Back to

Group Update on the Rohingya Situation.

*This yak is a compilation of writings and research done by the entire student group*

Before we all left for this program, Myanmar was at the forefront of global news due to the conflict occurring in the Rakhine State. Prior to departure a lot us were being inundated with messages about whether or not it was safe. Many of us were leaving our relatives and friends (you guys) with a single notion of what was occurring in the country we were about to spend 3 months in. All of us felt a mutual feeling of apprehension and confusion about what we were heading into. So, in our 2 months here all of us have tried to better understand the conflict through research, conversation, and media consumption from both western and Burmese outlets.

We have written this Yak to not only help ourselves better understand what is occurring but also to inform the people who are at home and are so closely following our journey.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country that was taken under the British imperial rule in 1886 and formally gained independence in 1948. The years between 1948-1962 the people of Myanmar struggled to form a stable and efficient form of government which lead to a successful coup d’état by General Ne Win in 1962.

Ever since Myanmar became independent, the Rohingyas, a minority muslim ethnic group living in the Rakhine province in Western Myanmar, have been targeted whenever politicians need to deflect attention. As a result, the Rohingya people have suffered periodic bouts of severe repression for decades, at the hands of the military government as well as nationalist buddhists with whom they share the Rakhine state. Deep-seated tensions between them and the majority Buddhist population in Rakhine has often been exploited by the military and led to deadly communal violence in the past.

After the military junta took effect in 1962 a new logic whereby only Burman Buddhists could really be loyal citizens (and if not Burman that it was even more essential that they were Buddhists). The Rohingyas who are visibly different in the color of their skin, in their language, and most of all in their religion, have bourne the brunt of discrimination. A popular narrative spun by the military, ethnic extremist, Buddhist fundamentalists and the National League for Democracy (NLD) is that the Rohingyas have no right to be in this country. Time and time again it written and we have heard that they are ‘Bengalis’ and should live in their own country — Bangladesh. In 1982, Myanmar’s junta passed a law that recognized eight ethnic groups within the country and granted them citizenship. The Rohingya were not one of these groups. The Rohingya were — and still are — stateless. They have none of the rights and protections that come with being a citizen of any country. One of the potential reasons that they were not included in the Citizenship Law of 1982 is that the government did not want to provide them with their own territory. The Rohingya live in Rakhine State, where the majority of people are Buddhist and Burmese.

The argument that the Rohingyas are really Bengali migrants who entered Burma during the period of British rule is widely repeated by Burmese officials. This is an argument that we have heard from numerous Myanmar people as well. When we met with the head monk at the monastic school we volunteered at he eagerly shared this opinion with us. However, Ethno-linguistics of field work going back to 1799- a quater century before of the British annexation of Western Burma – establishes the Rohingya us further reinforced by stone inscriptions from AD 1440.

Our time in Myanmar has exposed us to a lot of viewpoints on the Rohingya crisis that are not expressed in the media sources that we tend to read in the west. In order to truly understand the perspectives that we have faced here it is important to delve into local media portrayal of the Rohingya issue and the historical perspective on the issue.

There is a lot of tension, violence, and anti-Islam sentiment in Rakhine. Anti-Muslim attitudes are becoming widespread in all of Myanmar. In our many conversations with locals who support the removal of the Rohingya ethnic minorities from the Rahkine state, three supporting arguments have been consistantly given. The first theme being that the Rohingya people are trying to take over the Rakine and make it a part of Bengladesh. The second theme is that the Rohingya are terrorists trying to undermine the Burmese government. And the third theme being that Muslim communities do not want to integrate into the predominantly Buddhist Burmese society. To understand where these sentiments are coming from, one must look into how the population is being educated on the issue.

The main source of media for the local populace consists of whatever can be acquired through facebook, and through the local newspaper “The Global New Light of Myanmar” which puts a heavily pro-government spin on current events. Through these media outlets a very different image of responsibility is painted onto the face of the rohingya crisis. On October 25, The Global New Light of Myanmar ran an article titled “Tatmadaw releases statement on Rakhine Terrorist attacks, which states “concerning the events of ARSA exremist terrorist attacks which took place in northern rakhine state, it is necessary to take special surveillance over potential destructive performances which can intentionally harm national security and interest on the wrong pretext of human rights and humanitarianism.” Much of the news local people see perpetuates this rhetoric that the government is only protecting the people from a terrorist organization “4,000” strong, that has driven “hundreds of thousands to flee northern Rakhine”(Global New Light of Myanmar). The Burmese people feel they are being attacked by terrorists and in turn the international community that seems to supports them.

Due to wrongly perpetuated information or twisted interpertation of fact by the government people do not understand the Rohingya crisis.

Our research into the more recent conflicts and current situation regarding the Rohinga conflicts has shed light on the events beginning in 2012, when Rohingya men allegedly raped a Buddhist woman. This event created a tremendous amount of anger directed towards Muslim people. It triggered the religious violence that forced 140,000 Rohingya people into refugee camps for the internally displaced.

In October 2016 a new wave of violence was triggered after an attack on three police posts in the Rakhine state. Though the claims have never been substantiated , the military blamed the attack on the Rohingya and used the event to launch a “scorched earth offensive”, burning down hundreds of Rohingya villages. Arbitrary arresting, killings, gang rapes, brutalities against civilians, and looting were all reportedly carried out.

The conflict came to international medias attention once more in August of 2017, when the government announced extremist Rohingya militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that has killed thousands and forced even more to leave their homes and flee to nearby Bangladesh.

Not much is known about the goals of the current resistance group the ARSA only that their stated purpose is self defense “justified by the needs of human survival” (Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi- head of the ARSA) in the face of persection from the Burmese government. The ARSA had carried out attacks on government positions using light weaponry and homemade weapons since fall 2016.

The situation is certainly not one that has been overlooked on a global scale. China has stated that it will maintain its support of the Myanmar government, however, it will also be sending humanitarian aid to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has taken in 400,000-800,000 refugees (exact numbers are disputed) and has been working with the Myanmar government to to repatriate them. Neighboring country Thailand has said in an official statement that, while Rohingya refugees have not yet sought shelter in Thailand, the country is prepared to provide aid to both Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, according to Human Rights Watch, Thai authorities have put in place a policy to deter Rohingya refugees from seeking asylum in Thailand, including a provision to keep any Rohingya man, woman, or child who manages to reach Thai shores in “indefinite detention”. Though the US has not echoed the UN’s use of the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the conflict, it has withdrawn assistance from Myanmar’s military among various other restrictions. The State Department is considering reinstating sanctions (lifted after the 2015 election) against the Myanmar government. The US has been providing monetary assistance to relief efforts and has urged the Myanmar government to open the conflict area to international relief efforts and press.

Aung San Su Kyi has been put in a very difficult position by the Rohingya crisis. She has received criticism from the international community for failing to speak out in favor of the Rohingya. However, as a political figure in a now-democratic society, she must maintain popular support in order to have power to influence the country. Although the situation in Rakhine State is dire, she cannot risk taking a stand that could alienate her from the majority of her voting base, as, unfortunately, anti-Muslim attitudes are very widespread in Myanmar. People fear that the Rohingya are terrorists , that Islam will become the dominant religion, and that Bangladesh is invading the country. As was previously mentioned, locals are getting their news from social media, local newspapers, and word of mouth. News articles written in Burmese say different things than those written in English. Many people in Myanmar are afraid and the military’s violence against the Rohingya is a source of hope for them. There are some theories that ARSA soldiers were trained by the Burmese military and the conflict was created in order to induce fear in the populace. This fear could lead to renewed support of a military-led government. The current number of Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh is 400,000.

It is hard to know anything for certain about this issue given the disparity in facts given in varying media sources. In our time here we have struggled with challenging not only attitudes that we believe to be discriminatory but also a narrative that we believe to be oppressive, while also being culturally appropriate and respectful. We have struggled with trying to reconcile receiving immense kindness and hospitality from individuals who not only hold beliefs that we so strongly disagree with, but also may have in fact acted on those beliefs. In our remaining time in this country we hope to continue to learn more about the Rakhine State and the Rohingya as this situation evolves. As Parker articulately explained to us as we questioned how to approach discussions about this topic with locals, we occupy a privileged space a little bit outside of the cultural norms and hierarchy as foreigners and guests in this country. So, in taking advantage of this privilege, we must to continue to show gratitude but also to respectfully disagree with individuals and communities that we meet here with the hope of encouraging them to push their perspective as we have pushed ours in coming here.