The Rohingya have been called — by a United Nations spokesperson, no less — “the world’s most friendless people.” That status was brutally confirmed last month as Myanmar’s security forces clashed with Rohingya insurgents. Hundreds were killed in the violence, and tens of thousands of civilians were forced from their homes and pushed across the border with Bangladesh in actions that look like ethnic cleansing. The depredations forced on the group have increased as the survivors settle into refugee camps that are already at capacity. The Rohingya tragedy demands an international response.
About 1.1 million Rohingya live in western Myanmar, in northern Rakhine province. Although the overwhelming majority of them have lived there for centuries, the Myanmar government considers them foreigners, denies them citizenship — they were stripped of their rights in 1982 — and restricts their ability to travel. It typically refers to them as “Bengalis,” suggesting that their real home is in neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya’s true offense is being Muslim in a 90 percent Buddhist country. They are an easy target for Buddhist nationalists, as well as Rahkine residents who resent the Rohingya presence and believe that they have taken land, property and economic opportunities that are rightfully theirs.
Marginalization and sporadic outbreaks of communal violence against them have prompted predictable responses and an ever more intense cycle of violence. Worse, it has sparked the emergence of insurgent groups that have taken up the cause with zeal. In recent weeks, there has been another vicious downturn, as security forces and the rebels clash.
Myanmar security forces claim that 370 fighters affiliated with the Arakan Rohingya Salvatoni Army (ARSA) were killed after a series of attacks on police outposts. Originally called Harakat Al-Yakin, or Faith Movement, ARSA was reportedly formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia and emerged last October after a series of raids on police posts. The group claims to support Rohingya rights — the same rights that all Myanmar citizens enjoy — and greater autonomy within the Myanmar state. The government counters that it is a Muslim extremist group that seeks to establish a Muslim state. The International Crisis Group challenges the government’s claim, saying there is “no evidence that ARSA’s goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda.”
That has not stopped the government from responding to the raids with a brutal crackdown that yielded dozens of deaths and forced an estimated 60,000-90,000 others from their homes. Satellite imagery shows vast areas of territory ablaze. The Myanmar government claims that the blazes were first started by the Rohingya themselves or the ARSA, an accusation that residents deny. Human rights groups note that there were similar blazes in October and November of last year, when the army was determined to flush out militants. Then, an estimated 87,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh, and a U.N. official denounced the acts as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
There are an estimated 400,000 Rohingya living in camps in Bangladesh. Those facilities are overstretched and the influx of refugees is compounding an already grim situation. Various programs had been supporting the Rohingya in Rahkine, where more than 80,000 children are thought to need treatment for malnutrition in northern part of the province and many of them reported to be in “extreme” food insecurity. Those efforts have been suspended in the wake of the violence and will have to be reorganized as target populations flee.
The attack last week came days after a commission led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan presented its report with recommendations on how to deal with the crisis. The panel was set up by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi — for many the real leader of the Myanmar government — to devise a long-term solution to the Rohingya problem. The most important suggestion was a “calibrated” response that did not resort to excessive violence and ensured that perpetrators of rights abuses are held accountable. It called for respect for the rights of the Rohingya and warned against their political and economic marginalization.
The Myanmar government denies that there is any “oppression or intimidation” against the Muslim minority and Min Aung Hlaing, head of the army, insists that “everything is within the framework of the law.” That is the problem. The law itself discriminates against the Rohingya. The silence of Suu Kyi is telling: A politician who has made her life’s work the struggle for democratic rights for all the citizens of Myanmar has been, by her inaction, complicit in abuses perpetrated against the weakest in the country. Her readiness to side with the majority is the clearest indication of the obstacles the Rohingya face in their struggle to obtain human rights and equality in their own country.