The Rohingya are a Muslim-majority ethnic group located in a region of Myanmar called Rakhine State, where they have been living for centuries. Until recently, it was estimated that about 1.1 million Rohingya resided in the Buddhist-majority country. But, only in the last few months, about 624,000 of them have crossed the border into neighbouring Bangladesh in what some deem to be the worst refugee crisis in decades, with the weekly refugee outflow from Myanmar being the highest since the Rwandan genocide.
In order to understand why this is happening, we need to first dig a little deeper into the historical context of the Rohingya’s persecution. In 1982, only 34 years after Myanmar had gained its independence from the United Kingdom, a citizenship law was passed in order to establish the conditions under which one could gain Burmese citizenship. Under this law, the Rohingya were not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. It also established 3 levels of citizenship and, in order to obtain even the most basic one of them, there must be proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar prior to it gaining its independence, as well as fluency in one of the national languages. This was practically impossible for the Rohingya, which either lacked the necessary paperwork or spoke their own language, Rohingya, which is – of course – not recognised as an official language in Myanmar. This has rendered many Rohingya stateless, further denying them full access to healthcare, education and other vital facilities.
As if this wasn’t enough, in 1991-92, violent persecution from the army forced about 600,000 Rohingya to flee the country. But what has unfolded over the course of the last three months is unprecedented. On August 25th, a group of militant Rohingya Muslims attacked police bases in northern Myanmar. These attacks were used as justification for violent crackdowns by the military in Rohingya communities, where soldiers burned villages, killed civilians and raped countless women. Terrified, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya left their homes and headed for safety, in Bangladesh. UN reports have confirmed the violence, while UN officials have called the crisis in Myanmar a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
What do Burmese authorities have to say? The government and the army have repeatedly denied the accusations. State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has repeatedly avoided the subject, refusing to lend her support to the more than 1 million Rohingya living in the country. On September 19, she gave a television address, condemning “all human rights violations” in Rakhine State, failing to mention anything about the Rohingya themselves. She has further stated that her government is prepared to take the necessary steps in order to facilitate the return of some of the refugees back home, but whether this will actually happen and what would happen after their return remains to be seen. Until then, the plight of the Rohingya and their quest to live a decent life will continue.
This article was brought to you by Teodor Grama,
high school sophomore, political & international relations enthusiast,
debater, MUNer, part-time writer and full-time procrastinator