More than four years ago, two waves of sectarian violence struck Rakhine State. In the time since, Rohingya Muslims, Rakhine Buddhists, and individuals of other ethnicities and beliefs throughout the state have suffered grievous deprivations of basic rights, including inadequate access to food, water, shelter, education, and health care; restrictions on freedom of movement; denial of needed humanitarian aid; limited opportunities to obtain an education or earn a living; egregious human rights abuses resulting in death, injury, and displacement; and, in the case of Rohingya Muslims, the denial of the right to a nationality and citizenship.
Severe poverty across Rakhine State has exacerbated the situation for all who live there. Moreover, ongoing attacks by Burma’s Army, the Tatmadaw, against the Arakan Army (an ethnic armed group) and civilians have displaced hundreds of people and condemned countless children into forced labor. It is critical that all affected communities in Rakhine State receive both domestic and international humanitarian aid to lift them out of poverty and neglect.
All of this has occurred under intense international scrutiny that—paradoxically—imposed on Burma few practical consequences for such a serious escalation of abuses. Indeed, the situation is so dire for many individuals that some have called the violations crimes against humanity, or even genocide. Meanwhile, Burma’s government directly and indirectly fomented a groundswell of sometimes violent ethnoreligious nationalism with strong anti-Muslim undertones, and at the same time shunned international criticism of its growing human rights abuses.
The full scale of this crisis has been decades in the making. Historically, ethnic Rakhine (predominantly Buddhist) and ethnic Rohingya (predominantly Muslim) have experienced periods of both peaceful coexistence and ethno-religious tensions in the geographical area known today as Rakhine (or Arakan) State. In the absence of clear, well-defined borders, it is difficult to distinguish individuals indigenous to the area from those who for centuries regularly moved along the fluid western edge of Rakhine State. Muslims, including Rohingya Muslims, were among both those with organic roots to the land and those who commonly flowed across this porous region.
Following the 1962 coup led by General Ne Win, Burma’s military government maintained power in part through a divide-and-conquer strategy that pitted Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims against each other, and, in Rakhine State, ethnic Rakhine against their Rohingya neighbors. Reflecting this strategy, the government in 1982 stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and subsequently allowed violence, discrimination, and human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims to occur with impunity.
This ill treatment continues today. For several reasons, however, conditions for Rohingya Muslims deteriorated during the presidency of Thein Sein, who took office following the 2010 general elections—the first since 1990. First, the government legislated new discriminatory measures—the four “race and religion laws”—that target Rohingya Muslims and other religious minorities. Second, some individuals, including within the government and monkhood, took advantage of greater freedom to advance anti-Muslim hatred, using Facebook and other online media to fabricate and spread rumors that incited and legitimized discrimination and violent acts. Third, the government rarely held accountable perpetrators or inciters of violence.
Fourth, and perhaps most significant, is the overall political framework in which abuses against Rohingya Muslims occurred. Before Thein Sein took office, the military-controlled government characterized the elections as Burma’s return to civilian rule and a critical element in the so-called “seven-step roadmap to democracy,”2 which originated in 2003. The roadmap primarily centered around the drafting of a new national charter that ultimately resulted in the 2008 Constitution, still in effect today. That constitution, however, further entrenched the military’s power, and the military government proceeded with the national referendum vote shortly after the devastating Cyclone Nargis. Although the military outwardly stepped aside, the new quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein portrayed a façade that in practice made only nominal progress toward democratic norms.