The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

By Shachi Mokashi '21

Sebastien Thibault for The New York Times, 2017

Sebastien Thibault for The New York Times, 2017

The United Nations has accused the Myanmar Government of carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, emphasised this in a statement released on the 11th of September 2017. He called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya Muslims are, according to the United Nations, the world’s most persecuted minority. There are more than one million Rohingya Muslims living in South East Asia at the moment. Who are the Rohingya Muslims and what is happening to them?

The Rohingya are a community of South Asian origin whose roots can be traced back to the eighth century. They occupied an independent area called ‘Arakan’ which is the modern day Rakhine in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

The persecution that the Rohingya Muslims faced can be dated as far back as the eleventh century. However, the situation deteriorated when Burma was declared a province of British India. The Rohingya were included in the Indian population until 1921, where a census declared them to be of the ‘Arakanese’ community. In 1937, the British separated Burma from India only for Burma to be occupied by Japan. The British then helped Burma to free themselves from the Japanese; promising the Rohingya autonomy for Arakan. However, the British did not declare Arakan as independent from Burma leading to Rohingya insurgencies.

When Myanmar became independent from the British rule in 1948, the Rohingya were not listed as citizens of Myanmar. The citizenship was partially granted to some Rohingya Muslims who had lived in Myanmar for two or more generations. This meant that most of the Rohingya Muslims did not get access to all the resources other citizens had. In 1962, a military coup in Myanmar forced all the people to get citizen cards which declared their status of citizenship. The Rohingya were given the Foreign Status cards. This further persecuted them and denied access to basic education and healthcare. Two decades later, a New Citizen Law declared the Rohingya “stateless.” This law denied them the right to vote and participate in other parts of public life.

What has happened to the Rohingya Muslims between 1982 and 2017? Persecution in all parts of their lives. The Rohingya Crisis is relevant today because they still cannot access all the basic rights of a citizen for being deemed stateless. Over a quarter of a million Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar after being subject to crimes like rape and murder. The world’s most persecuted minority has been facing violence for centuries. The reason this issue is receiving international attention is because the persecution has never been this intense and violent.

The Myanmar military has been imposing a crackdown on the Rohingya population after many army and police bases were attacked. In the days leading up to this retaliation, Rohingya insurgents declared a ceasefire and an interest to establish peace with the Myanmar government. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) made it clear that it does not want to continue living in a state of war with the government; rather, the insurgents want to end it and live in their country. In return, a government official responded, “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists.” There is little hope for the Rohingya Muslims when the Myanmar government refuses a discourse on this issue.

This has driven countless members of the Rohingya community to flee Myanmar and seek refuge in countries like Bangladesh and India. While the Rohingya Camps in Northern India and Bangladesh are receiving aid from the United Nations, the conditions in the camps suggest that the efforts are not enough. The root of the problem lies in Myanmar and tussles between the issues of displacement and citizen rights. In the short term, supplying camps with enough resources like food and sanitary equipment is necessary. However, we need to focus on moving beyond the short term.

This particular case of a persecuted minority demonstrates the difficulties in reinstating citizen rights. How should we attend to a refugee crisis which has been an ongoing struggle for centuries? The Rohingya are the subjects of outright persecution at the hands of different rulers and governments. Is the Myanmar government granting the Rohingya Muslims a citizen status enough to integrate them into their country? The refusal of dialogue on part of the Myanmar government is a major obstacle on the road to liberate the Rohingya. The State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, is deplorably silent on the issue. Suu Kyi propounded the ideas of democracy, freedom, and citizenship at the beginning of her political career. Why aren’t the Rohingya a part of this dream?

The camps set up in Northern India, Bangladesh, and Nepal are a glimmer of hope for the persecuted Rohingya. The aid continually being sent by the United Nations shows that there are people in powerful positions thinking about the Rohingya. The Rohingya living in the camps are not subject to violence anymore. That is not enough. The idea of complete equality amongst humans may not be a feasible one; however, the idea of humane treatment is. The international recognition of the Rohingya crisis is the beginning of their fight. It is the beginning of a long battle for the Rohingya to demand their complete rights back.