Decades-long hatred between Myanmar Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority culminated in August with an ethnic cleansing campaign orchestrated by the Myanmar military in the Rakhine region. Soldiers, helped by Buddhist mobs, surrounded villages and burned them to the ground. Satellite images showed that 288 villages were devastated. Rohingya had no other choice than to flee to the border with Bangladesh, where they are now gathered in the world’s largest refugee camp. In only two months, a total of 620,000 Rohingya have fled the country, the fastest displacement of people since the Rwandan genocide. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, did not hesitate to call the situation an ethnic cleansing, defined as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas”. Even so, the plight of the Muslim minority has little chance to be heard. Indeed, neither the Buddhist majority nor the civilian government have any sympathy for an ethnic group perceived as illegal immigrants.
The Myanmar’s government reaction to the atrocities has been nothing less than disappointing. Two months after the military unleashed these atrocities, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the Myanmar government and Nobel Peace Laureate, finally visited the region. Her cabinet insisted that the military targeted Rohingya militants only and that no civilian was killed. As a matter of fact, the recent ordeal was initiated in August 25th, 2017, when Rohingya militants attacked police posts and a military base and killed 15 people. 370 militants have also been killed in the firefight. Although she was herself a political prisoner in 1991, fighting the military leadership, she has yet to denounce any wrongdoing by the military and refuses to challenge the military’s account of the situation. She downplayed the military operation, stating that “more than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact”. Her government denied visas for a UN fact-finding mission and recently denounced international interference from the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), arguing the issue was bilateral and not international. In late October, the Government announced it would confiscate the lands that the Rohingya have abandoned. The military also placed land mines at the border to prevent the Muslims from returning. For its part, the State media focused on the plight of the Rakhine Buddhists who have been displaced by the violence. When humanitarian aid has been delivered to them and they were eventually airlifted to safety, NGOs have not been able to provide aid to the Rohingya in the affected areas. The Myanmar government announced that they will help the refugees that have flocked to Bangladesh if they can provide proof they were residing in Rakhine. However these refugees had no time to gather any documents before their village was burnt to the ground. In addition, the Myanmar Government has deprived most Rohingyas of their citizenship.
Indeed, the Buddhist majority believes the Rohingya don’t belong in Myanmar. Hatred against these Muslims is deeply rooted. Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar speak two different languages, eat different foods and are always wary of each other. Most of the hatred stems from World War II. When the Rohingya sided with the British during the war, the Buddhists fought for the occupying Japanese forces. Rohingya Muslims have progressively been denied civil and political rights. When the British prevailed, they sought to appease the Buddhists and refused that the Rohingya become independent or join today’s Bangladesh. In 1962, a military coup put aside the Constitution and sought to create a nationalist sentiment based on a Buddhist identity. The Rohingya became the common enemy. The government claimed that the Muslims had migrated on farmlands illegally. Persecution and discrimination became quite common. In 1978, Operation Dragon King drove 200,000 Rohingya outside Myanmar to Bangladesh. About 170,000 returned to Burma. In 1982, the government recognized 135 ethnic groups. Despite constituting a population of 1 million, the Rohingya were not on the list and became stateless. They are forbidden to practice their religion, to travel freely, to be doctors or teachers. They are denied access to health care or education. In 1991, another military campaign called Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation also targeted the Muslim minority, leading to 250,000 refugees. In 2012, 100,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.
Although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently signed an agreement with Bangladesh to allow the Rohingya back in Myanmar, a conflict between the Buddhists and the Muslims is likely to remain. The new agreement doesn’t specify whether all refugees will be allowed to return or whether they will be required to produce documentation to prove that they were residing in the Rakhine region. Moreover, many refugees already stated they don’t want to return because their village was burnt to the ground, that they lost their family members and all their belongings. 120,000 of Rohingya have already been forced to live in what Amnesty International calls “concentration camps”, following the violence against them in 2012. Refugees’ return would undoubtedly grow the size of these camps and exacerbate the plight of this persecuted minority. In parallel, the military leadership doesn’t wish to see the Muslim minority back into Myanmar. Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, stated that any return of refugees would be conditional to the local Buddhists’ approval, dubbed the “real Myanmar citizens”.
For its part, the United States recently declared the situation an ethnic cleansing, opening the door to U.S. sanctions against the military. Several prominent international figures have called for the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to respect the human rights of the Muslim minority. But more international pressure upon the civilian government is required for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to risk her popularity, denounce the persecutions and challenge the military control over Myanmar’s security forces and the Rakhine region.
Hélène Dieck received her PhD from Sciences Po, Paris, France. She was previously responsible for elaborating military doctrine at the French Ministry of Defense and served as a visiting researcher at the RAND Corporation, Washington, DC. She currently works as a migrant welfare specialist at Qatar Foundation and recently publishedThe Influence of Public Opinion on Post Cold War U.S. Military Interventions (Palgrave, 2015).