Analysis | The Rohingya Road to Genocide: Myanmar's Intractable Tragedy

Analysis | The Rohingya Road to Genocide: Myanmar's Intractable Tragedy

Addison Notarantonio

- Specialist in Economics and Southeast Asian Affairs for The International Scholar
- Junior Litigation Paralegal at Covington & Burling LLP in New York City, NY.

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Over two months ago, on August 25, Myanmar security forces in Northern Rakhine State were attacked by Rohingya militants. Myanmar security forces responded to the attacks with one of the largest domestic crackdowns in the country since the uprisings of 1988 - causing one of the greatest refugee crises of this century. The Rakhine State borders Bangladesh, and since the initial violent retaliations by the Myanmar security forces, over half a million of Rohingya have fled across the border.

The exodus of Rohingya has escalated to the point of surpassing those caused by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where over half a million Hutus and Tutsis were killed over three months.

For many in Western society, the catastrophic events unravelling on the Western coast of Myanmar might seem to come out of left field. Yet the Rohingya have faced similar treatment for decades, only recently reaching a tipping point which caused it to flash across international headlines. Why has it taken this long for the world to take notice of the humanitarian and political crisis of the Rohingya in Myanmar?

The Road to Political Turmoil and Violence
Over the last century, Myanmar has become the beacon of political and economic instability.  Since its separation from British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar has succumbed to traumatizing political disfiguration, violence, manipulation, and turmoil.  This consequently lead to the 8888 Uprisings (August 8, 1988), which further isolated Myanmar from the international community.  Extreme actions by the oppressive military government were taken to close all borders to foreigners and media.

In 1962 senior military officers arranged a coup d’état which ceded all power to the repressive mandate of General Ne Win (Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP)), who established Burma’s one-party system presiding over an isolationist dictatorship. The aim was to consolidate control of the economy through a national socialist revolution by limiting foreign influence, which ultimately strengthened the political dominance of the military.

The ethnic and religious division, mutual hatred, and lack of expression in Myanmar have perpetuated the violence within its borders for the last half century.

History also played a contributing role in Myanmar's isolationism. As part of the former Dominion of India, Myanmar's borders were dictated by the people's religious affiliation; India was made of Hindus, Bangladesh (then part of Pakistan) was comprised of Muslims, and the Burmese, Buddhists. The Rohingya are Muslim, had been living in the Rakhine State of Burma, were issued citizenship identification cards and had even been granted right to vote, for decades after Myanmar’s new claimed independence.

However, in the late 1980s, an anti-Muslim fever swept through the country, complicating life for Muslims residing in most regions of the country.  Those that faced the worst persecution, xenophobia, and racism were the stateless Muslim minority group living in the Rakhine State - the Rohingya. Further complicating matters, in 2012 three Rohingya men reportedly raped and murdered a Buddhist woman in retaliation for the violent repression of the Rohingya over the last three decades  Ethnic tensions over the allegations quickly boiled over into conflict, resulting in , the death of 200 people.  Yet more troubling, local security forces allowed the violence to continue to escalate for days before intervening.

The ethnic and religious division, mutual hatred, and lack of expression in Myanmar have perpetuated the violence within its borders for the last half century.

Correlations with the Holocaust
The assault on the Rohingya has been categorized as an attempt at genocide, or an act of ethnic cleansing. However, the term “ethnic cleansing” has proven problematic in describing the political climate in Myanmar, as it masquerades the real issues at hand. Women and children are being killed, rapped, burned and driven out of their homes by the hundreds of thousands, or forced into isolation as refugees in neighboring states. The images of these events draw striking parallels to the exodus of the Jews in Europe shortly before and during World War II. Ultimately, it was the aftermath of the Holocaust that garnered international cooperation in legal, humanitarian and political fronts. For it was after World War II, an international community was organized, known today as the United Nations.

The United Nations was organized to prevent these very situations from recurring in our society, so it’s first order was passing the Genocide Convention in 1948, which forbids any series of acts committed with the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” (read more). This also became the first time the term “genocide” had been used on an international platform as a way to most accurately describe the horrors of such events without tip-toeing around the truth.  If there is anything to be learned from the treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust, it is how limited access to work, food, and stable living conditions can strategically isolate and weaken an entire community, perpetuating a vicious cycle of vulnerability and instability. This is exactly what has been happening to the Rohingya, with no intervention from the Myanmar government.

Why Aiding the Rohingya is Problematic
The issue with the Rohingya is that many believe them to be illegal Bengali migrants with different moral standards who desire the spread of Islamic ways in a predominantly Buddhist country.  Therefore, unless Myanmar allows investigators or external observers into the region, there will be no way to gain access to the area to investigate allegations of abuses and violations to the UN-Genocide Convention. Blocking foreign entrance also hinders the ability to report on this humanitarian crisis on an international scale accurately, leaving the entire world  still in the dark about the horrors within the borders of Myanmar. But this has been ongoing for the last 25 years, so why is it just now gaining media attention?

While the crisis in Myanmar is not new it has become obvious the situation has only grown worse by looking at the numbers fleeing the country - 140,000 alone have fled since 2012. Bordering countries like Bangladesh had been allowing the Rohingya for years but have reached their economic and political limits and have been ordering Rohingya to turn back. Similarly, countries like India and across the sea Malaysia and Indonesia, have had to refuse the entry of Rohingya because they do not have the means financially to support an influx to their populations. These densely populated regions do not have the resources to support the number of refugees fleeing Myanmar which has caused major setbacks to those seeking refuge.

While the initial resentments to the Rohingya were religious, it is clear the issues run far deeper economically, socially and politically.

What more can we do? Well, the UN has made attempts at trying to get political and economic reforms in Myanmar to allow the Rohingya full citizenship with equal rights, but the government has refused. However, they are willing to accept the terms if the Rohingya identify as Bengalis, which the Rohingya are in disagreement with. Making matters worse, there is no incentive for the government to help, as the Rakhine state is Myanmar’s poorest region making them a social and economic burden to a country trying to thrive. While the initial resentments to the Rohingya were religious, it is clear the issues run far deeper economically, socially and politically. Even if Western society had details on the crisis in Myanmar, there is little one can do to amend the situation. The UN and the Myanmar government are at odds, and this is where hard negotiations need to take place in order to put an end to the decades of unrest.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Banner Photo Credit: "Rohingya: A People in Trouble," by Erin Harper, Vimeo
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