Explainer: What’s happening to the Rohingya Muslims?
Have you lost track of the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, and why they are considered a persecuted minority? Confused about the situation in Myanmar, and why previously saintly Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be rapidly ceding her moral high ground? Wondering if South Africa is doing anything about what is widely regarded as a human rights catastrophe? We have you covered. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Who are the Rohingya Muslims?
Technically they are just “the Rohingya”, the majority of whom happen to be Muslim. They are a group who live in north-west Myanmar, squeezed between that country and Bangladesh. Neither Myanmar or Bangladesh will give them citizenship.
It’s complicated. The Rohingya have roots in what is now Myanmar which stretch back centuries, but are very much a distinct group to the rest of the Myanmar population. They speak their own dialect, for instance, and their religion puts them at odds with Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
During the British colonial occupation of Myanmar (then Burma), Myanmar was treated as a province of India. The British thus permitted free movement between India and Myanmar because they considered it a form of internal migration. The Myanmar government now sees the movement that occurred during that period as illegal, and a threat to Myanmar sovereignty. This is the basis on which it now refuses citizenship to the Rohingya, and treats the group as illegal immigrants. Al Jazeera reports that many in Myanmar still consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
How long has this been going on for?
When the Japanese invaded then-Burma in 1942 during World War II, over 20,000 Rohingya fled to what was then Bengal and is now Bangladesh. Those who returned to Burma were considered illegal immigrants. Their treatment prompted uprisings from the Rohingya in the 1950s, crushed when Pakistan jailed the leader of the insurgencies. Oppression of the Rohingya stepped up after the Burmese military junta took power in 1962, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in the 1970s. A similar exodus occurred in the 1990s.
Why can’t the Rohingya stay in Bangladesh?
The Bangladeshi government has repeatedly described them as a social and economic burden. With the aid of the United Nations, the Rohingya were housed in refugee camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, but Bangladesh has periodically insisted they return to Myanmar, against the wishes of the Myanmar government (and often against the wishes of the refugees themselves). There are still almost 500.000 Rohingya living in camps in atrocious conditions in Bangladesh, and this January Bangladesh proposed – not for the first time – to move them to a remote, inhospitable island.
What kind of conditions do they face in Myanmar?
The Rohingya face persecution both by government and by wider Myanmar society. Human Rights Watch has reported that they have endured forced labour, rape, and religious persecution. In 2012 at least 70 Rohingya were reported killed in a single massacre allegedly aided by state security forces. They have restricted rights to work and travel, and can enter certain professions like law and politics only in limited numbers. Global rights groups have repeatedly termed the oppression of the Rohingya a “crime against humanity” that amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.
Why has this all flared up again now?
It’s actually been steadily building up for almost a year, before reaching the current media tipping-point. Nine members of the Myanmar border police were killed in October 2016 in attacks blamed on the the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group which says it is fighting for Rohingya freedom but which the Myanmar government has labelled “terrorists”. The police deaths have led to a crackdown by government troops, allegedly involving indiscriminate shooting of Rohingya and the burning of their villages.
In February, the UN Human Rights Commission released a devastating report of the killing of Rohingya men, women and children. Among the incidents recorded: “An eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers.”
The latest military crackdown began in late August after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked further Myanmar police and military posts, and is believed to have resulted in at least 1,000 Rohingya deaths to date. More than 270,000 people have fled to Bangladesh, with others trapped on the border.
Where is Aung San Suu Kyi during all of this?
This is, as you can imagine, tremendously inconvenient for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, globally admired for her resistance to decades of military rule in her country and 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Suu Kyi currently risks losing her mantle of moral authority and being exposed as an ethnic nationalist.
Suu Kyi has not condemned the campaign of violence aimed at the Rohingya. Instead, she has termed outsider perceptions of what is happening in Myanmar “a huge iceberg of misinformation” spread by terrorists. In an April 2017 BBC interview Suu Kyi rejected the term “ethnic cleansing”, saying it was “too strong an expression to use for what is happening”.
Amid growing international criticism, Suu Kyi has cancelled a trip to the UN General Assembly later this month, blaming “terrorist attacks” at home.
A complicating factor is the fact that Suu Kyi does not control the military or the police in Myanmar. After the 2015 referendum which saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win a landslide victory, a power-sharing agreement was arrived at with the previous military government. The controller of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, sees the military as an important bulwark against a terrorist movement in the form of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The BBC reports that the Myanmar public very much shares this view.
For Suu Kyi to act in defence of the Rohingya, then, would be an unpopular move in terms of domestic politics.
What is going to happen to the Rohingya?
They’re definitely not going to be offered asylum in Australia: when erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Abott was asked in 2015 if some Rohingya could be resettled in Australia, he replied: “Nope, nope, nope.” It also seems that they can forget about India, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing support for Myanmar’s “security interests” shortly after the Indian government announced it will expel 40,000 Rohingya refugees from the country.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has said his country is prepared to offer shelter to Rohingya refugees “and send them back when they are ready”. The Indonesian government has indicated its desire for a regional investigation into the crisis.
Not for nothing did a UN spokeswoman describe the Rohingya in 2009 as “probably the most friendless people in the world”.
Has South Africa taken a stance on this at all?
South Africa and Myanmar are tjommies, with both countries having vowed in June this year to promote bilateral trade. Perhaps this explains the public silence, up till now, on the part of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) on the Rohingya matter.
In February, a delegation from the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa group gave Dirco officials a detailed presentation on the Rohingya’s plight and were given assurances that this issue “will be raised with [Dirco’s] counterparts in the diplomatic corps”.
On Wednesday the Muslim Judicial Council and other Western Cape faith organisations led a march to Parliament to call on government to put pressure on Myanmar to end the violence. As yet, there is no public sign of such pressure.
Several prominent South African individuals have spoken out, however. Most notably, Archbishop Desmond Tutu briefly emerged from retirement to pen an open letter to his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi.
South African jurist Navi Pillay, who previously served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described the treatment of the Rohingya as worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid. Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela Gandhi, a former ANC MP, has also called on Suu Kyi to use her position to stop the attacks. DM
Photo: People hold a banner with picture of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on, during a protest against violence in Myanmar, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on 7 September 2017. At least 123,000 Rohingyas have crossed the border into Bangladesh fleeing violence in northeastern Myanmar, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson said on 5 September. International organisations have reported claims of human rights violations and summary executions allegedly carried out by the Myanmar army. Photo Bilawal Arbab/(EPA)