The plight of the Rohingya people is a huge issue in international the news right now. Since late August of this year approximately 600,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in Myanmar (Burma) due to military persecution. That is a huge number considering there were only around 1.1 to 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar to begin with. The situation is tense and it’s getting a lot of attention from world leaders and bodies like the UN. It has even been called an ethnic cleansing, an allegation that has been denied by the Myanmar government.
So what is actually going on? This article is a plain English explanation of who the Rohingya people are and why they are being persecuted. News on this topic should make total sense after reading this. For a more in-depth background piece read this great article by scholar Engy Abdelkader on The Conversation.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic group of people who have historically resided in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Most of the Rohingya are Muslim with a small percentage who identify as Hindu. The Rohingya have their own distinct language, culture and traditions. Prior to the mass migrations mentioned, there were about 1.1 to 1.3 million Rohingya living in Rakhine. The population of the Rakhine state is just over 3 million people (again prior to mass migration of Rohingya). The population of Myanmar is about 52 million people.
The Rohingya are therefore a speck on the radar when you look at Myanmar as a whole but of large significance in the state of Rakhine where they had made up a sizeable chunk of the population.
The northernmost tip of the Rakhine state shares a border with Bangladesh
Why are the Rohingya being persecuted and forced to flee their homes?
Recent events have seen approximately 600,000 Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh. They are running from the military. The military is razing their villages, raping their women and killing their children.
The event that sparked this military backlash was the killing of about 71 people when Rohingya militants attacked border police in the Rakhine state. Retribution was swift with reports of thousands of Rohingya killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes during initial backlash from the Myanmar military.
This is not the first instance of violence between the Rohingya and military and Buddhist mobs.
Currently there have been reports of entire villages being burned, reports of the military surrounding villages and killing fleeing Rohingya, and reports of rape and more.
Who are the Rohingya people being treated this way?
According to the Myanmar government the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. A 1982 law officially denied the group of their citizenship. While remaining in Rakhine, the Rohingya were stripped of proper access to healthcare, education and income. The Rohingya are not allowed to travel without permission and are basically living in a type of lockdown.
The issue boils down to this. According to the Myanmar government the Rohingya came to the country during British rule (1824-1948). During this time the British encouraged migrant labour in Myanmar, then called Burma. Because the British incorporated Myanmar into British India, it was very easy for people to move around between countries, it was like moving interstate. Once the Burmese achieved independence in 1948 they considered the Rohingya to be illegal foreigners brought in by the British and denied them citizenship.
The Rohingya counter this assumption by claiming they had resided in the Rakhine state prior to British rule. The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation states the Rohingya have been in the region “from time immemorial”. The Human Right Watch dates their presence in the region back to at least the 12th Century.
The entire issue is politically charged and in general the Rohingya are discriminated against and seen as undesirable, unwanted and dirty by many in the wider Myanmar population.
What’s happening right now
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh and others have made it to countries like India where they are being told to fend for themselves.
It looks like the US is about to place sanctions on Myanmar as a result of the treatment of the Rohingya and human rights groups and organisations like the UN are continually calling for an end to the violence and trying (and failing at this point) to champion a peaceful solution.
A different perspective
My mind was boggled when I thought about the issue this way. Only 116 years have passed since Australian federation in 1901. 247 years since Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770. Think about all Australia has achieved in the last 100 years. Think about the immigrants who have only been in Australia for one or two generations but already unequivocally call this land their home. Even if the Rohingya did enter Myanmar during British rule, they have lived in the country for over 100 years. Don’t they deserve a claim to their homes in the Rakhine state? Also one would assume immigration into Myanmar during British reign was legal at the time….Should later generations suffer the backlash of old political grievances?
Obviously there are huge differences between Australia and Myanmar and a comparison such as the above does not take into account different historical and sociocultural contexts. Nevertheless, I stand by its use as an effective way to illustrate two points. Firstly, it would be difficult to leave the only land you have known to be your home. Secondly, one hundred years is a significant time frame.
I might be seen to be oversimplifying matters but I believe many of these situations are rather simple. Politics and agenda overcomplicate them as everyone jostles to get what they want, using technicalities and ideology to propel basic motives (we don’t like the Rohingya for whatever reason, we prefer them out of the country). Consider the notion that this issue has less to do with ethnicity and religion and more to do with the actual land the Rohingya occupied. Even if true it still underlies the basic motive of the Myanmar government which appears to be, as mentioned: get out.
Motives and reasoning aside. The only undeniable truth here is that hundreds of thousands of people are displaced and in need of assistance. I personally do not see this issue resolving itself anytime soon.
+ Across Myanmar, Denial of Ethnic Cleansing and Loathing of Rohingya by Hannah Beech via The New York Times.
+ The Rohingya in Bangladesh The Fastest Growing Refugee Emergency In The World by Alan Taylor via The Atlantic.
Main Image by Seyyed Mahmoud Hosseini via Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 .