5 things to know about the Rohingya Crisis

Sep 29, 2017

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group, the majority of whom are Muslim. Until recently, around 1.1 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist Southeast Asian country. The Rohingya are not recognised as one of the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries with some historians saying as early as the 12 century. However, during British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant migration of labourers from India and Bangladesh to Myanmar. Human Rights Watch (HRW) consider the migration as internal because Myanmar was administered as a province of India at the time. Regardless of the technicalities, the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for a long time.  Read more…

Why are they stateless?

Rohingya living in Myanmar have progressively had their civil rights watered down to the current point of statelessness. After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act defined which ethnicities could gain citizenship. Though the Rohingya were not included, the Act made allowances for Rohingya whose families had been in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards with some receiving citizenship. Things changed for the worse after the military coup in 1962. The Rohingya were given foreign identity cards which restricted their access to jobs and education. But it was the new citizenship laws passed in 1982 that pushed the Rohingya to reach statelessness. These laws heavily restricted all aspects of life for the Rohingya including the right to practice religion, access education, work, travel, and healthcare. Rohingya living in Myanmar cannot vote and are restricted from entering professions such as politics, law or medicine.

What sparked the current refugee crisis?

The Rohingya refugee crisis is not new though recent events have caused the situation to escalate to a complete humanitarian crisis.

Crackdowns in the 1970s resulted in hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh with reports that nearly one million had fled by the late 70s. Between 2012 -2015, more than 112,000 made the treacherous journey by boat trying to reach Malaysia. In just over one month, the numbers of refugees fleeing Myanmar has surpassed 500,000 – that is more refugees fleeing Myanmar in one month than the entire number of refugees trying to get to Europe in one year.

In October 2016, nine border police were killed by Rohingya insurgents and the Myanmar military launched a crackdown on all villages where Rohingya lived. The troops were accused of human rights violations and crimes against humanity including rape, arson and extrajudicial killings. A UN official accused Myanmar of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in November 2016 and authorities have restricted international aid efforts. In March 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ASRA) released a statement claiming it would ‘defend, salvage and protect [the] Rohingya community”. In late August, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on police posts and an army base that killed 12 members of the security forces. The group was officially labelled a ‘terrorist’ organisation on 25 August despite Myanmar being home to at least 18 other ethnic armies who have waged insurgencies throughout the country.

After the attack, the government claims that 400 people were killed, mostly members of ASRA. This is in stark contrast to rights groups who have said hundreds of civilians were killed by security forces. Ensuing violence has seen over half a million Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh. There is strong evidence that Myanmar forces have torched Rohingya villages adopting a systematic scorched-earth campaign. Reports by Bangladeshi officials and Amnesty International indicate the Myanmar military have also laid landmines or explosives along the border with Bangladesh. Of great concern are growing reports that suggest the Myanmar government is using religious tension as a veil to mask an ambitious economic development plan. Such reports accuse the government of destroying villages and eradicating the Rohingya from Rakhine State while pro-actively participating in land grabbing to further business interests for slated development projects.

On the ground in Bangladesh, U.N. medics are now seeing evidence of injuries consistent with violent sexual attacks. The used of Rape as a weapon of war is nothing new to Myanmar and officials claim that allegations are just propaganda being used to defame the military.

What about Aung San Suu Kyi? Isn’t she for Peace?

International pressure is mounting for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, to speak out and condemn the violence in Rakhine State. Staunch defenders of ‘The Lady’ argue that she has no control over the actions of the military. However, the reality is that not only is she making no attempt to stop the violence, she is actually contributing to the severity of the crisis. Her office has alleged that the Rohingya are burning down their own villages in order to elicit sympathy. Aung San Suu Kyi has also argued that international aid organisations are actively assisting the insurgents, putting aid workers in the region at great risk.

Aung San Suu Kyi does control the state media which has been fuelling the hatred through its repeated coverage of the attacks and reporting that the Rohingya accounts of atrocities are ‘fake news’. While incidences of ‘fake news’ are being used by both sides to muddy the water, state-sanctioned ‘fake news’ is an ongoing contributor to rising tensions, hatred, violence and discrimination.

Aung San Suu Kyi should be openly criticised for these actions and for not allowing independent media or the United Nations into Rakhine State to bear witness to the situation. A team of diplomats and U.N. officials had their visit to Rakhine state cancelled by Myanmar’s authorities on 28 September 2017.

What should Australia do?

While we welcome the recent announcement of a further $15m of Australian aid and Julie Bishop’s comments condemning the violence, as a regional power with historic political influence in the region, Union Aid Abroad APHEDA also calls on the Australian government to:

  • Review all forms of engagement with Myanmar
  • Call on other countries to pursue a similar aim
  • Call on the Myanmar government to allow unrestricted aid access to the Rohingya community
  • Support the U.N. Fact Finding Mission to proceed
  • Speed up with the development of a U.N. linked action plan on business and human rights

We also call on Australian businesses to ensure they do not benefit from or become complicit with human rights violations and to cease business activity in Rakhine State until the resolution of the conflict.

It is unacceptable for us to remain silent whilst ethnic cleansing is occurring. This is an issue which encompasses us all. It is not simply a Rohingya issue or a Muslim issue; it is an issue that affects all of humanity.

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