By Myriam Denis, Assistant Contributor
Is ethnic cleansing currently happening in Myanmar? Several experts think so, including Phil Robertson, Asia director for Humans Right Watch, who recently wrote that “the Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today”. Professor William Schabas, former President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, went a step further and cautioned, “we’re moving into a zone where the [genocide] word can be used.” Through campaigns of violence, legal discrimination, destruction of mosques and forcible displacement of entire clans of the Rohingya population, Buddhist monks, community leaders and the Myanmar government are successfully conducing an operation resembling what was happening in Rwanda twenty years ago. Ironically, this repression has reached a critical point, while, at the same time, world leaders are applauding Myanmar for introducing political reforms, including the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing political prisoners and organizing elections. Even if those actions are remarkable steps for a country that only three years ago had the longest surviving military dictatorship, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya undermines that progress.
A Problem Rooted in the History of Myanmar
Outbursts of violence against Rohingyas have been particularly intense and widely broadcasted in the media in the last few years, but the political crisis has been going on for several decades. The British Broadcasting Corporation (“BBC”) referred to the Rohingya as “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups” and the United Nations called them “the world’s most vulnerable ethnic minority.” In contrast with the predominantly Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority, the Rohingyas are Muslims and speak a dialect of the Bengali language similar to what Bangladeshis spoke. They are located in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a long coastal stretch of land bordering Bangladesh, which is majority Muslim, and linking Islamic Asia with Buddhist Asia. The Rohingyas have been living on Burmese land for generations, dating back to when the country was under British domination. However, when the military junta took over the newly independent country in 1962, General Ne Win defined national identity as strictly Burmese and Buddhist, significantly contributing to the marginalization of this group.
In the 1970s and the 1990s, the junta launched two particularly violent campaigns against the Rohingyas, Operation Naga Min (King Dragon) and Operation Pyi Thaya (Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation). The United Nations Refugee Agency referred to those operations as “ethnic cleansing campaigns led by the military junta itself.” Those attacks resulted in widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, land seizures, destruction of villages and forcible displacement of dozens of thousands of Rohingyas.
Legal Discrimination Endorsed by the Government
In 1982, Rohingyas were officially denied citizenship with the passage of the radical Burma Citizenship Law. This lack of citizenship negatively affects the lives of Rohingyas in several ways. By rendering this already vulnerable group stateless, the military junta legally denied them state protection thereby making it easier for the administration to subject Rohingyas to policies and practices that constitute human rights violations. These include travel restrictions, forced labor, property confiscation and forced eviction, destruction of houses, arbitrary taxation and marriage restrictions.
Dr. Micheal W. Charney, a University of London scholar who specializes in South East Asian studies, wrote in his paper Buddhism in Arakan: Theory and Historiography of the Religious Basis of the Ethnonym that the “Rohingya […] are compelled to thrive under really testing conditions where even their personal lives are under strict state scrutiny. Whatever property they inherited from their ancestors have been forcefully taken away from them, and granted to the Buddhist majority under the banner of different national schemes that served to institutionalize and hence legitimize racist discrimination of Rohingya”.
Many minority groups face persecution from their country’s majority population. However, the persecution against the Rohingya is organized, promoted and fully sanctioned by the Burmese government. As mentioned by Benjamin Zawacki, Senior Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists, in his article Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem,” this is “a political, social, and economic system – manifested in law, policy, and practice – designed to discriminate against this ethnic and religious minority [which] makes such direct violence against the Rohingya far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise”.
The Burmese government held its last official census thirty years ago; thus, it is hard to estimate the exact proportion of the Rohingya living in Myanmar. Experts estimate they constitute a mere 5% of the total population (2 million), a number that has been in steady decline since the persecution started. However, Burmese officials state otherwise. Win Myaing, a Rakhine government spokesperson, claimed that their birth rate was ten times that of Burmese Buddhists. Also, Burmese government documents state that they account for 15% of the country’s total population, a statistic that, from the government’s point of view, legitimizes their persecution. A Rakhine politician, Shwe Maung, told The Economist that “[Rohingyas] are trying to Islamize us through their terrible birth rate.” Wirathu, a well-known and respected Buddhist monk, mentioned to Global Post “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent. They eat their own kind.” Finally, current President Thein Sein reiterated that, for the government, “the Rohingya were not citizens of Myanmar” and that he wished to “hand over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to settle them in a different country.”
These widespread beliefs, endorsed by the political and religious authorities, legitimate the discriminatory and inhumane laws. Since 1994, it has been illegal for married Rohingya to have more than two children. Ironically, a women’s only option, if she does become pregnant after having two children, is abortion, which is also illegal in Myanmar. In 2013, Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population, a senior policy official, publically supported the policy, stating that “[it] will benefit the Bengali women” basing his argumentation on the his view that “almost all of the Bengali women are very poor, uneducated.”
Aung San Suu Kyi Response
Perhaps the most disappointing part is that even Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy heroine in Myanmar and abroad, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and expected candidate for presidency for the 2015 elections, does not seem to have any interest in addressing this pressing issue. When she appeared on the BBC in October 2013 and was questioned on this topic, she denied ethnic cleansing was taking place and answered “the reaction of the Buddhists is […] based on fear.” Furthermore, she added “there’s a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great and certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world and in our country too.” In a recent interview with CNN, she specified “I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party.”
These views seem more closely aligned to those of the past military junta and the current government administration, rather than those of a woman who has fought all her life for democracy and spent years under house arrest in order to stand up for the rights of the population of Myanmar. In contrast, when US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November 2012, he took a clear stance and acknowledged “the danger of continued tensions” and stated “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.” Let’s hope that in the near future, more leaders will adopt Obama’s view and stand up for Rohingyas.