Imagine waking up one day only to see that your entire village is engulfed in a sea of fire and hearing the screams of women and children desperately trying to escape such a nightmare. Sadly, this is no nightmare, but the brutal reality for many Rohingya. Their villages have been burned and they are systematically targeted by Myanma security forces. The result is a mass exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and, in the process, risking death while traversing the dangerous landscape or exposing themselves to the unforgiving open sea via the Bay of Bengal. Still, the Rohingya would rather risk death while fleeing than risk staying in their besieged homeland.
The United Nations (UN) has referred to the Myanma military operations in Rakhine State as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” However, military of Myanmar says it is fighting Rohingya militants, labeling the ethnic group as terrorists and vehemently rejecting the notion of any civilian targeting or ethnic cleansing. This is no doubt a deeply urgent humanitarian crisis, yet most people have not even heard of Myanmar, let alone the Rohingya people, or are even aware of the genocide that is being carried out against them.
Myanmar, a state formerly known as Burma, is located in one of the most populated regions in the world. It is nestled in with Bangladesh and India to its west along with China and Thailand to its north and east, respectively. It has a population of 53 million diverse, colorful, and robust people. Myanmar is a country rich in jade and gems, oil, natural gas, and other mineral resources. As of 2018, its gross domestic product (GDP) is $304.7 billion according to the Economic Index of Freedom. This wealth, however, does not represent the general welfare of the population and instead flows to the military elites. The income gap in Myanmar is among the widest in the world, and with the current developments destabilizing the government and economy, there is ample room for that gap to grow. This has not only contributed to the harsh crackdown on ethnic minorities like the Rohingya, but also to the revitalization of military political dominance that has held the people in iron chains.
From Ancient Inhabitants to Refugees
The Rohingya people, who numbered around one million in Myanmar at the start of 2017, are one of the many ethnic minorities in the country. Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine State. They possess a distinct language and culture. The Rohingya describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders and Muslim-converted natives who have lived in the region for generations. The Myanma government recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, but the Rohingya are now excluded from this list, despite being recognized in the past. Government officials in the capital Nay Pyi Taw now claim that the Rohingya migrated to Rakhine only in the mid-20th century, following the exit of the British Empire, and label them as Bengalis.
Consequently, the Myanma government denies the idea that the Rohingya belong within their borders. This has translated into the government denying the Rohingya citizenship and even excluding them from the 2014 census, denying recognition and revoking all of their rights. They are considered by government forces as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, but this is untrue and a misuse of history. The history of the Rohingya in Rakhine State can be traced back to the old Arakan Kingdom since the 8th Century, when Arab traders intermarried with local women and other natives began converting to Islam. Significant migrations did occur during the 20th Century, but much of this was when then-Burma was still administered as part of greater India under the British Raj. The Bengalis of Chittagong are closely related to the Rohingya and sought economic opportunities in the Arakan Division, the colonial-era name for Rakhine State, further amalgamating with the local Rohingya.
Furthermore, migrations through history have not been exclusive to Indian ethnic groups. Ethnic Chinese, for instance, migrated to then-Burma to escape the Manchu rule in the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), concentrating in the upper portion of the region that corresponded with old Sino-Burmese trade routes. Much later, in the 1990s, up to 2 million Chinese immigrated to North East Myanmar, coming in through legal and illegal methods. Although officially only three percent of the total population, the true number is believed to be greater than the official statistic. This is due to many Chinese registering themselves as “ethnic Bamar” to avoid persecution and discrimination. What is certainly evident is that the Burmese have discriminatory, ethnically chauvinistic standards that have forced ethnic minorities to either assimilate or face the wrath of the military forces.
In the modern era, the relationship between the Rohingya and the Burmese-cum-Myanma State crumbled. During the 1960s, the Rohingya had representatives, including counselors and officials, in the Burmese parliament and government. The representation in government allowed a voice for the Rohingya and integration into daily Burmese politics, including advocating for rights and daily legislative policies to improve Burmese-Rohingya relations. However, these relations were fragile, and it showed when the civilian government was replaced by the military in 1962. The military government was spearheaded by General Ne Win, who was desperate to reject the memory of British colonization and the humiliation by the Japanese during World War II. Under these authoritarian conditions, the government sought to enact what they considered “true” Burmese culture and identity. Ideologically, it is analogous to the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide or Hitler and his Final Solution.
This program marginalized many minority groups and threatened ethnic cleansing of any group that did not assimilate into Burmese culture. Some minority groups aligned with the central government and conceded, while others negotiated for political power. Others chose to fight. In the Kachin, Shan, Kokang, and Rakhine States, insurgent unrest was especially notable. Against those that rebelled, the military implemented the Four Cuts strategy (money, food, recruits, and intelligence), which directly targeted civilians in the areas of conflict and was created by Ne Win himself. He had served under the brutal Imperial Japanese Army and based it off of their “three all” strategy of “kill all, burn all, destroy all.” As an example, Four Cuts was implemented in 1996 and 1998 against the resistance fighters in Shan State. In just two years, a total of 300,000 residents were displaced and more than 1,400 villages were decimated.
To add fuel to the fire, the socialist economic policy of the military government failed dramatically and major industries were nationalized. The trade to GDP ratio declined from about 40% to about 25% in 1970. The sectarian violence, paired with economic instability, created a toxic and volatile atmosphere for the region. In the following decades, ethnic insurgencies surged and the central government struggled to assert authority over the countryside. The government used this to justify its brutality in order to maintain control over the restless population.
Consequently, when accounting for all the ethnic groups, the Rohingya stood out mostly because of their distinct culture and identity. As relations between the Rohingya community and the military government worsened, the Rohingya were forced to turn to violent means to gain legal recognition. This, however, gave the government the perfect excuse to begin a systematic annihilation of the Rohingya people. The so-called “War on Terror” branding was thus appropriated, as it had been by the United States, Russia, and others to pursue and justify particular agendas.
In the 1970s, the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) and later the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) gained some notoriety after receiving training from the Afghani Taliban. As a result, they were targeted frequently and were dealt military defeats. In 1978 and in 1982, revisions to Myanmar’s constitution explicitly denied citizenship to ethnic Rohingya, depriving them of basic rights. Since then, the Rohingya have lived under apartheid-like conditions. Their freedom of movement, economic opportunities, as well as access to healthcare and education is restricted. The then-Burmese government went as far as rejecting the term “Rohingya.” A decade later, in 1992, the government dealt another blow to the Rohingya insurgency and by the 2000s, separatist agitation in the region steadily lost influence.
From Bad to Worse
In recent years, the ethnic Rakhine, represented by the Arakan National Party along with other civilian organizations, have been given a fair share of say in the national government. Since reconciliation, Rakhine groups have tried to obtain greater regional autonomy. However, there are major concerns among the Rakhine that the Rohingya insurgency is interfering with their plans for autonomy. As the interests of the communities did not align, tensions between the two triggered communal violence. The current crisis was triggered when a Rohingya insurgent group attacked Burmese security forces in October 2016. At least 9 police officers were killed and the Burmese military retaliated again with the Four Cuts strategy.
Four Cuts has always been used when the government seeks to undermine the foundations of ethnic insurgencies across the country. To meet its objective of cutting money, food, recruits, and intelligence, the military has used helicopter gunships to level entire Rohingya villages. This has resulted in devastation and the massive loss of life among the population that has triggered a wave of refugees. The scale of destruction cannot be verified by independent sources, since the government restricts outside access to the area. However, satellite imagery corroborates the systematic pattern of abuse. Moreover, UN human rights investigators have concluded that the security forces of Myanmar have committed crimes against humanity.
“Myanmar’s biggest threat is not the return of dictatorship but an illiberal democracy,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and former UN official. The reality of that is steadily increasing in Myanmar. The rapid shift to democracy can destabilize otherwise important developments between citizens and leaders that would allow a successful transition to be all-inclusive.
Then-Burma had first gained its independence in 1948 from British rule but then underwent the military coup in 1962 by Ne Win, who overthrew the acting government under U Nu. Ne Win’s first order of business was to abolish the existing federal system and implement “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” This completely changed Burma by nationalizing the economy while creating a unitary political system. Ne Win created the Burma Socialist Programme Party to serve as his political machine, outlawing all other political parties and placing a ban on all independent newspapers across Burma. This was just the beginning of crushing civil liberties and ousting any and all opposition to the Party. The next order of business was to establish a new constitution that facilitated a pro-forma “transfer” of power from the military to a “People’s Assembly” that was led by Ne Win and his former military colleagues. There were structural changes to the regime in the late 1980s following a popular uprising and elections that were then ignored, but the military still maintained total control until 2011. It was that year that the junta first expressed an openness to democratic transition and the release of political prisoners.
A key visit from United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton incentivized improved relations with the West and economic gains as well, if democratic reforms were maintained. This prompted then-President Thein Sein to sign a law that enabled peaceful demonstrations for the first time in Burmese history. The larger partisan political scene was liberalized with Clinton’s visit as well, with the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, reinstated as an eligible political party to participate in elections for parliament in 2012. Myanma military officials also agreed to a truce with rebels of the ethnic Shan and had halted all military offenses against rebels of the ethnic Kachin.
In the coming years, Myanmar experienced an impressive growth of democratization as foreign media developed in the country, paired with a visit from President Barack Obama to encourage more democratic reforms. Despite the efforts, the peace did not last and Myanmar has now seen a resurgence in the role of the military in its affairs. Along with the genocide against the Rohingya is the recent crackdown on Kokang separatists, who reside near the border of China and are now under martial law. This decision was made ultimately by the military leadership that still maintains influence within the government and across the country.
This strongly reaffirms the fact that a state’s democracy is only as strong as its democratic institutions, and when the main institution is the military, there tends to be a pseudo-democratic process undermined by weak institutions and strong military influence. Moreover, rapid social change paired with diverse ethnic divisions leads to the political balance being contested by ethnic minorities, as was also seen in Bosnia, Ukraine, and Rwanda.
According to the non-governmental organization Freedom House, the aggregate score given to Myanmar for freedom is 31 out of 100. The scale begins at 0 signifying no freedom and goes to 100 representing the most freedom. This takes into account human rights, institutions, voting, and many other factors. The low score is reflective of the government’s actions in persecuting minorities and subverting freedom of the press. Journalists who cover challenging topics like the current Rohingya genocide are subject to harassment, physical violence, and even imprisonment with false charges being tagged on. In June 2017, three journalists covering an antidrug rally conducted by an ethnic armed organization were arrested and imprisoned on junta-era charges of unlawful association, despite a provision in the 2014 News Media Law that exempts journalists from detention while covering conflicts.
Two Reuters journalists were imprisoned and charged in December under the State Secrets Act while covering the conflict in Rakhine State. The Official Secrets Act includes trespassing in restricted areas, possession of documents labeled secret, and consorting with “foreign agents.” It carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. This allows for the prosecution and imprisonment of anyone deemed enemies of the state and exposes the weak judicial system of Myanmar in using colonial-era laws when Myanmar was still the Burma Province of the British Raj. The Government of Myanmar also lacks the ability to operate with openness and transparency; a law drafted in 2016 outlining the right to information is still deliberately being stalled.
Unfortunately, the one person who should be countering these atrocious policies, Aung San Suu Kyi, has proven incapable of standing up to the military, while simultaneously claiming to stand for democracy. Beyond being the leader of the NLD, she is the first incumbent of the new State Counsellor position, similar to a Prime Minister. She is also the first woman to serve with a joint portfolio as Minister for the President’s Office, Education, Foreign Affairs, and Electricity and Energy.
Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected the UN’s reports and disallowed a new team of UN investigators to enter Myanmar. Although Aung San Suu Kyi has been known as an advocate for democracy and is Noble Peace Prize Laureate, her character is now questioned by the international community. She constantly refers to the Rohingya as terrorists, going so far as to say that “the danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, remains real and present today.” She has consistently rejected the notion of a military genocide against the Rohingya and even refuses to refer to the ethnic group by name. This has been taken as blasphemy by international observers and admirers, especially as she was someone considered a champion of democracy. She has been stripped of several awards, including Amnesty International’s Human Rights Award, The Freedom of Edinburgh Award, and her Canadian citizenship.
This is all due to the rejection of the current human rights violations and lack of acknowledgement for the mass exodus of the Rohingya. Unfortunately, there are several obstacles that are preventing action from Aung San Suu Kyi. First, the NLD has no control over the military and is bound by the constitution into a power sharing arrangement. This leaves her essentially powerless, allowing the military to retain more influence on the ground than the civilian government does.
Second, if Aung San Suu Kyi is to maintain her democratic mandate, she must carefully traverse the political chessboard of Myanmar. The crisis in Rakhine is a stark example of Myanmar’s Buddhist identity. About 80 to 90% of the country’s population is Buddhist, so there is very little sympathy for the persecuted Muslim Rohingya. If Aung San Suu Kyi were to show any solidarity or sympathy, she would be politically exposed since it would be perceived as a failure to protect the Myanma-Buddhist identity.
These circumstances would only strengthen the Buddhist nationalist movement, represented among others by the National Development Party (NDP). Although the NDP performed poorly in the 2015 elections, it and other Buddhist nationalist groups dominate the current discourse, which asserts that Muslim and Christian minorities are not properly part of Myanmar. If she is to retain legitimacy and credibility in a nation that is mostly Buddhist, she cannot respond to the Rohingya crisis from a standpoint of morality. Doing so would empower the military, which will be backed by nationalist groups. Furthermore, the democratization process in the country would trigger even worse ethnic riots. Thus, although it may not appear so, Aung San Suu Kyi is held hostage by the collective circumstances.
Besides the domestic politics of Myanmar, external geopolitical interests play an equally important role in the Rohingya crisis. Roughly 82% of China’s crude oil and 30% of its natural gas imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, which is one of Beijing’s greatest geopolitical liabilities. In order to reduce its dependence on the Strait, Chinese policymakers are working to establish an alternative energy route that passes through Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Here, natural gas and oil pipelines, referred to as the Sino-Myanmar pipelines, are under construction. These pipelines run from the refineries in Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan Province, to the deep-water port of Sittwe in Rakhine.
In addition to reducing its dependence on the Strait, Chinese policymakers are hopeful that the energy infrastructure will be accompanied with transport logistics that will allow the landlocked Yunnan access to the markets of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These major developments will provide Yunnan with much-needed employment and capital. Meanwhile, for India, Sittwe presents a different geopolitical objective that is linked to the Siliguri Corridor. The recent crisis between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area highlights the former’s vulnerability.
Subsequently, New Delhi seeks to establish the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project. This is an alternative supply route to the strategic choke point in Siliguri. The Kaladan project goes from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Sittwe by sea and the latter is linked to Paletwa by the Kaladan River in the North of Rakhine, connecting to back to Mizoram State in India. Authorities in New Delhi have also expressed an interest to improve trade and security ties with Myanmar as exemplified by the Thailand-Myanmar-India highway. Indian officials see Myanmar as a bridge that connects India to Southeast Asia.
For New Delhi, infrastructure projects are of utmost urgency since they allow India to counter China’s influence in the region through pursuing economic projects while being supported by the United States. Myanmar’s policy hopes to play both powers against one another and extract the best arrangements possible. On the other hand, it also means that the Myanma military fears that the Rohingya insurgency could disrupt the critical economic activities that are vital for the geo-economic fortunes of Myanmar.
For the Myanma military, that is enough reason to ethnically cleanse the area. However, as Rangers are caught between external and internal political ambitions, the excessive use of the military provides fertile ground for jihadist groups. Although radicalization has yet to materialize on a large scale, the longer the crisis, the more likely it is that transnational jihadists will exploit the misery of the Rohingya. After all, people who are displaced or isolated usually have little to lose and present an ideal environment for jihadist endeavors.
Even the United States has a significant stake in Myanmar, as it can be used to hinder China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it seeks to reinforce its influence among regional allies. This would also deter China from gaining leverage in the Doklam Plateau as it is still in a standoff with Indian troops. Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat says “the stand-off with Chinese troops on the Himalayan border could snowball into larger conflict,” potentially leading to a war with China and Pakistan. Myanmar plays an incredibly important role in unlocking supply routes from land and maritime positions. This prompts the United States to support India as it is faced with a two-front conflict that would not only jeopardize Indian national security but destabilize the region and create a potential security threat for American interests with regards to the “War on Terror.”
A Perfect Storm
The Rohingya are thus caught in a perfect storm that has left them powerless and overlooked. Myanmar’s long absence from the global arena already leaves most in the global public unfamiliar or apathetic to the violence in Rakhine. Myanma state authorities have appropriated colonial legacies to both mischaracterize the Rohingya’s place in history and to suppress opposition and exposés with colonial internal security laws. Ethnic Bamar chauvinism was already a state project since Ne Win. It is now fused with a grassroots Buddhist nationalism, preventing previously earnest domestic actors like Aung San Suu Kyi from even speaking out. Foreign attention and advocacy is also tempered by economic interests among regional powers competing for influence and advantage. Unfortunately, this means no clear end to the suffering and genocide of the Rohingya, a genocide too inconvenient to be anything but ignored.