Who are the Rohingya?

Today there are approximately 1.3 million Rohingya living in Burma, Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist country. They lived peacefully among the Burmese until 1982, when the constitution of the country “delisted” the Rohingya as Burmese citizens. Tensions flared into violence in June and October of 2012, when hundreds of Rohingya were slaughtered by angry mobs, instigated by government security forces.

Today over 1 million Rohingya have been herded into concentration camps, prevented from leaving the camps by security forces, or in townships in the Rakhine State, cut off from the outside world by the military. The close to 200,000 in camps outside the cities have been denied access to basic services such as medicine, forbidden to leave the camps to work, and denied the basic means of survival.

Rohingya who have tried to flee, or send their children to safety, have fallen prey to human traffickers, too many disappearing into the mass graves being discovered in Thailand and Indonesia.

The dehumanization and State-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has been spurred on by extremist Buddhist leaders, becoming what Desmond Tutu has called a “slow genocide.”

In October 2015 the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at the Queen Mary University of London concluded that the Rohingya are on the verge of “mass annihilation” and in the final stages of genocide.

Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is the leader of the country’s largest political party and Burma’s Foreign Minister, has yet to speak out against the violence, or the fate of these communities that have shared Burmese soil for more than 200 years.

A Little History

The ethnic conflict between the the Buddhist and the Muslims of Burma’s Rakhine state is not something that just flared on its own. As usual, foreign influence plays a part in its origins.

Today there are approximately 1.3 million Rohingya living in Burma, Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist country.

There were small Muslim communities in Arakan from 1430 – 1784, when the region was an independent kingdom. Some were “loot” from raids of neighboring Bengal, used as slave labor to work the farms. A small group of Bengali gentry served the court of the Buddhist Arakan kings.

The Burmese conquered Arakan in 1784. Both the Muslims and the Arakanese were absorbed into Burma.

The Burmese relocated a considerable portion of the largely Buddhist Arakan population to central Burma, leaving the fertile farmlands of the region untended.


Enter the British

The British conquered Burma in three wars between 1824 and 1862. During their rule, which continued to 1948, they encouraged mass migration from Bengal (now Bangladesh) to work the farms. With the promise of higher wages, they came in droves. A local official at the time wrote that by 1878 “Maungdaw Township has been overrun by Chittagonian immigrants. Buthidaung is not far behind and new arrivals will be found in almost every part of the district.”

Typical of the Western colonial powers in Asia and Africa, the local Arakans were provided with education. The Bengal immigrant farm laborers were not.

In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma. The British retreated, but not before arming the Rohingya, who were loyal to Britain, to create a buffer between the Japanese in Burma and British occupied India.

Arming one local group to protect your interests is just never a good idea.


Local conflict

In March 1942, approximately 5000 Muslims were killed by Rakhine nationalists. Muslims from Northern Rakhine State responded by killing around 20,000 Arakanese.

Facing growing violence from the local Arakanese, and atrocities including rape, murder and torture by the Japanese, somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 Muslims fled or were driven to Bengal. And the conflict we are still seeing today was born.


Denial of Citizenship

The first government-organized campaign against the Rohingya was launched in 1978, as an “illegal immigration” crack-down. Failing to recognize the Rohingya as legitimate citizens of Burma, the Burmese government “transferred” around 200,000 Rohingya from Burma to the newly-independent Bangladesh, where they were equally unwelcome. Even then the Far Eastern Economic Review framed the plight of the Rohingya as “Burma’s Apartheid”.

The Burmese Citizenship Law of 1982 reiterated the government’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya. The law recognizes 135 ethnic groups as citizens. The Rohingya were left off the list.

So no matter how many generations have lived in Burma, they cannot be citizens of the country.

This has left approximately 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma essentially stateless.


Today in Burma

In some of the northern villages of the Rakhine state, Rohingya have constituted 80-95% of the population. Others are 30-35% Rohingya. Today the numbers have varied as uncounted numbers have fled persecution and violence.

In June 2012 a new series of conflicts flared between Rakhine Buddhits and Rohingya in the north. A gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas was retaliated with the killing of ten Burmese Mulsims by Rakhine Buddhists. The ensuing riots resulted in more than 80 people killed, more than 20,000 displaced from their homes, and more than 1,000 homes burned on both sides of the conflict. The Burmese military stepped in to restore order. Rather than protecting the population, there were credible reports of Burmese security forces committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya.

By October 2014 more than 72,000 Rohingya had been displaced to camps under extreme hardship, including severe shortages of water, latrines and other basic necessities. They have no access to basic medical care. Aid groups were restricted from entering the camps. Reporting on the camps,Time Magazine said “These aren’t refugee camps, they are concentration camps”, describing the residents as slowly succumbing to starvation and disease.

Between 1993 and 2014 the Burmese government imposed new restrictions on the Rohingya, forbidding them from traveling to other townships or out of Rakhine without government permission. Rohingya must apply for government permission to marry. Married couples are forbidden from having more than two children.


Mass Migration

2015 has seen a growing wave of Rohingya attempted to flee persecution in Burma, most of them on the rickety boats of human traffickers. While hard data is difficult to come by, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between January and March of 2015 alone, more than 25,000 Rohingya were carried out of Burma by boat. Reuters reports the number at more than 100,000.

Most are carried by human traffickers operating on the Bay of Bengal. Refugees are frequently held for ransom from relatives by the traffickers, or sold into slavery.

On 24 May 2015, Malaysian police discovered 139 suspected graves in a series of abandoned camps used by human traffickers on the border with Thailand where Rohingya had been held while waiting to sneak across to Malaysia. One grave alone had more than 100 bodies in it.

Sadly, this may just be a scratch on the surface of the story of the fleeing Rohingya at the hands of the traffickers.

Fearing a crackdown, it appears that the traffickers have abandoned boats full of fleeing Rohingya, leaving thousands to fend for themselves alone at sea without food or water. Where they have found their way to Malaysia or Indonesia, the two largest Muslim countries in the region, they have been turned away, creating one of the largest spiraling refugee crises to face Southeast Asia since the Vietnam war.