The Rohingya Muslims are a religious and ethic minority community numbering approximately 1 million in Buddhist Myanmar. The minority is sadly well-known for being one of the most persecuted minorities worldwide due to increasing anti-Muslim sentiments in the country, which have led to a proper ethnic-driven conflict and degradation of civil rights. Not being recognised as Myanmar citizens, but as “stateless entities” or Bengali Muslims, occurred during the British colonisation of the East (even if the group has lived in the country for centuries) in the 18th Century. Since then, the minority has been subject to various atrocities and forced to leave the country. According to many NGOs and governmental entities, since 25 August 2017, 728,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in order to escape the violence and persecutions. However, the recent military coup, which has brought to an end the democratic attempt in Myanmar, may result in a precious occasion to solve the hatred and improve the minority living conditions.
Hence, there are various reasons to pose attention to the Rohingya refugee crisis, starting from the socio-political circumstances that have been causing this emergency.
The triggering factor of the recent migration flows is the 2012 Rakhine State riots, the violent clash between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, where the minority is confined to live. Indeed, the Muslim minority was accused of various disputes and, in particular, of the gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman. As of 22 August 2012, 88 people had been killed, thousands of houses set on fire and around 90,000 of people displaced during the violences.
Even if this unfortunate event can be considered the first brutal clash in modern times between the Myanmar population and the unrecognised Rohingya minority, in reality, since the country’s independence in 1948 and the approval of the Union Citizenship Act, the Muslim minority has not been included among the ethnicities which gained citizenship after the independence. However, the act granted the possibility to those individuals whose families have lived in the country for at least two generations to apply for identity cards, thus granting a certain level of integration.
Unfortunately, the situation has worsened with time: with the military coup in 1962, all citizens were required to obtain national registration cards, which the minority did not have (the Rohingya were granted only with foreign identification cards). This led to the first discriminations in terms of education and job access, even if later the phenomenon started regarding all aspects of socio-economic and political life. Moreover, from the 1970s, the minority has been persecuted, causing many members of the Muslim group to flee to the near Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeastern countries.
From a legal perspective, in 1982 Myanmar approved a new law on the recognition of minorities, but, among the 135 ethnic groups, the Rohingya were not included, making them effectively “stateless”. A further obstacle was introduced with this law: since different levels of citizenship were established additionally dividing the population, in theory it was possible to obtain the basic level of citizenship by providing proof that the person’s family lived in the country before 1948 and by knowing fluently at least one of the national languages. In practice, since these proofs were inexistent or very difficult to obtain, the Rohingya were de facto excluded from citizenship access.
Moreover, as reported by Fortify Rights, a group fighting for the recognition of human rights and deeply involved in helping the Muslim minority, Myanmar’s government has adopted discriminatory policies against the Rohingya, even if it is guaranteed in the constitution that “the Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth”, Art. 348, Chapter VII, Citizen, Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens (2008). Indeed, as analysed by the organization in a report concerning 12 government documents from 1993 to 2013, it is possible to notice that Myanmar has limited in the years Rohingya’s “movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship”. This creates a perilous situation for the ethno-religious group since not only they are not granted the same rights of the Myanmar’s citizens, but also prohibited to move without a permit from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they live in deplorable conditions, and they are not granted basic human rights.
In the last decades the triggering factor is the 2012 Rakhine State riots, but many incidents, violence and persecutions have been perpetrated since then. Indeed, as observed and reported by the Human Rights Watch, in 2013 Myanmar was carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority, even if the legitimate government has always rejected the accusation. A couple of years later, Rohingya Muslims started a massive fleeing towards neighbouring countries and the 2015 report of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London revealed an increasing “ghettoization, sporadic massacres, and restrictions on movement”, suggesting a plan of a proper genocide of the Rohingya community. From this moment on, the Rohingya crisis is considered as a full-fledged Rohingya genocide.
The ethnic cleansing is divided in two phases, the first one between October 2016 and January 2017 and the second one from August 2017. The first phase is characterized by the brute military crackdown and massacre on the Muslim minority living in the Rakhine State after the killing of nine police officers. The four-month military sweep was deeply condemned by the international community and especially by the UN, which declared it had observed possible crimes against humanity and possible ethnic cleansing against the religious group. The second phase started with a new military repression on the 25th August 2017 and as of 2018 many videos and other sources documented mass killings, gang rapes and destruction of more than 300 Rohingya villages.
Nevertheless, Myanmar is the home country of one of the greatest human rights activists, Aung San Suu Kyi, awarded in 1991 with the Nobel peace prize and considered as an example of resistance against an authoritarian regime in the name of democracy. The leader of the ruling National League for Democracy, was before the recent military coup, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, the de facto head of the state and most influential political figure of the country. Her domestic importance and prestige were confirmed in the last elections of the 8th November, but Aung San Suu Kyi has lost a great part of the international support with respect to her lack of commitment in the human rights battle for the Rohingya Muslims- especially after the UNHCR definitely declared in 2018 with the “Myanmar: Senior UN human rights official decries continued ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State” document that the country continues to perpetrate the ethnic cleansing.
In particular, two aspects of her political life raised international concerns. The first objection was raised with respect to her denial of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority during the legal proceeding at the International Court of Justice after the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has reported the atrocities committed in the country against the Muslim minority and an increasing online hostility against activists since the announcement of international legal proceedings over the atrocities. Subsequently to the allegations, on 10th December 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi made her statement regarding the situation. In particular, the well-known activist for human rights defended Myanmar against the accusation of genocide, affirming that the country has been the scenario of “intercommunal violence” and that the repressive measures and actions taken especially in the Rakhine area are necessary for the fight against terrorsists and insurgents, stressing how in reality Myanmar has been cooperating with Bangladesh to solve the situation. These were declared to be significant steps and proofs against the accusation of the very same genocide documented by many international orgnizations and human rights activists. The second occasion when Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed herself as no longer the defender of democracy and human rights, but as an “apparent apologist for brutality”, as defined by the New York Times in agreement with international opinion, was during the last elections.
In the last elections more than 38 million people registered to participate, even if certain areas of the Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states were not included. Taking as motivation national security, de facto the Rohingya Muslims were completely excluded from voting. This episode confirms the scenario reported by the UN activist for human rights in Myanmar, who declared that these elections could not be considered free since the government was not showing any concern in acting to preserve the right to vote for the minorities living in the country and for the members that fled to Bangladesh. Moreover, a part of the Rohingya minority had already been excluded for the 2015 elections, thanks to the invalidation of the temporary documents needed for voting. As for these elections, it is estimated that around 2 million people could not vote due to legal barriers and that at least 6 Rohingya candidates were prohibited from participating. Therefore, as argued also by the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory can only with difficulty be thought of as a democratic victory, especially considering that all those who are kept away from the voting would have voted against the NLD following its leader’s declarations at the ICJ. Hence, her triumph cannot be considered as a step towards democratization for everyone living in the country.
In this complex and controversial situation, another important actor to consider is Bangladesh. Indeed, the neighbouring country has accepted more than 700,000 Myanmar’s refugees in the past 10 years. The refugees, mainly from the Rohingya minority, have been living in enormous and ever expanding refugee camps at the borders. However, even in Bangladesh the situation is very tense: on the 1st March 2019, the country declared that it was no longer going to accept Rohingya refugees who were flowing in the state. In addition, after some policemen shot two Rohingya men dead in summer 2019 during a gunfight at a refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, the Foreign Minister Abdul Momen declared that the hosting country was no longer able to bear the economic and humanitarian burden of the refugee crisis. Hence, transfers from Bangladesh back to Myanmar were arranged, but since the refugees had to voluntarily decide to get back to their homeland, the plan dramatically failed: no one showed up for the buses, giving a clear statement that every situation is better than the tremendous atrocities perpetrated in the Rakhine State.
Unfortunately, in the last months, Bangladesh has started a new plan: it has been transferring Rohingya refugees on an island of Bhashan Char, Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh government aims at transferring around 100,000 refugees in the island, which Dacca defined as a “splendid resort”. However, the island is practically at the sea level and is often endangered by floods and cyclones. The international community of human rights have been criticizing Bangladesh’s choice and the UN affirmed to have nothing to do with this new violence towards the Rohingya Muslims.
As for now, 2,600 refugees have been brought to the island, apparently according to their will, and they will be shortly met by thousands of others.
Hence, the Rohingya genocide and refugee crisis are one of the most grievous violations of human rights in the last years. Yet, apart from the international condemnations by international institutions such as the UN, we can rarely see effective individual measures to fight against these crimes against humanity and atrocities.
The Rohingya Muslims are living a perilous and dramatic situation and their status is the dramatic exemplification of a genocide partially authorized by law and caused by the government’s willingness to not apply constitutional laws. Moreover, this international issue raises awareness on one of the most urgent problems of international agreements and treaties: enforceability. In order to make an agreement enforceable, it is necessary to have both a domestic constraint, given for example by domestic institutions and commitment mechanisms, and an international one.
Myanmar being one of the signatories of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (ICPPG), we can clearly see how it is necessary to internationally improve the enforceability mechanisms in order to promptly act in favor of the oppressed Rohingya Muslims.
However, the military coup of the 1st February has been seen by many Rohingya Activists as an opportunity: as the Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin has declared, Burmese are now realizing that the common enemy is the military. In addition, many members of other minorities, as the Karen ethnic minority, are increasingly supporting the Rohingya Muslims and also asking for forgiveness for not having stood up against the grievous human rights violations.
A particular relationship between the Burmese, the old oppressors, and the Rohingya, the oppressed, has been forming in the past days aiming at building solidarity across the groups and finally overcoming the hatred and the injustice.