Discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government since the late 1970s have compelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee their homes in the predominantly Buddhist country. Most have crossed by land into Bangladesh, while others have taken to the sea to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Renewed violence, including reported rape, murder, and arson in 2017, triggered a massive exodus of Rohingya amid charges of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s security forces. Those forces claimed they carried out a campaign to reinstate stability in the western region of Myanmar.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. Before August 2017, the majority of the estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar resided in Rakhine State, where they accounted for nearly a third of the population. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.
The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya are largely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries.
Neither the central government nor Rakhine’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group, known as the Rakhine, recognize the label “Rohingya,” a self-identifying term [PDF] that surfaced in the 1950s, which experts say provides the group with a collective political identity. Though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts its ties to land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
What is the legal status of the Rohingya?
The government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and as a result the vast majority of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced a law twenty years later stripping the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Until recently, the Rohingya had been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as white cards, that the junta began issuing to many Muslims, both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, in the 1990s. The white cards conferred [PDF] limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship. Still, Lewa says that they did provide some recognition of temporary stay for the Rohingya in Myanmar.
In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, its first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census, the government decided the Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead.
Similarly, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, then-President Thein Sein canceled the temporary identity cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote. (White card holders were allowed to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections.) In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted by international monitors as free and fair, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment [PDF] makes it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group.
Muslim minorities continue to “consolidate under one Rohingya identity,” says Lewa, despite documentation by rights groups and researchers of systematic disenfranchisement, violence, and instances of anti-Muslim campaigns [PDF].
Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?
The Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. For example, Rohingya couples in the northern towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung are only allowed to have two children [PDF]. Rohingya must also seek permission to marry, which may require them to bribe authorities and provide photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-shaven face, practices that conflict with Muslim customs. To move to a new home or travel outside their townships, Rohingya must gain government approval.
Moreover, Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.
What’s caused the recent exodus?
Clashes in Rakhine broke out in August 2017, after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The government declared ARSA a terrorist organization and the military mounted a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced more than 650,000 Rohingya to leave Myanmar. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks, between August 25 and September 24, according to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders. Myanmar’s security forces also allegedly opened fire on fleeing civilians and planted land mines near border crossings used by Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Rights groups and UN leaders have condemned the escalating violence and atrocities, which have been described by a number of observers as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The clashes and exodus have created what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” At an emergency UN Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Myanmar authorities have carried out “brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority,” and she called on members to suspend weapons provisions to the military. Other Security Council members, like Russia and China, have resisted increasing pressure on Myanmar’s government because they say it is trying to restore stability.
Sectarian violence is not new to Rakhine State. Security campaigns in the past five years, notably in 2012 and 2016, also resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes.
Where are the Rohingya migrating?
- Bangladesh: Most Rohingya have sought refuge in nearby Bangladesh, which has limited resources and land to host refugees. More than 950,000 people are refugees in the country, many unregistered, according to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The aid group Save the Children projects the birth of forty-eight thousand babies in Bangladesh’s crowded camps in 2018. Meanwhile, the risk of disease outbreak in camps is high, with the World Health Organization issuing alerts for measles, tetanus, diphtheria, and acute jaundice syndrome. Moreover, more than 60 percent of the available water supply in refugee camps is contaminated. Vulnerable refugees have turned to smugglers, paying for transport out of Bangladesh and Myanmar and risking exploitation, including sexual enslavement. In November 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal for the possible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, though details remain vague on the rights that would be granted to the Rohingya, locations for resettlement, and assurances that such pogroms would not recur. The repatriation of the first group of Rohingya is slated for late January 2018.
- Malaysia: As of September 2017, sixty-two thousand Rohingya were in Malaysia, according to the United Nations. Rohingya who have arrived safely in Malaysia have no legal status and are unable to work, leaving their families cut off from access to education and health care. More recently, the Malaysian government sent much needed aid in the form of shelters, schools, clean water bases, and food to refugees in Bangladesh.
- Thailand: Thailand is a hub for regional human smuggling and serves as a common transit point for Rohingya. Migrants often arrive there by boat from Bangladesh or Myanmar before continuing on foot to Malaysia or by boat to Indonesia or Malaysia. The military-led Thai government has cracked down on smuggling rings after the discovery of mass graves in alleged camps where gangs held hostages. Dozens of people, including a general, provincial officials, and police, were found guilty in 2017 of the deaths of trafficked Rohingya. But some experts say punishing traffickers only disrupts the networks, but does not dismantle them.
- Indonesia: The Rohingya have also sought refuge in Indonesia, although the number of refugees from Myanmar there remains relatively small. During the spring 2015 migration surge, Indonesia’s military chief expressed concerns that easing immigration restrictions would spark an influx of people. Amid international pressure, Indonesia admitted one thousand Rohingya and provided them with emergency assistance and protection.
Has civilian leadership changed the Myanmar government’s policies?
In 2016, Myanmar’s first democratically elected government in a generation came to power, but critics say it has been reluctant to advocate for Rohingya and other Muslims for fear of alienating Buddhist nationalists and threatening the power-sharing agreement the civilian government maintains with the military.
Some observers saw the establishment in August 2016 of an advisory commission on ethnic strife led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a positive development, but subsequent outbreaks of violence have curbed this optimism.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place and dismissed international criticism of her handling of the crisis, accusing critics of fueling resentment between Buddhists and Muslims in the country. In September 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” In December, the Myanmar government denied access to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, and suspended cooperation for the remainder of her term.
How is the region responding?
Protesters have at times gathered in cities in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh to condemn the killing and persecution of Rohingya. Bangladesh’s foreign minister condemned the violence in Rakhine as “genocide” in September 2017 and Indonesia and Malaysia called on the Myanmar authorities to halt their campaign and bring an end to the violence. Yet governments in Southeast Asia lack established legal frameworks to protect refugees’ rights, and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not coordinated a response to the deepening crisis.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention or its protocol. ASEAN itself has been mostly silent on the plight of the Rohingya and on the growing numbers of asylum seekers in member countries, largely because of its members’ commitment to the principle of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs. “They aren’t going to take collective action on Myanmar, with Myanmar as one of its members,” says CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick.
How have others responded?
In December 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted sanctions against Myanmar, saying it had made strides in improving human rights. The move came amid a crackdown on Rohingya and was criticized by some as premature. A year later, new U.S. sanctions were imposed against a Myanmar general for his alleged role in the military’s attacks in Rakhine. Meanwhile, countries like the United States, Canada, Norway, and South Korea, and international donors have upped their humanitarian assistance as the flow of Rohingya to Bangladesh has grown, and in early 2018 a team of UK medics led an emergency response to help stem the spread of disease in camps.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights continue to appeal for international pressure on Myanmar’s government. At the same time, experts such as Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, say that placing sole blame on Myanmar oversimplifies and misrepresents the complexities of the country’s historical ethnic diversity. “An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable. It is time for the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution,” writes Clapp.
Still, resentment of the minority group has run deep for generations. Without overhauling “a culture of pervasive prejudice” and ensuring that Rohingya are treated as human beings, the situation in Rakhine State is unlikely to improve, says journalist and author Francis Wade.