The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar that has primarily lived in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh in western Myanmar for at least 200 years. The Myanmar government and others in the country refer to them as “Bengalis” or “illegal migrants,” a reference to the nineteenth century migration of laborers and merchants from India under British rule. Denied citizenship for decades, they have suffered from discrimination, forced labor, and campaigns of violence, which the Irish Centre for Human Rights and others have characterized as crimes against humanity.
Over 230,000 Rohingya refugees have subsisted in squalid camps in Bangladesh for over 30 years, with minimal access to jobs, services, or citizenship there. Sexual and physical attacks against refugee women and girls have also been documented. Other nations in the region have not welcomed Rohingya refugees, holding them in crowded detention centers or literally pushing their rickety boats back to sea. The Rohingya thus represent one of the world’s most protracted and desperate cases of statelessness.
The global silence that has greeted the plight of the Rohingya has shifted from uncomfortable to unconscionable. As the world rushes to take part in helping to bring about a long-awaited political transition while also gaining access to economic resources in Myanmar, it is essential to reflect on how international engagement is enabling the gravest international crimes and a humanitarian crisis to unfold. Preventing more persecution must become a global priority.
Myanmar began its political transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 2011, but since then, radical Buddhist groups have exploited greater freedom of expression to propagate hate speech against Muslim minorities. These groups have characterized the Muslims as “a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.” Citing Adolf Hitler, a Rakhine political party has said that crimes against humanity, even the Holocaust, are justified “in defense of national sovereignty” and “survival of a race.”
Religious nationalist movements, such as one known as 969, push for a ban on interfaith marriages and distribute lists of Muslim shops to avoid. Ostensibly moderate Buddhists express concern that Muslim minorities, comprising 4 percent to 8 percent of the national population of 55 million, are growing too fast. The Rohingya inside Myanmar are estimated to number about 1 million.
Inter-communal violence in 2012 and 2013 resulted in around 250 deaths and more than 180,000 persons internally displaced, with many Rohingya confined to camps and villages where they need a permit to leave or seek health care. In February 2014, the government banned Doctors Without Borders, the main health care provider in a region where tuberculosis and malnutrition are widespread. Government security forces reportedly did little to stop radical Buddhists from raiding Red Cross and United Nations aid agencies, forcing over 300 foreign aid workers to evacuate. Members of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist community claim that providers of humanitarian assistance favor the Rohingya, which the aid agencies strongly deny, as they also provide services to ethnic Rakhine groups.
Young children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable, and deaths in the camps are feared to have increased sharply since assistance was cut off. While the World Food Program has been allowed to deliver rice and oil (presumably to avert negative publicity from mass starvation), the World Health Organization has reported that this program is dangerously inadequate. Surveying a group of women holding “emaciated babies,” a medical assistant concluded: “These children are only being fed rice. If these conditions continue, all the babies will die.”
A number of theories may help explain international apathy on the Rohingya’s plight. Without doubt, Myanmar’s political transition is a delicate process that few are reluctant to upset after waiting more than 50 years – during which millions suffered under repression, conflict, and poverty – for the picturesque country to open itself up to liberal ideals and increased trade. Western governments, including the United States, are anxious to limit Chinese influence. Additionally, the group’s statelessness may create a sense that no government is responsible for guaranteeing their rights.
There is also a cognitive dissonance created by outsiders’ perception of Buddhism as a pacifist, compassionate religion that is not easily connected to violence against marginalized Muslims. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured) has condemned violence generally, but as a politician navigating a dicey context, she has not raised specific concerns about the Rohingya. Last and perhaps most cynically, despite the Rohingya’s profound misery, levels of violence and death have not yet reached that elusive threshold that attracts significant media attention.
But dynamics at play here raise urgent concerns about genocide applicable to many cases: dehumanizing rhetoric, unpunished physical attacks, crowding a minority into unprotected camps where basic rights and services are denied, and deliberately limiting access to information about the group’s living conditions and mortality rates.
Beyond the 1948 Genocide Convention, international law and policy have come far in providing bases for recognizing and responding to such situations before extreme violence and death arise. Upon the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, during which more than 800,000 people were killed, widespread calls of “never again” echoed loud and clear. Following ethnic violence in Rwanda and the Balkans, the position of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide was created at the UN to provide early warning and make recommendations to the Security Council on measures to prevent or stop genocide.
This work has continued. In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, under which states pledged to act collectively to protect populations from ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In 2008, the Genocide Prevention Task Force, led by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recommended early action to prevent crises and timely diplomatic responses to emerging crises. And in 2012, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, reaffirming principles of nondiscrimination and equality as well as rights to nationality, asylum, and peace.
While the basis for concerted action to change the status quo is clear, unraveling decades of interethnic distrust and virulent ideology on the ground will not be easy. First, out of consideration for the most basic right to life, comprehensive humanitarian assistance for all vulnerable people must be restored and secured. Religious and community leaders must work jointly to disempower extremist rhetoric and promote tolerance through interfaith dialogues and informal dispute resolution. Increased engagement by prominent figures such as the Dalai Lama, who has condemned violence against Muslims in Myanmar, could bolster these efforts. Police reform is needed to strengthen community policing and riot control. Growing, radicalized populations are less likely if the Rohingya are permitted access to health care, education, and livelihoods rather than concentrated into camps. The legal status of Rohingya in Myanmar must be normalized once and for all. Last, all groups living in Rakhine State should see tangible benefits from economic and political reform.
But for such efforts to stand any chance, the Myanmar Government and citizens must be genuinely convinced that existing policies are not serving their interests in stability, development, and international standing. In the 21st century, a state that condones or does nothing in the face of such ethnic cleansing cannot earn recognition, much less the tax dollars and investment of UN and ASEAN members pledged to rule of law and human rights. As President Obama has said, “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed.” Similarly, the international community fundamentally undermines itself if it embraces Myanmar and does nothing while this persecution persists.
Katherine G. Southwick is an attorney, Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, and Research Associate at the Centre for Asian Legal Studies at the National University of Singapore. She has previously worked for humanitarian and human rights organizations in India, the Philippines, Uganda, and the United States.