Rohingya crisis: Ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Muslims a culmination of two centuries of sectarian violence

The Rohingya persecution is now a clear, concentrated effort aimed at an ethic minority. Such efforts rarely take place without a history.

FP Staff September 22, 2017 15:34:36 IST
Rohingya crisis: Ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Muslims a culmination of two centuries of sectarian violence

The phrase "ethnic cleansing" refers to the the expulsion, imprisonment or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority, in order to achieve demographic homogeneity. In simpler words, the majority gets rid of the minority. In the past, dictators like Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi have been accused of ethnic cleansing, and the regime in Myanmar is now being accused of it as well.

Myanmar's military-backed civilian government has been accused of ethnic cleansing by the United Nations, French president Emmanuel Macron, and by Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

The New York Times said that Myanmar is "following a global pattern in ethnic cleansing", while The Washington Post wrote that Myanmar's ethnic cleansing is "the most brutal the world has seen in years".

The Rohingya persecution is now a clear, concentrated effort aimed at an ethic minority. But the unrest in the South East Asian country isn't a recent development, and it has a long history behind it.

Tensions have been simmering for decades

While the situation has worsened recently, tensions between the majority Buddhists and the minority Rohingya in Rakhine state of Myanmar date back to the beginning of British rule in 1824.

Rohingya crisis Ethnic cleansing of Myanmars Muslims a culmination of two centuries of sectarian violence

A Rohingya Muslim boy, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, pleads with aid workers. AP

Buddhists and Muslims are the two largest ethnic groups in Myanmar; while Buddhists are a large majority, the Rohingya are a group that originated in what is today Bangladesh, according to this BBC report. The report mentions that a large proportion of the Rohingya population is concentrated in west Myanmar, while other Muslim communities have also been attacked in central Myanmar.

As per the AFP news agency, the British colonists favoured Muslims at the expense of other groups. They recruited them as soldiers during World War II, pitting them against Buddhists aligned with the Japanese as the war played out on Burmese soil.

Their status was fortified in 1947 when a new Constitution was drafted, enshrining them with full legal and voting rights, which would be later stripped to render them State-less. Rakhine has a poverty rate nearing 80 percent, double the national average, kindling resentments over ethnic claims to the area.

Muslims — including Rohingyas — make up roughly 4 percent of Myanmar's 53 million population. However, they are concentrated in Rakhine state, as more that 1.1 million Muslims live there.

It is here that the Myanmarese nationalist angst flares up. Francis Wade, the author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other, told The Atlantic, "There’s been a longstanding fear of Islamic cultures encroaching on Myanmar and weakening a national identity centred around Buddhism, and the violence of the past five years, which is spun as being largely perpetrated by Rohingya, confirms this in the minds of many.There are also local anxieties felt by Rakhine [Buddhists] which are often material in nature — that Rohingya are taking land, overwhelming resources, and so on — but these feed into a wider narrative that sees events in western Myanmar in more symbolic terms, of a conquest underway that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty and, as a result, one of the last bastions of Buddhism.”

According to The Telegraph, after World War II, Myanmar authorities started treating Rohingyas as illegal, interloping Bengalis. They were made to face apartheid-like conditions which denied them free movement or State education while the government intermittently forced them out and even slaughtered them.

In June 2012, sectarian violence flared up following the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman in a Rohingya-dominated locality, reported The Hindu. The resulting riots went on for almost a month. Further riots broke out in October after which the government moved a million Rohingyas to refugee camps. Thousands of Rohingyas fled their homes and sought refuge in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The conflict was contained after military intervention, the report added.

Tensions mounted again in October 2016, when a small and previously unknown militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), staged a series of deadly attacks on Burmese military forces. The army responded with a massive crackdown, sparking a new wave of refugee arrivals into Bangladesh.

On 25 August, ARSA again launched an attack on army installations in Rakhine, triggering another brutal military campaign in response.

Violent Buddhists

What has surprised many is that Buddhists, who are generally considered peaceful, have taken to such brutal violence. However, as BBC wrote, sooner or later, every religion enters into a Faustian pact with the State. Buddhist monks looked to kings for support and patronage. The kings in turn asked monks to provide popular legitimacy for the monarchy which religion alone could provide. This finally boiled down to justifying violence to ensure a greater good.

The report further pointed out that Myanmar's monks had the moral authority to challenge the military junta and argue for democracy during the 'Saffron Revolution' of 2007. While they initially took part in peaceful protests, the monks ended up paying with their lives. This time they are taking a different route: That of violence.

International aid blocked

Matters have taken a depressing turn, as human rights groups are being denied access to the Rohingyas. On Wednesday, 300 Buddhists in Rakhine's capital Sittwe gathered at a jetty where a boat carrying relief goods was preparing to travel up the river to Maungdaw, Reuters said.

A mob forced the boat to unload the aid and stopped it from leaving. Aid groups fear that tens of thousands trapped in Rakhine are desperate for support, even though humanitarian access remains difficult despite the government's promise to allow safe passage.

As international pressure mounts on Myanmar to resolve the situation, de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday said that the national government was making "every effort to restore peace and stability" and is interested in conducting a verification process for the Rohingya Muslims forced to flee due to army operations. She reached out to the global community in a broad appeal for support, urging outsiders to help her nation unite across religious and ethnic lines.

While Suu Kyi's statement is a step in the right direction, history shows that the Rohingyas have little reason to be optimistic at this time.

With inputs from AFP

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