Over 70,000 people left Myanmar after police and army conducted a security operation directed against the Rohingya ethnic minority last October. The ongoing crisis serves as an example of a long-term internal conflict within Myanmar, as well as international organizations’ deficit of power in terms of peacekeeping.
On 9 October 2016, an insurgency organization called Harakah al-Yaqin conducted attacks on border posts, killing 9 police workers. The Burmese army, aiming to capture the perpetrators, responded with a major action against Rohingya people with a high human cost. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces committed a massive number of atrocities, which made thousands of people seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Additionally, further 23,000 people became displaced within the country.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is inhabited by various ethnic groups who speak multiple languages. Rohingya people are one of such minorities and live mostly in Rakhine state in the Western part of Myanmar, once known as an independent kingdom. According to different theories, they are either native to Rakhine or originated from various groups of migrants. The Rohingya distinguish themselves by their affiliation with Islam, in contrast to the rest of Myanmar’s people who are predominantly Buddhists. Religious differences contributed to communal tensions, which were strengthened by the British and Japanese rule of Myanmar. The result was numerous clashes between the Rohingya and other ethnic groups, such as Rakhines and Red Karens. Upon receiving independence in 1948, the new Burmese government decided not to recognize the Rohingya people as citizens of Myanmar. Various Rohingya activists, disillusioned with the British’s unfulfilled promise of granting Rakhine state with autonomy, formed separatist movements. They proposed the incorporation of Rakhine to Muslim-dominated Pakistan, provoking a sharp response from Myanmar’s government.
The 50 years that followed were filled with the Rohingya people’s attempts to conduct armed insurgency through Burmese military’s security operations, causing thousands of civilians to cross the Burmese-Bangladeshi border and resulting in Bangladesh’s effort to solve the refugee crisis by signing repatriation agreements. Today, the Rohingya people are regarded as one of the most persecuted ethnic minority in the world, as they are denied Burmese citizenship and in the consequence their right to vote, access to education, healthcare and jobs.
In February, the United Nations issued a report which documented the scope of atrocities committed against Rohingya people, including mass killings, rapes and beatings. It was based on testimonies provided by over 200 refugees who fled to Bangladesh. The report was undermined by the Burmese government, who described the accusations as ‘exaggerated’ and claimed that this issue was an internal affair of Myanmar. Such a stance has a negative impact on the image of Aung San Suu Kyi. A Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recognized for her work towards democracy in Myanmar, San Suu Kyi remains the president of National League for Democracy, the country’s ruling party. She has been criticized for her silence on the issue of the Rohingya and for, apparently, taking very little action against human rights violations committed by the army. Her inactivity stirred up questions over her real influence on current Burmese politics.
The October attack on border posts marks the Rohingya people’s growing radicalization. Since post-war insurgency attempts, no major anti-Burmese acts of violence were committed. However, the development of Harakah al-Yaqin indicates people’s weariness with long-term persecution. The organization was formed shortly after the 2012 riots between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state which caused 78 deaths and the displacement of around 140,000 people. Being controlled by Rohingya expats based in Mecca, Harakah al-Yaqin aims to secure the ethnic minority’s rights. It is not an entirely terrorist organization, as its members have never attacked civilians, but rather made Burmese security forces their main target. Nonetheless, the large amount of support received by al-Yaqin from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, combined with the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya, might contribute to a development of a jihadist group in Southeast Asia.
The crisis exposed the degree of violence suffered by the Rohingya, with some experts recognizing it as a genocide. According to a study by the International State Crime Initiative and the Queen Mary University of London, Rohingya people ‘face the final stages of genocide’. The issue of the Rohingya caught the attention of Amnesty International, governments of neighboring states and the U.S State Department. However, besides documenting the atrocities and condemning the army’s actions, no action aiming to alleviate the crisis was successfully taken. The Burmese government still denies foreign accusations, relying rather on its own devices to address the crisis.
The international community’s lack of appropriate action was especially visible this week when European Union diplomats drafted a resolution concerning the Rohingya people issue. According to Reuters, the draft recognizes the “very serious nature of the allegations”, but does not seek for an international investigation to be conducted by the UN Human Rights Council. Instead, EU diplomats chose to rely on “an existing mechanism”, which was based on their close cooperation with the Burmese government. This decision was also motivated by an European willingness to let Myanmar’s local authorities to handle the issue. However, various organizations, including Human Rights Watch, warn that the Burmese government might not be able to conduct the investigation in a proper manner; in a way, this decision undermines the credibility of European diplomats’ assessment that Burma is capable of dealing with the situation with its own devices. Perhaps one reason for the reluctance towards taking strong action might be the concern that any clear interference of foreign powers in Burmese affairs could negatively affect the balance of political power between the army and the current government, achieved just several years ago.
The issue of Rohingya people constitutes a major problem, which if left to resolve on its own may escalate and pose a major threat to international community. A lack of support and the constant violation of human rights from the Burmese authorities may prompt more members of persecuted community into terrorism and extremist acts, whose range can eventually extend outside Burma. Therefore, the significance of the problem should not be neglected by international community. With no clear solution to the crisis, it is crucial to keep it in mind and work towards its possible alleviation.