Yangon presents its offensive as reasonable action against militant groups operating in the Rakhine state. However, satellite images show villages burned to the ground suggesting that the damage and scale of human rights abuses is more severe than has been told.
But while international pressure mounts upon Nobel peace prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi to stop what some are calling war crimes, Myanmar’s army chief has continually defended his forces’ actions against the Rohingya people.
Speaking at a press conference in the country’s capital, he blamed the crisis on the need to complete “unfinished business” left over from World War Two.
Without absolving the present Myanmar government of responsibility for what is happening in the country, looking at the nation’s history it’s important to see how colonialism laid the groundwork for what appear to be ongoing massacres.
In 1948 British Rule ended in Burma; the military regime thus began to create a new sense of nationhood, during which the scapegoating of the Rohingya started manifesting within the Myanmar public. Visibly different from the Burmese due to their darker skin colour and religion, the popular myth is that Rohingya communities came from Bangladesh. In fact though, they have deep historical and ancestral roots belonging to the postcolonial borders of Myanmar.
Similarities with Bangladeshi communities is natural due to Arakan neighbouring the Bangladeshi province of Chittagong: indeed, the separation of these provinces and the implementation of borders were a product of colonial rule. The British had actually promised independence to the Rohingya during the war with Japan, though the promise was subsequently revoked. Predicting the escalating tensions between the Rohingya and other Burmese ethnic communities, some Rohingyas even petitioned for them to be included into East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) during the 1947 partition.
However this article isn’t here to go into the details of post-colonial identities – no factors should on any grounds de-legitimise the Rohingyas right to citizenship today or their entitlement to basic humans rights within Myanmar.
The historical progression of the present persecution can be traced back to 1962 when a military coup swept to power. In order to establish a mandate for them to rule, they began to use religion as an indication of whether one was a proper citizen of the state, exploiting Buddhism to justify their nationalism. In 1974, the Rohingyas had their identity stripped and were classified as “foreigners” by the state. This led to large numbers of Rohingyas fleeing to neighbouring countries, escaping violence which this legislation appeared to justify.
In 1982 the Citizenship law was enacted, not only excluding the Rohingya from attaining citizenship but also denying them the right to live in Myanmar unless they had solid evidence to show their ancestors lived there prior to independence – even though such citizenship documents for most communities are impossible to obtain.
Known as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, Myanmar authorities refuse to use the term Rohingya, legitimising the systematic erasure of the Rohingya as an identity.
In 2013, Win Myaing, the official spokesperson of the Rakhine State Government said “How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group.” By referring to them as Bangladeshi Muslims the state not only presents them as a symbol of Muslim invasion (which is seen as a global problem) but also as the “Bengali Muslim”, which has been constructed as an ethnically inferior identity and used throughout the Indian subcontinent to justify and legitimise genocide, whether within the Bangladeshi Liberation War or the Nellie massacre in Assam, India.
Violence has been escalating dangerously after the 2012 Rakhine State riots, with thousands killed and more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims displaced. Since then more than 140,000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee Myanmar altogether, becoming refugees in neighbouring countries, facing different levels of prejudices within Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia. Earlier this year more than 1,000 Rohingya were killed in a new crackdown by the Myanmar state, say UN officials. The Rohingya also describe military tactics of systematic rape being used against them.
Myanmar’s government and military now stand accused of war crimes. The international community meanwhile refuses to act; and the British government has blood on its hands after selling more than half a million pounds worth of weapons to Myanmar over the past three years. Boris Johnson’s cowardly response as the Foreign Secretary only further idolised a woman who passes off allegations of genocide as “fake news”. The Rohingya need urgent action; most are living in refugee camps, denied citizenship, basic health care and employment.
Put bluntly, the destruction of an ethnic group is genocide and the continual indifference by the international community only enables and legitimises Myanmar’s violence.