Why are the more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar considered the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’?
By Al Jazeera
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”.
They are an ethnic Muslim group who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims who live in the Southeast Asian country.
The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.
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Where are the Rohingya from?
Muslims have lived in the area now known as Myanmar since as early as the 12th century, according to many historians and Rohingya groups.
The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation has said, “Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from time immemorial,” referring to the area now known as Rakhine.
During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The migration of labourers was viewed negatively by the majority of the native population.
After independence, the government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as “illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya,” HRW said in a 2000 report.
This has led many Buddhists to consider the Rohingya as Bengali, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention, created for political reasons.
How and why are they being persecuted? And why aren’t they recognised?
Shortly after Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. According to a 2015 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, the Rohingya were not included. The act, however, did allow those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards.
Rohingya were initially given such identification or even citizenship under the generational provision. During this time, several Rohingya also served in parliament.
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After the 1962 military coup in Myanmar, things changed dramatically for the Rohingya. All citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue and obtain.
In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, which effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless. Under the law, Rohingya were again not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The law established three levels of citizenship. In order to obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), there must be proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar prior to 1948, as well as fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them.
As a result of the law, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services have been and continue to be restricted. The Rohingya cannot vote and even if they jump through the citizenship test hoops, they have to identify as “naturalised” as opposed to Rohingya, and limits are placed on them entering certain professions like medicine, law or running for office.
Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, refugees have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.
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After the killings of nine border police in October 2016, troops started pouring into villages in Rakhine State. The government blamed what it called fighters from an armed Rohingya group. The killings led to a security crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived. During the crackdown, government troops were accused of an array of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killing, rape and arson – allegations the government denied.
In November 2016, a UN official accused the government of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims. It was not the first time such an accusation has been made.
In April 2013, for example, HRW said Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. The government has consistently denied such accusations.
Most recently, Myanmar’s military has imposed a crackdown on the country’s Rohingya population after police posts and an army base were attacked in late August.
Residents and activists have described scenes of troops firing indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children. The government, however, has said nearly 100 people were killed after armed men from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a raid on police outposts in the region.
Since the violence erupted, rights groups have documented fires burning in at least 10 areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. More than 50,000 people have fled the violence, with thousands trapped in a no-man’s land between the two countries.
According to the UN, hundreds of civilians who have tried to enter Bangladesh have been pushed back by patrols. Many have also been detained and forcibly returned to Myanmar.
How many Rohingya have fled Myanmar and where have they gone?
Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar due to widespread persecution.
According to the most recently available data from the United Nations in May, more than 168,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since 2012.
Following violence that broke out last year, more than 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from October 2016 to July 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration.
WATCH: Fresh violence forces 18,000 Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh (2:40)
Many Rohingya also risked their lives trying to get to Malaysia by boat across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Between 2012 and 2015, more than 112,000 made the dangerous journey.
The UN estimated that there are as many as 420,000 Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia. Additionally, there are around 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya.
The violence in Myanmar’s northwest that began in late August has forced around 58,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, while another 10,000 are stranded in no-man’s land between the two countries, Reuters reported, citing UN sources.
What do Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government say about the Rohingya?
State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the de facto leader of Myanmar, has refused to really discuss the plight of the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her government do not recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group and have blamed violence in Rakhine, and subsequent military crackdowns, on those they call “terrorists”.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate does not have control over the military but has been criticised for her failure to condemn indiscriminate force used by troops, as well as to stand up for the rights of the more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar.
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The government has also repeatedly rejected accusations of abuses. In February 2017, the UN published a report that found that government troops “very likely” committed crimes against humanity since renewed military crackdowns began in October 2016.
At the time, the government did not directly address the findings of the report and said it had the “the right to defend the country by lawful means” against “increasing terrorist activities”, adding that a domestic investigation was enough.
In April, however, Aung San Suu Kyi said in a rare interview with the BBC that the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was “too strong” a term to describe the situation in Rakhine.
“I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” she said. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”
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In September 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi entrusted former UN chief Kofi Annan with finding ways to heal the long-standing divisions in the region. While many welcomed the commission and its findings, which were released this August, Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, argued it was just a way for Aung San Suu Kyi to “pacify the global public opinion and try to demonstrate to the international community that she is doing what she can to resolve the issue”.
Annan was not given the mandate to investigate specific cases of human rights abuses, but rather one for long-term economic development, education and healthcare.
When setting up the commission, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government said it would abide by its findings. The commission urged the government to end the highly militarised crackdown on neighbourhoods where Rohingya live, as well as scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship.
Following the release of the August report, the government welcomed the commission’s recommendations and said it would give the report “full consideration with the view to carrying out the recommendations to the fullest extent … in line with the situation on the ground”.
The government has often restricted access to northern Rakhine States for journalists and aid workers. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office has also accused aid groups of helping those it considers to be “terrorists”.
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In January, Yanghee Lee, a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said she was denied access to certain parts of Rakhine and was only allowed to speak to Rohingya who had been pre-approved by the government.
The country has also denied visas to members of a UN probe investigating the violence and alleged abuses in Rakhine.
What does Bangladesh say about the Rohingya?
There are nearly half a million Rohingya refugees living in mostly makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The majority remain unregistered.
Bangladesh considers most of those who have crossed its borders and are living outside of camps as having “illegally infiltrated” the country. Bangladesh has often tried to prevent Rohingya refugees from crossing its border.
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In late January, the country resurrected a plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to a remote island that is prone to flooding and has also been called “uninhabitable” by rights groups. Under the plan, which was originally introduced in 2015, authorities would move undocumented Myanmar nationals to Thengar Char in the Bay of Bengal.
Rights groups have decried the proposal, saying the island completely floods during monsoon season. The UN also called the forced relocation “very complex and controversial”.
Most recently, the government in Bangladesh has reportedly proposed a joint military operation in Rakhine to aid Myanmar’s battle against armed fighters in the area. The foreign ministry has also expressed fear that the renewed violence will cause a new influx of refugees to cross its border.
What does the international community say about the Rohingya?
The international community has labelled the Rohingya the “most persecuted minority in the world”.
The UN, as well as several rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have consistently decried the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar and neighbouring countries.
The UN has said that it is “very likely” that the military committed grave human rights abuses in Rakhine that may amount to war crimes, allegations the government denies.
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In March, the UN adopted a resolution to set up an independent, international mission to investigate the alleged abuses. It stopped short of calling for a Commission of Inquiry, the UN’s highest level of investigation.
The UN investigators must provide a verbal update in September and a full report next year on their findings.
Rights groups have criticised the government’s reluctance to accept the UN investigators.
Human Rights Watch warned that Myanmar’s government risked getting bracketed with “pariah states” like North Korea and Syria if it did not allow the UN to investigate alleged crimes.
READ MORE: Myanmar – UN probe ‘can only aggravate’ Rakhine tension
Most recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the ongoing violence in Rakhine.
“This turn of events is deplorable,” the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said. “It was predicted and could have been prevented,” said Hussain, adding that “decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”
Both UN officials said they completely supported the findings of the advisory commission, led by Kofi Annan, and urged the government to fulfil its recommendations.
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What is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly known as the al-Yaqeen Faith Movement, released a statement under its new name in March 2017, saying it was obligated to “defend, salvage and protect [the] Rohingya community”.
The group said it would do so “with our best capacities as we have the legitimate right under international law to defend ourselves in line with the principle of self defence”.
The group is considered a “terrorist” organisation by the Myanmar government.
In its March statement, the ARSA added that it does “not associate with any terrorist group across the world” and does “not commit any form of terrorism against any civilian[s] regardless of their religious and ethnic origin”.
The statement also said: “We […] declare loud and clear that our defensive attacks have only been aimed at the oppressive Burmese regime in accordance with international norms and principles until our demands are fulfilled.”
The group has claimed responsibility for an attack on police posts and an army base in Rakhine State. According to the government nearly 400 people were killed, the majority of whom were members of the ARSA. Rights groups, however, say hundreds of civilians have been killed by security forces.
Rights group Fortify Rights said it has documented that fighters with the ARSA “are also accused of killing civilians – suspected government ‘informants’ – in recent days and months, as well as preventing men and boys from flee Maungdaw Township”.
According to the International Crisis group, the ARSA has ties to Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia.
The Myanmar government formally categorised the group as a “terrorist” organisation on August 25.