By Blake Ingram, Contributing Writer
Unfortunately, today the term “refugee crisis” has become an all too common phrase. Whether from the news, social media or a personal experience, it is safe to assume most Americans are familiar with that term. The countries most associated with refugees are probably Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If asked to identify a place or a people synonymous with refugee crisis, it is doubtful very many people would answer with Myanmar or the Rohingya. However, a major crisis is currently developing in this country and with this group of people.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a predominantly Buddhist country in Southeast Asia bordering India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. For decades, it was under the control of a military dictatorship and only recently returned to a civilian government in 2011. Although now officially a democratic nation, the military still holds considerable influence within the government.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group of approximately one million people who live in Myanmar, concentrated in the northern parts of the state of Rakhine near the border with Bangladesh. Despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship and any associated rights. Because of this, the Rohingya are legally not citizens of any nation, making them one of the largest stateless populations in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
Decades of government oppression and propaganda have bred animosity between the minority Muslim Rohingya and the majority Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine state. Tensions and relatively low-level conflict are not new to this region of Myanmar. Over the years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country as refugees because of targeted ethnic and religious violence. It would appear that the latest round of violence, which began in August, is just another wave in a cycle that has ebbed and flowed for years. However, this time the situation is different.
In October 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police stations throughout Rakhine state in protest to the persecution of the Rohingya. This was the first instance of an organized armed Rohingya reaction against the government. Immediately labeling the group a terrorist organization, the military began a brutal crackdown on Rohingya inhabited areas. Sporadic skirmishes between the military and ARSA continued over the following months, but it was not until Aug. 25, 2017, that the conflict began to spiral completely out of control.
Early that morning, ARSA carried out attacks on more than 20 police stations that left at least 71 people dead. Just a day before, former U.N. Chief Kofi Annan presented the president of Myanmar a report, warning of the inevitable radicalization of the Rohingya if ethnic tensions were not addressed. On the pretext of ridding their nation of terrorists, the military began a systematic campaign of what the U.N. and Amnesty International have termed “ethnic cleansing.”
The BBC reports that in the three weeks between Aug. 25 and Sept. 15, 389,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Independent and foreign journalism is heavily restricted in Myanmar, so oftentimes the only reports of tragedy within the country come solely from the people who have managed to escape. These refugees tell stories of soldiers and Buddhists appearing in their villages without warning, killing people indiscriminately and raping women. The government denies these accusations, stating the military is simply targeting terrorist cells. Reports from refugees indicate entire Rohingya villages are being burned to the ground to prevent their return. The government itself has confirmed that 30 percent of Rohingya villages are no longer inhabited, but claim the Rohingya set fire to their own villages in order to frame the government.
It is unclear how many lives have been lost. Eyewitness accounts suggest hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been murdered, but levels of uncertainty remain high at this time. Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Price for her lifelong struggle to transform Myanmar into a democracy and the de-facto (though not official) head of government, has been criticized by the international community for her failure to condemn and act against the atrocities occurring in her country. Suu Kyi has very little power to stop what is happening to the Rohingya, however, as the military is entirely independent of the government. This, coupled with the fact that many within the government are Buddhist nationalists and openly hostile to minorities, ensures that the Rohingya will receive little, if any, sympathy from those they have lived among for generations.