Myanmar and the Rohingya Crisis: the view from the ground

While the international community condemns the country’s handling of the world’s most pressing humanitarian disaster, Myanmar nationals share very different views. Streetbees explores the public mood in the former hermit nation.

Caught between their home and hostility, it’s estimated that over 600,000 people have been displaced from Rakhine State province.

On August 25th 2017, a region that had been on a knife-edge for a generation finally descended into chaos. Insurgents representing ARSA, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, launched coordinated attacks on security forces across Northern Rakhine, a province along the Myanmar coastline.

After decades of perceived oppression from Burmese regimes old and new, these fighters, all from the Muslim-majority Rohingya ethnic group, had hit back. What followed was an intensive reaction from Myanmar’s government forces, bringing about upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

At the time of writing, over half of the 1.1m Rohingya people living in the region have been displaced. The majority have made it over the border into neighbouring Bangladesh, with a further 200,000 expected to enter the country over the coming weeks.

The international community, led by the UN, has been in uproar. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize) has been subject to intense criticism over her handling of the situation — a response that has involved, by and large, a refusal to acknowledge the existence of any such crisis within her country’s borders.

But what about the people of Myanmar? In a country renowned for its strict media controls (it currently ranks 131 out of 180 countries measured in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index), gauging public opinion is notoriously difficult — the tide is slowly shifting.

A new study from Streetbees offered the people of Myanmar a chance to voice their opinion on the situation in Rakhine, free of the shackles of any national or international narrative. From the perspective of humanitarian resolution, the results make for grim reading.

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At the root of the problem, international aid organisations state, is Myanmar’s government.

But, while widely condemned everywhere from Washington to Wellington, 82% of people in Myanmar support their leader, and the same figure believe she’s handled the Rohingya conflict well. In terms of finding the right solution, 83% have faith Aung San Suu Kyi will do so.

What that solution is, however, differs wildly from those put forward by those who have been parachuted into the makeshift Bangladeshi refugee camps to provide support.

“I think Aung San Suu Kyi will handle the Rohingya problem”, said one. “Rakhine State shouldn’t [home] the Rohingya people, and Myanmar shouldn’t have [to home] these people either”. “The Rohingya should be [sent] back to where they [were originally] from”, said another, “and the UN is very responsible for this happening”.

Of course, the ‘send them back’ rhetoric is nothing new to many of us. But this isn’t a simple case of immigration quotas; in Myanmar, deep ethnic lines run through the very fabric of society — and the Rohingya are expelled from the equation altogether.

Just 5% of people in the Streetbees study agreed that the Rohingya should be recognised as an official ethnic tribe of Myanmar, with only 8% believing that — in the event they were granted citizenship — they would, over time, be able (or willing) to integrate with wider society.

In terms of their displacement, little sympathy is offered; 18% believe that the Rohingya have a right to live in Rakhine State, with the majority staunchly against this idea altogether.

So, when the crisis broke out, it was clear who Myanmar nationals would hold responsible.

“They are not [an] ethnic group of Myanmar, so they should not stay in our country. Bangladesh or other EU countries must accept their people, because some of them are terrorists”, one respondent said — a view that is shared by 47% of people across the nation.

While this viewpoint persists, it’s unlikely the Rohingya people will be able to find peace back in their Rakhine heartlands for the foreseeable future. The ARSA attacks have, ultimately, left hundreds of thousands of people — many of them women and children — vulnerable to purges from the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s national military.

And, with backing from regional powerhouses India and China, Aung San Suu Kyi feels empowered to act in the interests of her people, rather than at the behest of UN peacekeepers — something that ensures her approval ratings remain sky high.

“Foreign countries must respect the citizenship law of Myanmar” said one respondent. “It’s simple: getting rid of the Rohingya is the most relevant solution for all of us.”

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A quick word on our methodology: The figures in the article are taken from a piece of field research, carried out in November 2017. The 201 participants span multiple age brackets, and live in Myanmar. All of the data was collected by mobile and web surveys, and the 95% confidence interval is 3 percentage points.

Streetbees is an independent research platform, founded on the principle of humanising how we collect data. Join our community today by downloading the Streetbees app.