By Azeem Ibrahim
The humanitarian disaster unfolding in Myanmar has been in the works for decades. Like many such catastrophes in the past, it has been built half by accident, half by design, by a succession of political leaders who saw the Rohingya as victims of opportunity whenever they found themselves a little short on authority and legitimacy and thought that by rallying the country against a manufactured internal threat, they could sustain their power. But now, it looks like we are in the last chapters of this tragic story.
It all started in WW2. Burma was a part of the British Empire and thus became entangled in the war. But the Burmese were divided in their loyalties. Those who sought independence from Britain, naturally, aligned themselves to Britain’s enemies in the war: Japan. And they were predominantly of the dominant Burmese ethnic group. The Rohingya stayed loyal to Britain. Britain won that war in 1945, but Independence for the whole of the Indian Raj was unavoidable. India proper, gained theirs in 1947. Burma got theirs in 1948.
The borders between India and Burma were set on the borders of 1824, before the start of the succession of colonial wars between Britain and Burma which eventually subdued the entire country. Upon this principle of partition, Burma gained the State of Arakan, which the old Burmese Kingdom had annexed in 1784 – a mere 40 years before the cut-off date, but which had been at times part of previous Burmese empires. And the state of Arakan was home to two, very distinct populations: the Rakhine, a Sino-Tibetan looking, Buddhist ethnic group who was similar in most respects to the Burmese; and the Rohingya, a South-Asian looking, Muslim ethnic group who, though a distinct population for hundreds of years, was more similar to their Muslim neighbours in eastern India, modern-day Bangladesh.
The reigns of power in the newly independent country were taken over, naturally, by those who led the independence movement. And so, the Rohingya found themselves as a very visible minority on the border of a newly created state, led by people who fought on the other side in WW2. They were understandably concerned about this situation. But their attempts to do something about it turned out to be catastrophic. In 1948, just as the transition to independence was happening, some Arakanese Muslims petitioned the Constituent Assembly in Rangoon for the integration of the northern-most and majority-Muslim districts of Maungdaw and Buthidaung into East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.
Thereafter, the Rohingya have always been considered an outsider population, disloyal to the Burmese state, especially by the military – those who actually fought with the Japanese in WW2 and who were now tasked with holding the state together and fending off secessionist movements that were rife not just in Arakan, but all along the new country’s long and extremely porous borders.
So long as the Burmese state remained a Westminster-style democracy though, this was not too much of a problem. The Rohingya had not been deemed one of the “native races” in Burma’s first post-independence constitution, but were treated largely as though they were full citizens of the country, and had elected representatives in the central government throughout the period.
All that changed in 1962, when a military junta took over the country in a coup d’etat. The new military administration, like most military administrations, was from the very beginning in full alert mode. They saw enemies everywhere, both outside the country and inside, and waged relentless war on all border ethnic groups which questioned the authority of the central government.
Yet the Rohingya were not one of the main problems for the central government. The Shan, Kachin, Sagaing and Chin rebellions in the north and east of the country were far more serious. They were far larger in scale and ferocity. The Arakan state had its own incidents of unrest, like most of the country, but the Rohingya were far from putting up the organised, committed secessionist rebellions that the other groups were. Nevertheless, given their “history” in the eyes of the ruling military, they were treated as an equivalent threat.
But the antagonism the military juntas bore the Rohingya went deeper. The generals saw themselves rule over a divided land with little in the way of a common identity. The diverse population of the country, with its complicated history between the multiplicity of ethnic groups, was not a good basis for a modern-day nation state. The generals judged that a common, Burmese identity must be forged for the country to be viable in the long term. And the fateful decision was taken that this identity must be Sino-Tibetan and Buddhist. There were non-Sino-Tibetan Buddhists in the country, and there were Sino-Tibetan non-Buddhists. The Rohingya, uniquely, failed to qualify on both counts. The Rohingya thus became the emblematic “foreign presence” in the politically unstable and repressive country. Thus the Rohingya became the perennial target of opportunity when the military leadership needed to score some political points, as well as the scape-goats of choice.
This new status for the Rohingya in Burma was made official by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which leveraged the anomalous exclusion of the Rohingya from the “native races” list from the 1948 Constitution to disqualify virtually the entire Rohingya ethnic group from the right to have citizenship status in the country of their birth. This was very much against international law which prohibits any state to render any people born within its territory stateless, but Burma at this point in history was already a pariah state isolated from the international community, so international law was not a consideration for the junta.
Since then, various extra restrictions were added on the Rohingya as and when the powers that be deemed it opportune. They were restricted from travelling outside of their districts in Arakan. They were, obviously, barred from public office and from electing representatives – with only a handful of exceptions, who managed to work around the restrictions imposed by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They were prohibited from marrying Buddhists. Rohingya married couples were limited to having a maximum of two children. The building of new mosques was restricted. And so on. Most of these are also gross violations of international law, and they were clearly designed to restrict population growth.
The maximum two children rule, in particular, is telling. Two children per couple is below the demographic replacement rate, which means that so long as this rule was in place, the total population of the Rohingya would be guaranteed to be shrinking. In international law, measures that are designed to reduce the population of a specific minority in a society are considered equivalent to an explicit policy of ethnic cleansing. And indeed they are: even if one is not actively trying to actively kill members of a minority, implementing such measures will achieve ethnic cleansing by population attrition given enough time.
But the Burmese authorities no longer seem content to wait this out. In light of recent developments in the country, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the Rohingya will have been completely cleansed from the country of their birth within the space of 2 months.
The final crisis
What looks like the final chapter in this tragedy has its roots in 2012. In Spring that year, ethnic tensions between the Rohingya and their Rakhine neighbours in the state blew up into full scale civilian war, with the two sides burning each other’s villages and committing the whole range of abuses against each other. However, the two sides were far from evenly matched. The Rakhine always had the upper hand. And the local state and federal security forces either abetted them, or in some cases got involved in the fighting on their side.
Half a year later, in Autumn 2012, violence on a similar scale erupted again. And again in Spring 2013. Smaller scale violence has been erupting intermittently every few months since. In the wake of the first major waves, over 200,000 Rohingya were displaced to other countries, mostly to Bangladesh. Over 110,000 were documented to have been effectively detained in internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps – they were discouraged from leaving, international NGOs like Medicins sans Frontieres and others were slowly but surely banned from entering the camps and helping, they were denied the ability to work, and had little to no access to medical services or education for the young.
The pressure on the Rohingya continued, and the results made the international headlines in 2015, with what became known as the Southeast Asia Migrant Crisis. In the Summer of 2015 large numbers of Rohingya poured out of the country in all directions. Not just towards Bangladesh, but also India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. This time in particular, refugees took to escaping Mynamar by boat, with large and consistent numbers of fatalities as a result, as people smugglers packed overwhelming numbers of people in inadequate crafts which routinely capsized killing dozens and hundreds at a time.
All in all, there are between 2 and 2.5 million Rohingya in the world. By the start of 2012, the decades of persecution had seen as many as 1 million flee abroad, with only about 1.5 million remaining. The violence since 2012 and up until late 2015 saw the number remaining in the country to maybe under 1 million.
But then, in November 2015, in the first fairly democratic elections in decades, the NLD opposition party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won the largest number of seats in the country’s parliament by a landslide. The new government, led by Ms Suu Kyi, was sworn in later in Spring 2016. The refugee outflows stabilised. It now looked like things could be turned around for the Rohingya, and indeed for Myanmar’s wider humanitarian outlook.
The hopes of the Rohingya, who used to affectionately call Ms Suu Kyi “Mother”, and indeed the hopes of the international community proved premature. Ms Suu Kyi’s government failed to deliver any material improvements for the Rohingya, while Ms Suu Kyi herself echoed the stance on the Rohingya of the military junta and the Rakhine extremists before her: the Rohingya were not an indigenous population to Myanmar, they were an illegitimate group of Bangladeshi migrants (from British colonial times), and had no special claim to being in the country.
Likely as a consequence of this disappointing stance from Ms Suu Kyi, later in Autumn 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), led by Rohingya born in Pakistan but trained in Saudi Arabia, who had been active in the region since 2013 but in non-military ways, started a low level military insurgency against the Myanmar security forces. Tensions started to rise, yet again.
Things came to a head in August 2017 – this year. A number of concerted attacks by ARSA on military outposts in the local state triggered a full blown military response from the still fully autonomous federal military leadership. A low level insurgency triggered a full-fledged anti-rebellion response from the military, complete with communal reprisals, extra-judicial killings of women and children, burnings of villages visible from satellite imagery, and allegedly, even the mining of paths Rohingya refugees would try to take to flee to Bangladesh.
In the month and a half following that attack by ARSA, the military response has already pushed a counted 500,000 or more Rohingya, out of less than 1 million, to hastily-built refugee camps in Bangladesh. The government of Ms Suu Kyi has very little to comment on the matter, and when they do, it usually falls on the side of defending the military operations. China, who is building infrastructure in the country to extend its Silk Road initiative would like the situation resolved, but is just as happy to see it resolved by the complete removal of the Rohingya from the region. Europe has neither the capacity to intervene of its own, nor the will to aggravate the Myanmar leadership when it seems to be drifting too quickly into the Chinese sphere of influence. And the United States, which under the Obama Administration has been the only reliable advocate of Rohingya concerns since Burmese independence, is now governed by a Trump administration that neither cares about humanitarian problems, nor would be interested to intervene unless there would be something to be gained. And this time, there is more to be gained in terms of economic ties with Myanmar, if they let the government and the military do what they will with the Rohingya.
The government of Bangladesh is currently in the process of building refugee facilities for 800,000 people. By some estimates, that may well be the entire Rohingya population which had been left in Myanmar before August 2017. These facilities will house the over 500,000 who have already crossed the border. And they will be housing those that are still to come. Bangladesh expects that Myanmar will expel its entire Rohingya population. As things stand, there is no reason to be hopeful that this process will stop in the coming weeks. And on current trends, the process will be complete inside two months.
The French President has been the first major world leader to call the events in Myanmar “genocide”. Increasing numbers of international law experts agree and the numbers are impossible to argue with. Myanmar is systematically destroying an entire indigenous population and is doing so as a matter of policy. Under the patient eye of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate we are, once again, allowing a genocide to happen in our world. And none of us seem moved to do anything about it. This could have been prevented had the international community had the moral fibre to intervene at any time since 2012 and establish clear and credible red lines to Myanmar in its treatment of the Rohingya. We have shirked from that moral duty, hiding behind naive hopes that things will surely get better with time. And an innocent population is paying the price.
President Obama used to believe that “the arc of history is long, but it bends our way”. It is not bending our way now. And the Rohingya of Myanmar will not be around to observe it bend in any direction except against them. Craven and self-serving “faith in the future” is facilitating genocide in the present. And no amount of well-meaning platitudes can clean our hands of the complicity we have in this genocide.