One of the global issues that marked the twenty-first century thus far is the refugee crisis. Some estimates place the number of globally displaced people at close to sixty million. Refugees are men, women, and children compelled to move across political borders because of war, famine, natural disaster, ethnic cleansing, genocide, religious persecution, or the prospect of imprisonment or death at the hands of despotic regimes.
Bangladesh and Myanmar has finalised the physical arrangement of the repatriation of the persecuted Rohingya, who had to cross into Cox’s Bazar to escape from the unprecedented atrocities orchestrated by the Myanmar security forces, local Buddhist mobs and people belonging to other ethnic groups in Rakhine since October, 2016. The arrangement was finalised yesterday morning after 13 hours of constant discussions from Monday by the Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group (JWG) in Naypyitaw, said meeting sources. Despite the finalisation of the physical arrangement, government officials and diplomats are still doubtful about the success of the repatriation (The Independent, January 17, 2018).
The total number of Rohingyas, who had to cross into Cox’s Bazar to escape from the atrocities committed by the Myanmar security forces, local Buddhist mobs and people from other groups in Rakhine, now stands at 6.88 lakh since August 25, last year. “688,000 new arrivals are reported as of 21 January, according to an IOM (International Organisation for Migration) needs and population monitoring (NPM) baseline survey,” says the situation update forwarded by the inter sector coordination group (ISCG) yesterday. The increase in the number is not a result of a significant influx, but due to strengthened assessments, it states. With these 6.88 lakh arrivals since August 25, last year, the total number of Rohingyas living in the country now stands at a little over 9 lakh. But, according to the government estimate, the figure is well above 10 lakhs (The Independent, January 23, 2018).
The causes of the turmoil are as complex as they are old. Rakhine State is the poorest region in Myanmar. Both the Muslim Rohingya and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine community have suffered longstanding injustices at the hands of the military regime and each other.
Many Rakhine believe they lost large tracts of traditional land when the British encouraged Bengali labourers to move into Burma after assuming control in 1824. Large-scale violence between the two communities has occurred several times since the Second World War.
Many Rakhine died when the Rohingya fought for Muslim-majority parts of northern Rakhine State to be integrated into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Subsequent military campaigns drove many Rohingya into Bangladesh: 250,000 in 1978 and a further 250,000 in 1991 and 1992, although many were forcibly repatriated to Rakhine.
Many Rakhine now seemingly support the expulsion of the group from the state, with some participating in recent military-led attacks. The ARSA attacks have dramatically worsened the already perilous position of the 1 million Rohingya left in Rakhine.
Also driving the contemporary violence are two broader phenomena. The first is political liberalisation since 2005; the second is a national discourse that denies the Rohingya rights as citizens of Myanmar.
A 1982 citizen law stripped the Rohingya of the status of one of Myanmar’s “national races”, deeming them to have entered the country after 1823. This means they have no citizenship, voting rights or the right to travel. Any property they own remains vulnerable to expropriation.
Now that a partial democracy has come to Myanmar, both national and Rakhine-based political parties (such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party) deride the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, “interlopers” and the perpetrators of brutal crimes. This is a way of radicalising and thereby capturing the Buddhist vote.
The historical record suggests that these claims of the Rohingyas’ recent arrival in Myanmar are questionable. Many are descended from Bengali labourers who arrived after 1823, but this means they have resided in the state for almost two centuries.
And many Rohingya also lived in Rakhine before 1823. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a visiting representative of the East India Trading Company, reported meeting “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan (Rakhine), and who call them Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. Many Muslims were living in Rakhine under the Kingdom of Mrauk-U between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Has the hatred become genocide? Buddhist nationalists, in particular the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) led by the monk Ashin Wirathu, are promulgating much of the hatred of the Rohingya.
Despite Muslims constituting only 4 per cent of Myanmar’s population, he and other nationalists have portrayed the Rohingya as a potentially devastating cultural and physical threat to Buddhists in Myanmar.
Wirathu’s extremism has brought him a large following and, with it, political influence. He successfully pushed a series of “race and religion” laws through parliament, including a population control bill he described as necessary to “stop the Bengalis”.
Many observers now say that recent events in Rakhine constitute genocide. The bar to this most heinous of crimes is set very high, reserved for events intended to eliminate a group in whole or in part.
The difficulty of proving intent has left many large-scale killings uncategorised as genocide. But it seems increasingly apparent that the military’s campaign against the Rohingya meets this restrictive criterion.
The repeated mass violence, the execution of civilians, destruction of villages, and atrocities designed to engender terror and affect permanent exodus, combined with the government’s ongoing denial of citizenship and other rights, all point to an intention to eliminate the Rohingya as a distinct group within Myanmar.
Using a phrase commonly used in genocides around the world, the Myanmar army chief said recently that the Bengali problem was a longstanding one which has become an unfinished job.
Role of the international community: It is difficult to see how these waves of killings and forced expulsions will cease without international involvement. While her supporters will say she can do little in the face of ongoing military power, government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to inflame rather than calm the situation. Her office has referred publicly to “Bengali terrorists”, claimed aid agencies are assisting Rohingya militants, stated Muslims are burning their own houses, and denied any wrongdoing by the military.
Regional and international states should intensify their pressure on the Myanmar government and the military to halt the violence and protect all civilians, whether citizens or not. ASEAN states in particular should pressure Myanmar to bring the crisis to an end.
Once this has been achieved, several measures might help reduce the frequency and intensity of the violence. The first and most important step is to grant the Rohingya naturalised citizenship and the rights that go with it. The group would then continue to live in the state, be allowed to vote and hold politicians to account.
To deflect the concerns of Rakhine, the Rohingya will need to rescind their claim to indigenous status and their ties to a traditional homeland in Rakhine. The implementation of certain electoral mechanisms – such as requirements for parties to win a portion of the votes from each community and for pairs of running mates to include a member from each group – will also slowly depoliticise ethnicity in the state.
The provision of aid which must be rapid and substantial must be carefully balanced so as not to cause further anger. It should be delivered to both displaced and non-displaced communities from both Rakhine and Rohingya. None of these measures will be easy. All will face substantial resistance. But the alternative is ongoing mass killing and displacement, and further radicalisation.
Two parallel worlds: The Myanmar of brutal religious persecutions that has led to huge worldwide concern is only getting worse. But then there is the Myanmar of evictions of smallholders to make room for massive land grabs. Since the first set of foreign investors entered the country, demand for land has become a major factor in conflict
This led to violent armed conflicts between the military regime and armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its ethnic allies in eastern Kachin State and northern Shan State.
All of this takes place within the wider context of geopolitical manoeuvring. The role of Bangladesh in fuelling ethnic tensions is also hotly contested. In such power struggles, the human cost is terribly high.
In Myanmar, the groups that fall victim to land grabbing have often started in an extremely vulnerable state and are left even worse off. The treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is the highest profile example of broader expulsion that is inflicted on minorities. When a group is marginalised and oppressed it is difficult to reduce their vulnerability and protect their rights, including their property. In the case of the Rohingya, their ability to protect their homes was decimated through the revocation of their Burmese citizenship.
Since the late 1970s around a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape persecution. Tragically, they are often marginalised in their host countries. With no country willing to take responsibility for them, they are either forced or encouraged to continuously cross borders. The techniques used to encourage this movement have trapped the Rohingya in a vulnerable state. The tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries.
The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But we cannot ignore the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement that often go undetected. Surely the complexities of the refugee crisis are many and unique to each country. And yet, there are some things that might be considered regardless.
Finally, I would like to cite from the Bible, God commands his people Israel to always remember who they were: a once-enslaved people set free by God. As such, they were to treat strangers and sojourners with kindness. What a paradox! How sobering, indeed, to think that the God who owns the entire universe was once a homeless refugee! Here is a God who can truly understand what it is to be homeless and longing for home.
The writer is a Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,
Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)