The Rohingya Crisis Explained


There's been a lot of news lately about a little known group of people in southeast Asia called the Rohingya. Nearly a million Rohingya live in Myanmar, but they are considered one of the world's most persecuted populations. Many allegations of indiscriminate violence and even ethnic cleansing against this group have been raised in recent months. This week, we'll break down the history of the Rohingya and how we got to this grim point.

The Rohingya are a culturally, linguistically, and religiously distinct ethnic group who have historically resided in the Rakhine province of Myanmar (also known as Burma). They are a Sunni Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist society. Despite being a significant percentage of the population in Myanmar, they are not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups of the country. So take America's racial/ethnic divides and magnify them by a hundred. That's why their treatment is such a big deal over there.

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How did all of this get started? Once again, it ties into British colonization. After obtaining its independence from British India in 1948, Burma was created based on the Panglong Agreement negotiated by general Aung San (considered the father of the country). Democratic rule followed in Myanmar until a socialist-inspired military coup in 1962. The military government took command of nearly every aspect of Myanmar life, and denied citizenship to the Rohingya. This severely limited their options for upward mobility and ensures their continued poverty today (nearly 75 percent live in poverty in Rakhine province). Because of this treatment, clashes between insurgent forces and the military have raged on and off for decades since.

One of the main stumbling blocks to reconciliation is the Buddhist nationalists who don't want to see the Rohingya gain any power in the state. Further complicating the situation is the infiltration of some of the Rohingya independence groups by militant Islamist groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, tensions have escalated again. In 2012, after several Rohingya were accused of murdering a Buddhist woman, the government issued a brutal crackdown in response. They military has been accused in many cases of indiscriminate killings and burning villages. In 2016, a militant faction of the group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), killed several guards on the border of Rakhine province. The ARSA is basically launching an insurgency in Rakhine province, though they claim they just want peaceful coexistence within a Buddhist Myanmar state that gives them equal treatment. Things got even worse in August after an army base was attacked by insurgent forces. This led to the most recent crackdown that many international organizations are describing as ethnic cleansing.

So where are they going? Many are fleeing via boats (or really just anything that floats) to places like Indonesia and Malaysia. One massive migration in particular occurred in 2015 and was especially deadly. Others are fleeing over land into Thailand and Bangladesh. The massive influx of refugees has especially strained the government of Bangladesh, who has resorted to creating under-resourced internment camps just to keep up. Unfortunately, Bangladesh doesn't really want them either, but has agreed to provide temporary shelter for some within these camps. Bangladesh has been attempting to pressure Myanmar to take them back, but efforts have stalled so far.

That's a long boat ride.

That's a long boat ride.

Further complicating the problem is the relationship between Myanmar's president and the military. In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of general Aung San) became the first democratically elected leader in Myanmar since the military coup. Her election was championed as an historic moment, since the military didn't really like her but declined to intervene. This was surprising given the military's long held command of the government, and Aung San Suu Kyi's previous status for decades as a political prisoner of the military. Suu Kyi has been somewhat muted in her criticism of the military's actions against the Rohingya, but this shouldn't be surprising given the lingering memories of previous military control.

In all, this is yet another test of the United Nations to resolve a major humanitarian crisis. The fact that this is happening in an apparently democratic society is even more troubling. The U.N. could provide international pressure to help resolve the issue, but that would require strong American action. This doesn't seem likely. Not just because the current administration does not seem eager to take up the mantle of humanitarian intervention, but also because the United States doesn't really have critical interests in the region. Furthermore, putting substantial pressure on Suu Kyi could jeopardize the tenuous relationship between her and the military, creating a potentially destabilizing crisis. But the United States can work to improve the situation for the Rohingya, even if this doesn't mean diplomatic pressure or sanctions. Nations like Australia are using less conventional means to help alleviate some of the suffering. The United States could provide similar assistance, but only if it really wanted to. Until then, there is no indication the situation will get any better for the beleaguered Rohingya people.