Rohingya is the most persecuted ethnic group in the 21st century. It’s massacre barely receives media attention while thousands are being exiled from their homes, imprisoned, killed by either Myanmar’s right wing Buddhist mob and even the police. In 1974, the government of Myanmar denied Rohingya people citizenship, restricting them access to basic human rights. Their persecution which began gaining attention after Myanmar’s turn from military junta towards democracy has put into question the current government’s credibility in protecting ethnic minorities. Even the Noble price winner and the leader of the current largest party in Myanmar, Aung Saan Suu Kyi has been deemed not doing enough to prevent further persecution and even regarded as silence by some.
The plight of the Rohingya have been heard less than the refugee crisis in the middle east, even though smaller in number, the scale of the displaced people compared to the whole Rohingya population has been large. Even with the scale of persecution this can be regarded as an ethnic cleansing. According to the UN Office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), there were over 250,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar, 150,000 of which are Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State . Most of the Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In Bangladesh alone, there are up to a million Rohingya refuges In 2015 Rohingya crisis, thousands flee by boat through the help of smuggles, with hundreds died on the way. However, their condition in neighbouring country can still be said as inhumane. The refusal of both Myanmar and Bangladesh to recognise their citizenship also further complicates the issue as around a million Rohingya ended up being stateless.
Brief History of Rohingya Muslim Persecution
Rohingya refers to an ethnic group following Islam who lives in Arakan state (now called Rakhine), in north-western Burma, alongside with Buddhists and Muslims of other ethnic groups for hundreds of years. Although not all Muslims in Arakan (which numbers around 800,000) identify themselves as Rohingya, most do so. During the British colonial rule of India and Burma (Burma is the largest ethnic group in Myanmar, and was the name of the region and the country until 1989), tensions between Muslims and Buddhists began to arise due to the mass immigration from India encouraged by the British. When Japan occupied Burma, they armed the Buddhist and the British force used the Muslim forces. After the Burmese independence peace was temporarily achieved until the General Ne Win took control in 1962 after a military coup. Under his government, the Rohingya were regarded as illegal immigrants and stripped them from nationality and their official minority status. The discrimination that the Rohingya people faced serves as a background for the Mujahid separatists and Rohingya Islamist movements, which in turn further aggravating their plight (Oishi, 2016).
The year 1978 marks the first exodus of Rohingya people after they were stripped of citizenship in 1974. Around 200,000 to 250,000 fled to Bangladesh to avoid torture and atrocities carried out by the Burmese authority. Under the pressure from United Nations, UNHCR, Saudi Arabian and Indian government, and the World Muslim League, the Burmese and Bangladeshi government agreed on the repatriation of the 200,000 refugees to Arakan state. Nevertheless the Burmese government still failed to recognise their citizenship.
The second exodus occurred in 1991 to 1992 with 250,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh. After the failed democracy movement in 1988 which brought further military presence, the military backed the Buddhist community in Arakan during confrontations that led to pillage, rape, and murder against the Muslim community. The Bangladeshi government was half-hearted in helping the refugees, only to encourage them to return to Myanmar. The UNHCR made an agreement to the Burmese government to ensure their safety, yet the Rohingya people already distrusted the Myanmar government and led to many of them refused to return. Eventually under the assistance and monitoring of UNHCR and other NGOs, 200,000 people returned by 1996. Same as the previous return, they were only regarded as foreigners who are temporarily allowed to stay. Their movement was restricted and the government sponsored the Buddhist Arakanese to settle towns previously dominated by Rohingya people (Nemoto, 2005). Furthermore, reports also say that they faced population control, marriage restriction, ban on religious activities, etc.
In 2012, an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by 3 Rohingya men triggered an unrest with mobs committing violence towards Muslims. The violence spread throughout the whole Rakhine state with both group fighting with each other. However, the state security forces didn’t prevent the violence to broke out but instead siding on Buddhist groups. Buddhist right-wing groups began to protest nationwide and called for the expulsion of ‘Bengalis’ from Myanmar. Most notably, the monk Ashin Wirathu, dubbed the Buddhist Bin Laden for his controversial speeches against Muslim. As the violence continued, the government responded by issuing emergency in the state and authorizing military control of the area, yet violence continued and displaced more than 100,000 people internally, forcing them to live in camps. Reports say that the government forces joined the persecution, committing rape, and arresting Rohingya people. (Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, 2015). The persecution is still ongoing with 130 Rohingya were killed and dozens of their buildings were torched in October 2016
The condition of Rohingya living in IDP camps are miserable, with food shortages, lack of sanitation, education, healthcare, etc. The military has made humanitarian aid more difficult to be distributed. Joblessness also the main feature of the refugee, unable to secure any job due to discrimination. As a result, a lot fled mostly to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. UNHCR Refugee agency estimated that 25000 people fled by boat using smugglers help, with thousands died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 alone.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence, What Happened to the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, And Where is ASEAN?
Aung San Suu Kyi is credited in bringing democracy in Myanmar, and was imprisoned several times during the military dictatorship. She was known for her non-violence approach in opposing the dictatorship. Thus, in 1990 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, she again became the figure of openness towards the world and her party quickly became the largest party in Myanmar. Despite ineligible to run for presidency due to the nationality of his late husband, Michael Aris, she was given the title ‘State Councillor of Myanmar’, a position-equal to prime minister-created to give her greater power. Yet, as she gained power in the past few years, many began to question her role in the Rohingya crisis. She spoke only a little on the matter. Even in an interview by BBC she was reportedly angered by the fact that she was interviewed by a Muslim (Popham, 2016). Her indifference, which some regarded as a support, towards the genocide has prompted the notion of revoking her Nobel prize (1). Does she really support the genocide or is it just a careful approach to appease the right-wing Buddhists?
In the post-military government, nationalist Buddhist monks gained power in politics. They were credited in encouraging Buddhist vigilante towards Muslim shops and houses, and infamous for their Islamophobic views. They regarded the Rohingya as foreigners and they utilise crimes committed by Muslims to justify their views. With 90% of the population adheres to Buddhism, Buddhist monks have great political role. By supporting the Rohingya people, Aung San Suu Kyi can risk people’s support.
In the parliament, the military still have 25% seats, as mandated by the law. The military faction is known for siding with Buddhist nationalists and use them as the support base. During the dictatorship, the military had a bad relationship with the Buddhist monasteries, with many monks detained for voicing opposition. However, when it comes to persecuting minority groups, the monastic community is at ease with the military, and thus began the utilization of monastic support base by the military. Aung San Suu Kyi may be silent in order to prevent confrontation with the military, which could bring another rebellion (Peng, 2017).
Yet, her silence is unprecedented for a Nobel peace prize winner. Her appointment of the former military jailors for implementing the rule of law proves her fondness of the military regime’s remnants (Green, 2013). Her other political judgements also raise questions, such as when she approved the construction controversial copper mine in Yangon. It’s contrary to her past speeches which usually side on the ordinary citizen, but on this case, as Kate Hodal reported in 2013, she publicly defended the government’s decision to keep the construction going on with the reason of encouraging more foreign investment.
Another blamed the incapacity of Suu Kyi’s party, NLD (National League of Democracy) to bring change in Myanmar’s government. The party has yet to criticize Suu Kyi for her failure in protecting minority rights. Ronan Lee argued that this in part because of the Burman Buddhist upbringing of the party members, which gives moral burden to Suu Kyi since they helped her in her struggle. Furthermore, the prevalence of the old members in the party is not in line with half of Myanmar’s population which are under 27, making its way of thinking conservative. Besides imprisonment by the military regime, the party also suffered the consequences of the dictatorship which is the decades -long neglect of the education system that made their members lack in political and policy development skills, as noted by Eric Randolph (Lee, 2014). Clearly the party needs to secure people’s vote since it is their first time being on power.
As her image has turned from the champion of human rights into a mere politician, international community has been in conflict on Suu Kyi’s role in the democratic Myanmar. Furthermore, there are no other figure in Myanmar that can replace her role in championing human rights and democracy (her role in this matter is still relevant in other issues).
Can ASEAN Offer a Solution?
Suu Kyi’s neglect of the Rohingya people has consequences on the international community, especially the neighbouring countries. This brings us into ASEAN, the regional bloc in which Myanmar is a member. ASEAN is a regional bloc which is known for its quiet diplomacy and principled on non-intervention, known as the ASEAN way. This has led to many regard ASEAN as not doing enough to give pressure on the Myanmar government. ASEAN is known for its orientation economy and trade. However, the Rohingya crisis can be problematic to other member states as well, thus ASEAN needs to react. Besides the humanity and refugee problem, the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar can result in fragmenting the region along the ethno-religious line, posing a threat to ASEAN unity (Syed, 2017).
ASEAN member states supported the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) commitment in the 2005 UN World Summit. R2P stipulates that: (1) every state has the responsibility to protect its own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; (2) the international community has the responsibility to help such state in performing such responsibility; and (3) the international community has the responsibility to intervene, even militarily if necessary, into a state if it fails to perform the above-mentioned responsibility (Oishi, 2016). However, R2P is hard to be implemented within ASEAN, as it has non-interference principle, state sovereignty, and non-use of force in conflict management.
Many ASEAN member states consider the Rohingya issue to be directly linked to Myanmar’s internal politics and therefore considered as too sensitive for other member states to intervene in more or less officially. While ASEAN succeeded in offering humanitarian aid during the Nargis Storm in Myanmar, they did not succeed in convincing Myanmar’s government to give humanitarian aid to the Rohingya refugees. Myanmar authorities recalcitrant attitude to international pressure is because the issue can be politicized easily.
ASEAN member states are differing in their treatment towards refugee, yet they are all in the same view that while emigration is regarded as a right, immigration is seen as a matter of national sovereignty and security. ASEAN also doesn’t have policies and frameworks in place for the protection of forced immigrants and has weak human rights system, unlike Europe. While ASEAN has pacts concerning human rights, this does not translate to national ratification, as the region itself is not taken seriously by the member states (Petcharamesree, 2015). ASEAN lacks authority to intervene national government on human rights issues (basically all issues). The lack of awareness amongst ASEAN member states that Rohingya people are part of ASEAN people also aggravated the neglect. ASEAN countries are all occupied by their own national identity.
With the end of Military dictatorship in Myanmar, human rights were expected to be more strongly uphold by the government. However, after the democratization, situation began to get worse for the Rohingya Muslims, creating a humanitarian crisis and is regarded as an modern-day obscure ethnic cleansing. The conflict between Buddhists and Muslims were utilised by the government of Myanmar to gain further support from the predominantly Buddhist population. Even Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi the Nobel prize winner failed to address the humanitarian concern of the issue, which is utterly regrettable. International community is still preoccupied by the ongoing war in the middle east while ASEAN countries are busy with their own national agenda. ASEAN should play bigger role on the issue by setting up institutions to carry out their human rights agenda into practice. However, this needs willingness of the member states to put aside their sovereignty agenda for the common goal of bringing peace to Rakhine state, and recognizing Rohingya as their citizen.
Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School. (2015). Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? (A Legal Analysis).
Green, P. (2013). Islamophobia: Burma’s racist fault-line. Race & Class Vol. 55(20), 93-98.
Lee, R. (2014). A Politician, Not an Icon: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations Vol. 25, No. 3, 321-333.
Nemoto, K. (2005). The Rohingya Issue: A Thorny Obstacle between Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh.
Oishi, M. (2016). Can ASEAN Cope with “Human Insecurity” in Southeast Asia? In Search of a New ASEAN Way. Singapore: Springer Nature.
Peng, D. (2017, February 21). Understanding Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on the Rohingya. Retrieved from Harvard Politics: http://harvardpolitics.com/world/understanding-aung-san-suu-kyis-silence-rohingya/
Petcharamesree, S. (2015). ASEAN and its approach to forced migration issues. The International Journal of Human Rights.
Popham, P. (2016, March 25). Aung San Suu Kyi: What the ‘interviewed by Muslim’ BBC Today programme comment can tell us about her views. Retrieved from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/aung-san-suu-kyi-muslim-interview-bbc-today-programme-burma-nobel-peace-prize-a6952091.html
Sky News. (2016, April 5). Suu Kyi consolidates power in parliament. Retrieved from Sky News Australia: http://www.skynews.com.au/news/world/asiapacific/2016/04/05/suu-kyi-consolidates-power-in-parliament.html
Syed, M. K. (2017, February 1). ASEAN and the Rohingya Crisis. Retrieved from Project Syndicate: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/myanmar-rohingya-asean-by-syed-munir-khasru-2017-02
About the Writer
Robert Ruddyanto is a final year student from Universitas Indonesia and Keio University, he is also an intern at Center for Strategic and International Studies, he was awarded as the Most Outstanding Delegate at National University of Singapore APEC Simulation last year, he is passionate about peace and human rights issues.