Burmese decolonization. In 1977, the Burmese government launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), which, according to the government, worked to register citizens and screen out foreigners in advance of a national census. However, in practice, the operation allowed the government to find and target Rohingya in the Rakhine State, where they were abused, raped, and murdered. 200,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh. In 1979, with heavy influence from the United Nations, the UNHCR, the Governments of Saudi Arabia and India, and the World Muslim League, agreements were made that allowed for the repatriation of many of the refugees who fled. These Rohingya refugees returned to circumstances identical to those they had faced before leaving for Bangladesh. They were still denied citizenship, did not have land, and could not find jobs. A renewed government onslaught in 1991 led another 250,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Once again, the UNHCR worked with Bangladesh and Burma to repatriate the Rohingya to the Arakan State in Northern Burma. With a significant return rate, UNHCR considered this a prominent success in shifting priorities to repatriation rather than the use of refugee camps. The cycle of forced migration continued in 1996 with thousands of Rohingya fleeing Burma for Bangladesh, claiming they were subject to forced labor and torture in Burma. From 1995 to 2010, the government of Burma also forced the Rohingya to relocate within the country, which have led to a concentration of Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State.
When was the last upsurge of violence in Burma?
In 2011, the government of Burma transformed from a military administration to a civilian government. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto leader. While this switch led to hope for the Rohingya and across Burma, the empirical results have been continued despair and destruction of the Rohingya people. Before the 2012 Rakhine State Riots officially began, there had been several instances of small-scale violence on both sides. These instances led to a point of no return, and in June 2012, violence rapidly spread across the Rakhine State. The Rakhine people were pitted against the Rohingya, and many were killed on both sides. Buddhist nationalists protested against the Rohingya throughout the country, and the government did little to quell the violence. With a state of emergency declared, the army had newfound power to support the Rakhine in the attacks against Rohingya communities. These riots displaced more than 100,000 Rohingya and Rakhine, and the Rohingya were forced into informal camps. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, the Burmese authorities and the Rakhine “committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.” Since these clashes, tens of thousands have made desperate attempts to flee by boat, but the dangerous journey has created a significant death toll from drowning, and the Rohingya have not been welcomed in any nearby countries.
What living conditions do the Rohingya face in Burma?
Since the violent clashes in 2012, the Burmese government has confined the Rohingya into internment camps. The camps are under constant surveillance and the Rohingya are forbidden to leave without explicit permission from the government. In these camps, there is limited access to education and healthcare. Shelters are in very bad condition and there is often flooding; there is no livelihood and no opportunity. As of 2014, there were 67 such internment camps.
What has Aung San Suu Kyi, the de factor leader of Burma, done to address the plight of the Rohingya?
Once a symbol of hope and peace for Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed the Rohingya people time and time again. She remains silent in the face of ongoing atrocities and has not lifted the state’s severe restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingya-inhabited internment camps. Suu Kyi has denied allegations of violence against the Rohingya, calling them “terrorist fabrications,” and has even asked the United States not to use the term “Rohingya.”
Why has there been a recent upsurge in violence against the Rohingya and Rohingya refugees in the past few weeks?
On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army initiated an attack in Rakhine state against 24 police posts and one army base. These violent and deadly attacks lead to a vicious crackdown by the Burmese military against Rohingya civilians. The government uses the scorched earth tactic, burning shops, businesses, and homes. Over 1,000 Rohingya civilians have been murdered. Since August 25, up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in the face of such extreme violence.