School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal


“The World’s Most Persecuted Minority:” A History of Discrimination Against the Rohingya

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.

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Mass atrocity prevention should be a priority for the next UK government

Georgiana Epure, University of Cambridge, UK

Georgiana is an International Relations MPhil candidate and Gates scholar at the University of Cambridge. She is co-editor-in-chief of the Responsibility to Protect Student Journal.

When mass atrocity crises erupt, the human, economic, social and security costs to the country and the international community are enormous. We see this in places like Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan and the subsequent refugee flows, regional and international destabilisation, and the rise of terrorism – to name just a few of the effects of humanitarian crises on Britain. In a world where traditional leaders in mass atrocity prevention, such as the US, plan to cut assistance for developing countries, put a very narrow version of the national interest first, and insulate themselves from global responsibilities, the UK’s role in protecting populations from gross human rights violations is ever more important.

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Understanding Identity in Darfur: How Western Media Has Impacted the Conflict

Casey Bush, Clark University, US

Casey studies History and Political Science, focusing on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. As Campaign Coordinator for STAND she looks forward to pursuing her passion for genocide prevention.

Since conflict erupted in Darfur in 2003, Western scholars have sought to explain the causes and consequences of what we now understand as one of the 21st century’s first instances of genocide. Julie Flint, Alex De Waal and John Prendergast have spent over a decade visiting Darfur and writing about the conflict’s causes and effects. Students read these articles, eyes wide and hearts heavy, in order to grasp a sliver of an understanding as to how neighbors can kill neighbors. In response to the tragedy, the Western world took up the “Save Darfur” movement, which united people from across the United States, including influential figures from Don Cheadle to George Clooney. As more and more people became involved in the movement, however, representations of the conflict were simplified. Students were taught that the conflict was between the Arabs and non-Arab black Africans in which nomadic Arabs were genocidally targeting non-Arab Darfuris. Perhaps this was because it was easier to explain the conflict in such a way or maybe because it was far too complex to understand fully. In fact, the conflict in Darfur is more nuanced than a simple black versus non-black war. However, after searching through article after article in the New York Times and the Washington Post, it has become clear that the Western media has a different understanding of ethnicity, blackness, and identity than that which is held in Sudan. Thus, in this piece I will address the faulty Western understanding of the Darfur conflict in terms of identity and attempt to understand how this understanding affects policy-making. To do this, I will outline a brief history of the conflict, analyse various news articles to determine how Western media understands the conflict, explain the ways that media has an effect on US policy, and then offer a final analysis and recommendations for students who aspire to be informed activists.

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Are armed drones effective for counterterrorism? Are they legal?

Mathias Gjesdal Hammer, University of Cambridge, UK

Mathias is a first year student studying Human, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University.

In a political situation in which the idea of committing yet more US troops to the Middle East is increasingly toxic, unmanned aerial vehicles have become the weapon of choice. Government officials often present drones as an ideal weapon and claim that drones can eliminate enemy militants much more efficiently than traditional weapons and without putting American lives at risk. While drones certainly do have a limited use in the battle against terrorism, the lack of transparency and the very nature of drone strikes risk angering large numbers of the civilian population in areas of intensive drone strikes. As such, the effectiveness and relative precision of drone strikes as a tactic must be carefully considered and weighed against other concerns within a larger strategy of counterterrorism. Additionally, US drone strikes are often justified on legally dubious grounds and many types of drones strikes clearly seem to violate international law. In a world in which weaponized drones are becoming increasingly common, it seems crucial for any US counterterrorism strategy to include clear accountability for drone strikes and to limit them to when all other options have truly been exhausted.

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The Causes of Genocide

Katelyn Swinsburg, The University of Queensland, Australia

Katelyn is a second year student at the University of Queensland studying towards a BA with an extended major in Peace and Conflict Studies and a minor in Human Rights and International Relations. She has previously volunteered as an English teacher in rural China and Cambodia is a strong advocate for human rights and the dignity of all peoples.

My research into the causes of genocide has led me to understand that there is no single explanation for what causes genocide. Rather, there are multitudes of reasons that are instrumental to the destruction of ethnic and minority groups. However, I have identified three major contributing factors to post-twentieth century genocide: modernisation and the ideology of social purification; psychological dehumanisation of unwanted populations; and extreme nationalism towards ‘outsiders’ (Gellately, 2003; Vaes et al., 2012). Various compositions of these three factors are strongly present within 20th century genocide case studies in Cambodia, the Nazi Holocaust, Rwanda, the Ottoman Empire and colonial Australia. Throughout this post, I will first show how modernity and the ideology of purification are dominant precursors to genocidal tendencies. First applied during the Age of Enlightenment between 1650 to the late 1700’s, the categorisation of populations and identification of ‘outside groups’ is a common theme found throughout many historical cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing. This then leads into discussion of how dehumanisation is justified and inflicted by superior populations, because of a psychological ‘out-group’ alienation of specific populations. And finally I will show how this psychological out-casting develops a strong nationalism, which contributes to genocidal tendencies. Common arguments explore how nationalism is not intrinsically violent, however, I believe nationalism to be an instrumental tactic used by power-seeking bureaucrats to isolate unwanted minority groups (Visvanathan, 2006, p.536).

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