By: Jono Davis
Editor, International Relations Student
Who are the Rohingya and what is happening to them?
In looking to the crisis in Myanmar and the plight of the Rohingya people, the extent of the devastation is clear. Since August, 537,000 have fled from the Rohingya’s place of origin, Rakhine state, to Bangladesh in an attempt to escape the systematic persecution they are facing at the hands of Myanmar’s military. The current violence was precipitated by an incident on the 9th October 2016, when an attack on police outposts in Rakhine state, which left 9 border officers dead, was blamed on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In retaliation, the Myanmar army began a large-scale counter insurgency operation against the Rohingya population, an offensive which the UN has condemned as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Summary executions are frequent and indiscriminate; people are shot from helicopters at close range, and children and adults have their throats slit in front of their families. The recent UN report, based on interviews with refugees, describes the routine gang-rape of women and the destruction of homes and food supplies, with the clear intention of making it impossible for the Rohingya people ever to return to the area.
Abuse and marginalisation of the Rohingya people is long-standing in Myanmar. The Rohingya, who numbered over one million at the start of the year, are the largest of many Muslim minorities in the predominantly Buddhist country. Most live in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, and say they are the descendants of Arab traders who have lived in the region for centuries. However, the Myanmar authorities regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, deny them citizenship, and even excluded them from the census of 2014, rendering them the world’s largest group of stateless people.
After Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Rohingya were initially acknowledged as one of the country’s ethnic groups. However, following the military coup of 1962, the ascending generals established themselves as protectors of a Buddhist socialist state and ruthlessly cracked down on minority insurgencies in the borderlands. From the 1970s onwards, the Rohingya have faced systematic persecution, both legislatively and militarily; they are denied the right to education, to healthcare, and to vote, and everything from their movement to the number of children they are allowed to have is restricted by Myanmar’s government.
Abuse and marginalisation of the Rohingya people is long-standing in Myanmar
This history of disenfranchisement, the recent exodus, and the failure of Myanmar’s elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to denounce the indiscriminate, state-backed violence has led to the question of whether international intervention into the crisis is necessary.
The Problem With International intervention
It is fair to say the Rohingya people are in a dire state; as the introduction states, there are credible reports of 130 people massacred in a single village, and as of now more than 537,000 Rohingya Muslims having fled to Bangladesh since August. As this occurs, multiple leaders and press outlets across the world accost and condemn Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as they discuss whether or not to invoke the “R2P” (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine and intervene in the crisis. Many, including the UN, believe this to be a step in the right direction.
But is contradistinction to our colleagues at Protocol: The Student Human Rights Publication, we are not so sure that a solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in intervention.
This is because it is important to remember what intervention means not only in terms of broad outcomes, but also in relation to the Myanmar context specifically, a country that could only call itself a democracy six years ago due to major sweeping reforms, including the introduction of labour unions and strike actions and an easing off on press censorship. Its movement towards democracy, once regarded as safe in the hands of Aung San Suu Kyi, has been more tenuous than expected. By 2012, the dream of democracy was looking grim; in a Human Right’s Watch article from 2012, Suu Kyi herself commented that “fraud [in relation to the election] and rule violations are continuing and we can even say they are increasing”.
What should be taken away from this is the conclusion that Myanmar currently stands on a knife-edge of slipping back into the old ways of a military junta, with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd noting in a recent abc730 interview that although Suu Kyi may hold the “moral authority…he who controls the barrel of a gun in Myanmar is another”.
Yet, it is also a fact of history that intervention, of any capacity, is messy. Before even mentioning an example, it is hard for one not to think of images of Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Syria. With this in mind, controversially, is it safe to say, in the broadest of contexts, the international community cannot score a victory in relation to intervention? Without drawing upon stuffy tomes of theory, there are a plethora of scholars who would, much to the incensement of the armchair politician, note this very point; intervention is no “put the kettle on I’ll be back before tea” matter, and involvement, such as we are used to, in an ex-colonial country smells a lot like repeated history.
Myanmar currently stands on a knife-edge of slipping back into the old ways of a military junta
This is all before assessing the specifics of intervention in this Myanmar context: who would lead the intervention? Looking at a map reveals the complications for interference, for Myanmar’s relationship with its border nations do not look promising. Having had skirmishes with the insurgent Arakan Army in 2015 (note, not the same as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), it is doubtful whether Bangladesh is going to add much to an intervening force except more bloodshed. Its northern neighbour, China, is a potential if only to flex its slimmed down, yet extremely powerful, PLA (the army wing of the Chinese military). Finally, its neighbour to the west, Thailand, is having its own insurgent problem.
What the international community loves to talk about in press releases is always never as practical, and certainly never as simple, as the words they lament claim them to be. There will be much talk of how terrible the situation is, and the reports coming out of the country are horrific, but crying intervention without practical solutions is more insulting than discussing the realities of the situation, and what can be done to aid those who have successfully fled their home country awash with the stench of a military dictatorship that never truly went away.
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