Rory Geoghegan looks at the plight of the Rohingya people, often called “the worlds most persecuted minority.”
ON the 23rd of August, the government of Myanmar announced the establishment of a nine-member advisory commission. Chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the commission will address ongoing violence against the Rohingya ethnic minority in Rakhine state, located in the north-west of the country. The announcement comes after the National League for Democracy (NLD), of which Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader, swept to electoral victory last November, ending nearly half a century of repressive military rule.
While it is welcoming that the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who took power in March, have prioritised peace and national reconciliation, there are still major concerns regarding the Rohingya people. Reports of human rights violations by security forces in Rakhine State continue to emerge. These include accounts of unlawful killings, acts of torture, arbitrary arrests and widespread extortion of the ethnic minority.
Despite recent efforts, many have been highly critical of Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter prior to the election last November. Penny Green, a law professor of the University of London and head of the International State Crime Initiative, has stated that “in a genocide, silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
When asked about Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter, Dr. Alexander Dukalskis, an assistant professor of the School of Politics and International Relations in UCD, said that: “recognizing or supporting the Rohingya is an unpopular move domestically in Myanmar. There is a controversy about whether this group should even be called ‘Rohingya’. The NLD perceives that it has to be responsive to citizen preferences and, unfortunately for the Rohingya people, most such citizens are not sympathetic to the Rohingya cause.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group, of around 1.33 million people, in the predominantly Buddhist country of Myanmar, with most located in Rakhine state. While the population of Myanmar as a whole suffered under repressive military rule for the past 50 years, the Rohingya have been particularly singled out.
Only 40,000 of the 1.33 million Rohingya in Myanmar are citizens. The remaining 1.29 million are stateless due to the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which denies the Rohingya equal access to citizenship and the rights it entails. Indeed, under the previous military government of Myanmar, the Rohingya were not even considered to be a distinct ethnic minority. Instead, they were referred to as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who pose a threat to “national security”.
Many Rakhine Buddhists claim to feel threatened by the Muslim population and are intent on forcing the Rohingya out of what they consider to be their exclusive ancestral homeland. Dr. Dukalskis notes that the tensions between the local Buddhist population and the local Rohingya are the result of a “complicated history… that involves colonial borders, ethnicity, religion, statelessness and nationalism”.
While ethno-religious tensions between local Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have persisted for generations, a notable increase in violence between the two groups occurred in 2012. In June and October of that year intercommunal violence between local Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya communities erupted in Rakhine state after an Arakan girl was brutally gang raped.
Nearly 200 people were killed in the riots, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya, with around 140,000 people being displaced and forced to live in internal refugee camps. An independent report by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) concluded that the 2012 riots were ‘pre-planned’. Buses were organised to bring people in to participate in the riots and meals and refreshments were provided for the rioters. This contradicted the government narrative that the riots were simply uncontrolled intercommunal clashes.
The Lowenstein Clinic at Yale University examined evidence obtained by both Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit and Fortify Rights, a human rights NGO based in Myanmar, regarding government involvement in the violence against the Rohingya. The law clinic concluded that there was “strong evidence” of a genocide coordinated by the Myanmar government.
Following the riots, the military backed government of Myanmar intensified its system of control over the Rohingya people; a system designed to make daily life unbearable for the ethnic minority. They are denied the ability to travel, even for medical treatment, and the supply of food to the camps is extremely low. All Rohingya, whether they live in camps or not, have to seek official permission to marry.
Many have been forced into unpaid labour to help government-run projects and Human Rights Watch reports that children as young as seven have been forced into free labour. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country and many thousands have been forced onto boats, brought out to sea and left to die.
It is hoped that the newly formed commission will be able to begin solving the problem of violence against the Rohingya. However, its establishment is not popular and this may have an effect on the commission’s outcomes. More than 1,000 Buddhists from Rakhine state protested the arrival of the commission’s chair, Kofi Annan, claiming that the former UN Secretary General is meddling in the country’s affairs.
Whether the commission can find solutions or not is a question which has come too late for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have been subjected to extreme violence, torture, exile, human trafficking, rape and other forms of exploitation.