The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the Rakhine state of Buddhist-majority Myanmar (formerly Burma), are referred to by some area experts as “the most persecuted minority on Earth.” This year, persecution from the Rakhine Buddhists has driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to jam themselves on unsafe boats, often putting their lives in the hands of traffickers. When they arrive in what they hope are safe harbors, such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, or Thailand, they often still must contend with poverty and discrimination, and in the most horrific cases, put their lives in danger. A sickening demonstration of their everyday horrors came in late May 2015, when a mass grave of 139 Rohingya migrants was uncovered in Malaysia. For those who choose to remain, a copy of the Rakhine State Action Plan leaked in October 2014 sends a clear message that they have no home in Myanmar. The Plan states explicitly that Rohingya will soon be moved to camps in unspecified locations and eventually deported. For the Rohingya, nothing is certain; any day, their lives could be in danger.
Tensions between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists can be traced back several hundred years. While some Rohingya have ancestry in Arakan, as the region was formerly called, most families immigrated under British colonial rule. Beginning in the 1820’s, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya flooded into what was then known as Burma to find work in the thriving rice industry. As with other cases of Western colonization, the native Burmese deeply resented their colonial rulers, not in the least part because the British controlled immigration policy. Consequently, the immigrants were widely viewed as complicit cohorts of the imperialists. The conflicts set the stage for the persecution, violence, and oppression the Rohingya have experienced in the past two centuries.
The Rohingya lived in relative peace in Burma until 1942, when, in typical colonial fashion, British forces recruited the Rohingya to help counter a Japanese invasion. This, however, only escalated the existing conflicts between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. This period of turbulence ignited on March 28, 1942 in the Rakhine State Massacre. In an outburst of horrific violence, the Rohingya killed around 20,000 Arakan-state Burmese, while the Rakhine nationalists killed around 5000 Muslims. People all over the region were brutally raped, tortured, and murdered. From that day forward, two communities, the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists, were pitted against one another in pure hatred.
As the century progressed, laws began to reflect the existing informal prejudice. Most abruptly, in 1962, the military took control of the government, which lead to the installation of apartheid-like laws. From a legal perspective, the final blow came in 1982, when as a result of enthusiastic nationalist movements, the government passed the 1982 Citizenship Law. The text lists 135 ethnic groups that qualify as citizens, the Rohingya not among them. To the chagrin of the global community, this has rendered 1.3 million people stateless, preventing equitable access to medical or educational facilities, work, and the criminal justice system. This nationalist law effectively sent the Rohingya hurtling toward the poverty and oppression they face today. Many had hopes that the 2011 democratic reforms would signify an end to the oppression and human rights abuses suffered by the Rohingya. Unfortunately, however, the debates only seemed to inspire more fervent nationalism, which further marginalized the ethnic group.
This sinister descent continued, and in 2012, anti-Muslim groups, including the Buddhist 696, began rioting violently. From March to October of that year, at least 167 Rohingya were killed and 100,000 were displaced from their homes. The Rohingya lived in terror as arson attacks and assaults continued to occur without consequence for the perpetrators. In turn, Rohingya began fleeing from Myanmar in hordes. Human rights experts are calling the modern state of affairs in Rakhine State genocide.
Regrettably, there is little hope that the Rohingya’s persecution will diminish. On one end, Aung San Suu Kyi, a tireless leader in human rights and democracy, has not spoken a word in defense of the Rohingya, and the Rohingya feel hopeless and abandoned without her support. On another end, world powers such as the United States have not made the plight of the Rohingya a priority. For instance, since the passing of House Resolution 418, which urges the Government of Myanmar to respect internationally recognized human rights for the Rohingya, no additional legislature has come from the House that may help the resolution become a reality.
To this effect, humanitarian aid organizations have grown smaller in numbers as the violence and persecution have grown worse against the Rohingya. For example, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was only allowed to resume medical operations in Rakhine in 2014 after time consuming and expensive negotiations with Myanmar’s government. This delay likely cost many lives, as medical systems that cater to Rohingya are rare.
To make matters worse, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which now possesses Fast Track Authority, does not allow laws to be passed that may harm the profits of international corporations. This will undoubtedly lead to exploitation of vulnerable Rohingya seeking jobs in TPP countries, because the passing of laws protecting workers could harm profits. According to Dr. Tun Myint, Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton College, the issue will likely not be a priority, due to the complexity of the agreement. He states, “It depends on how people who want to advocate the rights of migrant workers and the right of Rohingya understand the issue.” The global community has thus far let the Rohingya suffer without meaningful intervention.
As Rohingya continue to board dangerous ships to escape Myanmar, it is more important now than ever that this ethnic minority receive some support from the international community. According to Professor Myint, “The most pressing challenge is fulfilling the seven ingredients of human security for the Rohingya in Myanmar.” These seven focus areas include economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security. Humanitarian aid organizations have huge power to improve food, environmental, health, and economic security; the creativity and will to endure harsh circumstances on the part of NGOs could mean the difference between medical care and death, nutrition and starvation. However, political and personal security may ultimately require governments to become involved. It is within their power and that of the UN to ensure that the Rohingya are offered citizenship––and the educational, healthcare, and other benefits that come with it––in Myanmar.