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Photo by Megan White
At the close of Monday’s U.N. General Assembly Meeting, Myanmar’s ambassador insisted that there is no “ethnic cleansing” or genocide taking place against Muslims in his nation. Hau Do Suan objected to what he referred to as “unsubstantiated allegations” made by other countries who spoke out about the plight of over 420,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar since Aug. 25.
Suan insists that the situation is “extremely complex.” The Aug. 25 attack by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Myanmar’s security forces escalated tensions between Rohingyas and majority Buddhists. Last October, a similar insurgent attack on security forces, which was meant to bring attention to the government’s human rights abuses against the Rohingya population, spurred retaliation from Myanmar’s military.
As Myanmar continues its crusade against Rohingya Muslims, people around the world are left wondering why this ethnic group is being targeted so aggressively. The Rohingya, the majority of whom are Muslim, have lived in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for generations. Prior to the 2016-2017 crisis, there were over 1 million Rohingya residing in the Rakhine State. Historians estimate that some Rohingya were living in this Southeast Asian region as early as the 12th century.
Unfortunately, the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar is not a new phenomenon.
Myanmar was under British rule for nearly a century beginning in 1824. During this time, Bengali laborers from surrounding nations of India and Bangladesh were encouraged by the British to migrate to Myanmar to provide cheap labor. The majority of the native population of Myanmar resented these waves of migration, viewing the migrants as direct threats to their nationalism.
When Myanmar eventually gained its independence in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was swiftly passed, identifying specific ethnicities and “indigenous races” that were eligible to gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not included on this list. However, the act did allow people whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identification cards. Under this generational provision, the government granted many Rohingya identification cards and in some cases, citizenship.
Unfortunately, a military coup in 1962 drastically changed how the government treated the Rohingya population. Instead of receiving national registration cards, the Rohingya were given foreign identity cards, restricting the types of jobs and educational opportunities they could obtain.
By 1982, the passage of a new citizenship law that required proof that a person’s family resided in Myanmar prior to 1948 effectively pushed Rohingya off of the nation’s list of recognized ethnic groups. The government argues that there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya. Instead, they are viewed as Bengalis who illegally migrated to Myanmar from Bangladesh during colonial rule. This denial of citizenship has left over 1 million people stateless for the past three decades.
As a result of their lack of citizenship, the rights of Rohingya people to travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services as they so choose continues to be restricted. Most of the Rohingya who live in Myanmar reside in Rahkine State, one of the poorest states in the country. They are not allowed to leave the area without government permission. These restrictions confine the Rohingya population to a region plagued by ghetto-like camps that lack basic services and whose conditions have been compared to apartheid South Africa. For these reasons and many more, the U.N. has labeled the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted religious minorities.
A series of crackdowns by Myanmar security forces on the Rohingya have resulted in the rape, torture and murder of innocent people. In 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rahkine State as riots broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rahkines. In 2015, thousands of Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh boarded rickety boats and set sail for various Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. These refugees sought asylum from the violence and persecution they were experiencing at home.
All eyes will be on Myanmar as the nation begins to address this humanitarian crisis.