by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States and his appointment of Islamophobes to oversee national security, Muslims fear how his administration might target them. George Takei even likened their fear to his experience during World War II, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt confined German–, Italian–, and Japanese–Americans to internment camps.On the other side of the world in Myanmar, Muslims have lived in such camps for the past four years, and the country’s recent democratic reforms have done little to help them. In fact, it might have only opened the floodgates to Islamophobia and sectarianism. The Rohingya, Myanmar’s largest Muslim minority, live in Rakhine State. Though they have lived in the region for hundreds of years, the Myanmarese government and the Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnic group, disparage them as land-grabbing economic migrants from Bangladesh. Unlike the Rakhine, the Rohingya lack citizenship and the protections that come with it. The Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have been arresting, displacing, executing, raping, and torturing dozens of Rohingya since an October 9, 2016 attack on camps of the border police. The Tatmadaw blames Rohingya insurgents trained by foreigners to unseat the Buddhist government.
Who are the Rohingya?
Two competing theories try to explain how the Rohingya came to Myanmar. The first claims that they are the descendants of Arab merchants who visited the Bay of Bengal a millennium ago. The second alleges that Bengalis calling themselves “Rohingya” started migrating to the region after the British Empire conquered Burma (Myanmar’s former name) in the 1800s. The truth likely lies in the middle. “A Muslim friend of mine told me that he is Rohingya but that his family did not identify itself as Rohingya because they were afraid of discrimination,” said Khin Ohmar, a leader in the Burma Partnership and the Women’s League of Burma as well as a participant in the 8888 Uprising, “while a Rakhine friend started to tell me there are no Rohingya. My opinion is that they have been there for some generations but the mainstream was not aware of them as they had always been used as scapegoats or exploited by the successive regimes in Burma for their political games and gains.”
After Britain granted Burma independence in 1948, Rohingya secessionists wanted their own Islamic state. The Tatmadaw responded with several bloody campaigns of counterinsurgency, expelling thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. The refugees would return from Bangladesh after the Tatmadaw withdrew, adding to a growing Rohingya population. An anti-Rohingya dictator passed the 1982 Citizenship Law to ensure that Rohingya refugees would stay gone once they left. The Citizenship Law required residents to prove their ancestry. If Rohingya failed to trace their ancestry to 1823 or earlier, the military government could deny them citizenship. “This law also targets Chinese and other minorities,” said Khin Ohmar, who has had her own difficulties with the Citizenship Law as dual citizen.
Why are the Rohingya living in camps?
Though a series of discriminatory laws stripped the Rohingya of their rights, they used to enjoy some equality. Mosques populated the countryside of Rakhine State. Wealthier Rohingya obtained academic degrees and owned shops in Sittwe, the state capital. Buddhists had Muslim friends. Even if institutional racism and Islamophobia continued in the decades following the Citizenship Law, most Rohingya could lead their lives with some sense of normalcy.
The possibility of peaceful coexistence ended in June 2012, when local Buddhists rioted after the purported rape of a Rakhine girl by Rohingya criminals. Rakhine torched Rohingya homes and shops in Sittwe, chasing their Muslim neighbors into the paddy fields. There, the Tatmadaw constructed camps to house up to 140 thousand Rohingya for what it claimed to be their own security. “As a result of the riots, 88 people lost their lives of which 31 people were Rakhine and 57 were Muslim Bengalis,” read a press release from the Myanmarese government on August 21, 2012. “Reviewing the above-mentioned destruction, loss of lives and injury, it is clear that it was not a case of persecution by one race to another.” Ensuing violence killed hundreds for years after.
Rohingya living outside Sittwe in the north of Rakhine State could still exercise freedom of movement to some extent, yet they faced their own forms of persecution. The Tatmadaw started enslaving the minority for free labor and sex after the 2012 violence. Myanmarese soldiers have also relocated Rohingya prisoners from the north to the Sittwe camps because of overcrowded prisons. Thousands of Rohingya have fled the camps. According to the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, only eight hundred thousand of the world’s 3.5 million Rohingya still live in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands now reside in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Others have escaped to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Australia by boat, but few have received a warm welcome. Australia and Thailand have both plotted to deport Rohingya refugees in recent years.Are the Rohingya fighting back?
Unlike Muslim minorities in India, the Philippines, Russia, and Thailand, the Rohingya have by and large foregone insurgency in light of their brutal defeats in the twentieth century. That strategy nevertheless seemed to change last month, when Rakhine officials reported that Rohingya commandos had killed policemen patrolling the Bangladeshi–Myanmarese border. Though the Myanmarese government asserts that the perpetrators of the attack have cooperated with the Taliban, the Rohingya militants released a video declaring jihad against the Myanmarese government but denying affiliation with terrorist organizations. “The group of youths who are fighting back are just holding knives and sticks,” said Saeed al-Arakani, a Rohingya activist in Sittwe. “If they were in contact with Taliban, they would use big guns to fight back.” Even if the Pakistani Taliban has tried to inspire and recruit Rohingya over social media, any relationship between foreign terrorists and Rohingya insurgents seems tenuous at best. In the past, the Myanmarese government has used the specter of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a defunct resistance movement, to imprison Rohingya civilians. “It is totally wrong and nonsensical to say that some Rohingya are working with Taliban,” said al-Arakani.
What is Myanmar’s new government doing about the Rohingya?
Activists cheered Myanmar’s November 2015 general election, which replaced the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) with the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by world-renowned human rights defender Aung San Suu Kyi. Whereas the USDP had links to a military complicit in decades of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, the NLD offered the Rohingya hope for peace and reform. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi purged Muslims from her own party prior to the elections, and she has ignored the Rohingya crisis in the past to avoid upsetting anti-Rohingya supporters, even banning the term Rohingya.
The expansion of democracy in Myanmar has empowered the Islamophobic Buddhist monks of the 969 Movement. Some have modelled themselves after the new US president (see also: “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Monk in Myanmar: Trump ‘Similar to Me’“, Associated Press, 17.11.2016). Suu Kyi has found herself in an awkward alliance with these monks and their devotees in Rakhine State. Neither the NLD nor Suu Kyi has tried to dissuade the Tatmadaw, which more or less ruled Myanmar till last year, from continuing its operations in Rakhine State. Analysts have questioned whether politicians can control a military only gaining popularity from the persecution of the Rohingya. The NLD must resolve its own Islamophobia before confronting the Rohingya crisis.
Are the Rohingya experiencing genocide?
The Tatmadaw is attacking the Rohingya with a fierceness never seen under the USDP. Rohingya online communities are reporting near-daily murders and rapes. Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to document how the Tatmadaw razed 820 buildings in Rakhine State. The Tatmadaw has killed 130 Rohingya. Thirty thousand have fled to Bangladesh. Myanmarese soldiers have begun training an anti-Rohingya Rakhine militia, which the International Commission of Jurists decried as “a recipe for disaster“. The threat to the Rohingya, meanwhile, has evolved from ethnic cleansing to genocide. Though the US government assessed that no genocide was occurring in Myanmar in May, 2016, a study by the International State Crime Initiative concluded otherwise, determining, “[t]he Rohingya face the final stages of genocide“.
The developments in Myanmar have worrisome parallels with Rwanda and Sudan, where the international community failed to predict or prevent genocidal governments. At least Rwandan and Sudanese minorities had well-armed resistance movements to defend them, though. The Myanmarese government estimates the Rohingya militants at four hundred strong. As the Tatmadaw’s crackdown has expanded to launching airstrikes on Rohingya villages and restricting humanitarian aid to them, the Rohingya can expect little help from the international community or the insurgents professing to protect them. The Western world has refocused its diplomatic, military, and political energies on the Iraqi and Syrian Civil Wars, so helping a Muslim minority accused of anti-Buddhist terrorism would gain little traction in European and North American capitals. The Rohingya have earned their (disputed) status as the most-persecuted minority on Earth.