The deplorable situation highlights the consequences of conflict in multi-ethnic societies and its implications to regional peace and security.
Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya – a largely Muslim group in Rakhine, north-western Myanmar – has forced 6,07,000 people from the community to seek refuge in Bangladesh since August 25, 2017.
The recent exodus, which is a fallout of an armed attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also Harakan Al Yaqin, a militant Rohingya group) on police bases in Rakhine state on August 25, has been called “unprecedented in terms of volume and speed” by the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) and was also called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The recent escalation is a result of years of repressive government policies and crackdown against the Rohingya, resulting in a new armed conflict in the region.
However, despite reports of burning villages and the rapes and killings of Rohingya civilians, Myanmar’s political class and military consistently deny the atrocities. They claim that the military is carrying out clearing operations targeting “Bengali extremists”.
Moreover, the government discourages the use of the word “Rohingya”, as its use invariably legitimises their presence as an indigenous ethnic group in Rakhine, and prefers the term “Bengalis”.
This has led to a series of policies that has disenfranchised the community, restricting their movement within Rakhine and denying them rights guaranteed to the rest of the country’s inhabitants.
Therefore, a look into the history of the conflict will not only help contextualise the crisis, but can also help find solutions.
History and evolution of the conflict
The ethno-religious divide between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims dates back to World War II, where the Rohingya and the Buddhists supported the British Allied and the Japanese troops respectively, and both sides were responsible for violence and attacks on each other between 1942-1943, which is also believed to have led to displacement on both sides.
Following the partition of India in 1947, a Muslim insurgency erupted in Rakhine state with the aim of annexing the Muslim majority districts, namely Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung, into what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh).
However, Pakistan’s lack of interest in their objectives forced the insurgents to seek an alternative, which was to establish an autonomous region for Muslims within Burma (now Myanmar) through an armed struggle.
Initially, the insurgents were successful in capturing large parts of Rakhine and expelling Buddhist villagers in the areas they controlled. Their success was primarily due to the Burmese military’s preoccupation in supressing ethnic conflicts across the country.
It was only after 1954, when the military launched an offensive, that it managed to recapture territory from the insurgents, eventually supressing them in 1961.
Thereafter, in what seemed as a concession to the Muslims after the insurgency, the government established a short-lived, semi-autonomous region comprising the Muslim majority regions in Rakhine, called Mayu Frontier district.
Rohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Photo: ReutersRohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters
However, the 1962 military coup subsequently led to the dissolution of the Mayu Frontier district and saw a resurgence of Muslim militancy through the formation of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in 1982, which was around the same time the Rohingya were stripped off citizenship, thus making them a large disenfranchised population in the country.
While the violence between the two major communities in Rakhine divided them, a series of repressive policies in the 1990s made life for the Rohingya intolerable in Myanmar.
Numerous government orders – some confidential – limit the movement of Rohingya within the Rakhine and the rest of the country. They even restrict marriage and cap the number of children to two among Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine.
These laws and policies are not only discriminatory, but also a violation of articles 7, 13 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pertaining to the freedom of movement and the right to existence worthy of human dignity.
There is little doubt that the systematic state-driven policy has not only alienated the population, but has made life impossible for the Rohingya in Myanmar. Moreover, the increased violence against civilians along with the rise of the ARSA, coupled with the proliferation of non-state Rakhine nationalist militia, such as the Arakan Army (AA), risks escalation and complicates the road to peace.
The Arakan Army (AA), formed in 2009, bolstered operations against the military after an older Rakhine militant group called the Arakan Liberation Army began peace talks and finally signed a ceasefire agreement with the Army in 2012.
While they have primarily been involved with fighting the military in pursuit of an independent Rakhine state, the AA has unequivocally stated that Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh and have called ARSA “savage Bengali Muslim terrorists”.
They have even called out “successive Burmese regimes” for failing to curtail “the Bengalis intrusion and territorial expansion” into Arakan (Rakhine) due to “population explosion of Bangladesh”.
They have also stated that they are prepared to fight ARSA for and safeguard the interests and territorial integrity of Arakan in case the army, government and police are incapable of doing so.
Response of neighbouring countries
Neighbouring countries are sceptical of the influx of Rohingya refugees into their territory. Bangladesh, for example, has been overwhelmed with estimates of 8,00,000 Rohingya in the country, which is 62% of the total 1.3 million Rohingya.
While camps have been established to accommodate refugees, human rights organisations have claimed that Bangladesh has a policy of housing some refugees in remote uninhabited flood-prone islands with the motive of discouraging them to stay in the country.
Additionally, there are fears that the presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tract, might reignite tensions between Muslims, Bangladesh military and indigenous non-Muslim tribes.
The Indian government, too, has expressed displeasure with the presence of 40,000 Rohingya in the country, and has been vocal about its plan to deport them. The government of India has stated that the presence of Rohingya is a threat to its own national security and claims they have links with terrorist networks.
The Supreme Court of India, however, has intervened on the pleas of activists owing to apprehensions of human rights violations, which highlights the responsibility of the neighbours in a conflict that has assumed extra-territorial implications.
It has temporarily barred deportation while the case is being heard and has explicitly stated that the Government of India must not be oblivious to the plight of women and children and that they should strike a balance as the case deals with the human rights of many. While the Supreme Court may have stayed deportation, India’s move has been widely criticised both internally and internationally, as many in the country believe that it is influenced by the Hindutva ideology and a fear among radical Hindus about the threat of Muslim refugees altering the demographics in the country.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also stated that India’s “ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulment, India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations”.
Moreover, Myanmar’s non-recognition of Rohingya Muslims would result in Myanmar refusing to accept returnees, which has been their objective all along.
Nonetheless, India’s geopolitical and national interests have influenced its relationship with Myanmar. In order to counter China’s growing influence, India has been crucial in developing Myanmar’s infrastructure and has also funded the port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine.
India has also strategically utilised both the non-state actors and the Myanmar military to check its own insurgency in the North-East, particularly in Nagaland.
Yet, despite a robust foreign policy with Myanmar, India seems oblivious to the humanitarian catastrophe across the border. This attitude is unbecoming of a democracy and instead of deporting refugees, India must utilise its diplomatic channels to intervene in ending the conflict in Myanmar.
The current situation of the Rohingya is deplorable and highlights the consequences of conflict in multi-ethnic societies, and its implications to regional peace and security. Unwanted both at home and in neighbouring countries, the Rohingya need the international community to take a far more holistic approach in dealing with the crisis.
Myanmar’s status as a state in transition towards democracy from a dictatorial regime had brought hope of an all-inclusive state, but the Rohingya seem to have been ignored in this process.
Myanmar’s government and leaders must understand that ignoring the grievances of the Rohingya will only exacerbate the conflict, potentially leading to a far more violent insurgency.
Similarly, the role of the neighbouring countries and their international leadership must be put to scrutiny, as it is in the interest of the global community to end the conflict in Myanmar and also maintain international order.