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FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions about the Rohingya

(Photo: AK Rockefeller)



What is really happening to Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya? Why is it significant?

A slow burning genocide of 36-years with periodic spikes of violence and killings followed by waves of refugees fleeing to nearby Bangladesh, as well as Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Australia and other Western countries.

Myanmar’s genocidal treatment of Rohingya over the past 36 years calls into question the legitimacy, moral authority and effectiveness of the United Nations and its constitutive global governance institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the Security Council.

Further, it calls into question the meaning of what it means to be conscientious human beings in the 21st century. Do human beings today willfully ignore large scale suffering of 2 million Rohingya with no means to defend themselves, no livelihood systems or social foundations?

Since February 1978 Myanmar has instituted a policy of genocide under the disguise of anti-immigration operations, which are in fact designed to destroy Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group. In the official media and by various bureaucracies including Education, Home Affairs, Defense and Foreign Affairs Myanmar has portrayed wrongly Rohingya as “Bengali”, that is, illegal economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Aside from the violent ‘anti-immigration’ operations, local Rakhine racist extremists and central government authorities coordinate numerous forms of attacks on Rohingya neighbourhoods, places of worships (mosques), businesses and properties, including organized acts of arson, summary execution, looting, sexual violence, etc.

More than a million people have fled the country since the first wave of genocidal attacks on Rohingya. Nearly 200,000 Rohingya have been forcibly relocated by central government troops into refugee camps where they live in inhumane conditions, without access to market, jobs or food systems. Local extremists have become strident in their call to block even emergency relief aid to the camps and threatened to attack any international NGO that provides Rohingya, internally displaced persons (or IDPs) basic services. Myanmar’s central government refuses to give INGOs unfettered humanitarian access to Rohingya camps and neighbourhoods.

Thousands of Rohingya who originally co-existed in peace with local Buddhist communities in Southern Rakhine state have been transferred to Northern Rakhine state adjacent to Bangladesh, creating 90% Rohingya pockets. These pockets are placed in the hands of the Ministry of Defence which has absolute administrative power. The military is aided by a small minority of all-Rakhine civil servants and police officials, thus making Northern Rakhine state’s Rohingya neighborhood an apartheid. As early as July 1978, the Far Eastern Economic Review called it ‘Burma’s Brand of Apartheid’ (14 July 1978, FEER).

* Of all Myanmar’s ethnic groups, only the Rohingya are subject to birth and population control on account of their distinct ethnicity
* The doctor to patient ratio for Myanmar’s Rohingya is worse than it is in Aleppo, Syria at this point of the civil war (40 doctors: 2 million in Syria where is 1 doctor: 73,000 -86,000 Rohingya in peace time)
* Rohingya are not permitted to study medicine or midwifery in Myanmar’s universities, if they are admitted at all
* Myanmar also maintains a set of severe restrictions on Rohingya marriages
* Rohingya are required daily permit from the security forces to travel to even the next village or neighborhood.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and successive UN Special Rapporteurs have characterized Myanmar’s treatment of more than 1 million Rohingya who remain in the country as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’.

In fact, many human rights specialists and UN officials understand that the decades of persecution and destruction of Rohingya amounts to a genocide, but out of ‘pragmatic’ considerations no international body is so far prepared to call it by its proper name: genocide.

How is it that Buddhist monks seem to be involved? I thought they were into peace and compassion?

Myanmar’s Buddhism and Buddhist monks are contaminated with the country’s racist nationalism. Buddhism as a philosophical system is about universal loving kindness, impermanence and non-essentializable or solid ego or individual; no practicing Buddhists, monks/nuns or laymen and –women can claim to be nationalist or patriotic or defenders of Buddhist faith.

Monks’ involvement in anti-Muslim deeds and words is more to do with racism and nationalism than with Buddhism as a spiritual philosophy.

Historically, Myanmar’s military government has categorized university students and Buddhist monks as two big threats to its power. Of the two, only Buddhist monks remain a strong social force as was evidenced by the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007 during which the entire Buddhist Order rose up against the military government. Since then, the military has pursued a pre-emptive strategy of diversion. That is, the military’s propaganda departments including Religious Affairs has portrayed Islam and Muslims of Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims, as the biggest existential threat to Burmese Buddhist way of life – in spite of the fact that Muslims in Myanmar make up for less than 5% of the total population 80-85% of whom are Buddhists. In this way, Buddhist monks and nuns are pre-occupied with what they come to see as ‘a threat from Islam to Buddhism and Burmese race’.

Reuters’ Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reports have documented the state’s instrumental role in manufacturing and popularizing anti-Muslim hatred in Myanmar.

So this is Buddhists against Muslims?

No, absolutely not.

Again as explained above, it is in fact Myanmar nationalists acting irrationally towards the manufactured enemy of Buddhist faith and Myanmar race, Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds. Because Rohingya are concentrated in the pockets in Northern Rakhine State, unlike other Muslim communities that are scattered across the country, Rohingya Muslims have become the easiest target for organized attacks and state-sponsored persecution.

Isn't this just a symptom of the reforms that the government is being praised for?

No, the discrimination, persecution and violence against Rohingya began in 1976, that is, 3 decades before the Burmese military leadership embarked on its much-lauded reforms in 2011. As a matter of fact, it is the country’s successive military regimes headed by General Ne Win (1962-88), General Saw Maung (1988-1992), General Than Shwe (1992-2011) and ex-General Thein Sein (2011-present) who have uniformly maintained the national policies of discrimination and persecution of Rohingya. It is verifiably incorrect to argue that the violence and conflicts in Rakhine state are primarily ‘communal’ in nature, symptomatic of the transitional societies with a large multiethnic make-up.

Why isn’t then the majority Burmese of predominantly Buddhist faith and 90% Christian Kachin and Chin ethnic communities as well as the Karens and Shan, with their armed ethnic armies, not having ‘communal violence’?

What solid evidence is there that the military and /or government are involved?

Virtually all human rights reports on the situation of Rohingya, including reports of the UN Human Rights Rapporteurs on Myanmar have noted both direct and indirect involvement of Myanmar’s security forces, which are centrally – not locally from Rakhine state administration based in Sittwe - commanded from the Ministry of Defence in the violence towards Rohingya. Rohingya affairs are under the direct command of the military government, now quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein, at the highest level.

Despite all evidence of its involvement, Myanmar governments have blatantly denied having a policy of discrimination and persecution of Rohingya. The widely reported massacre at a Rohingya village named Ducheera Dan in January this year is only the latest example of the government’s denial of its direct involvement in the violence and persecution of Rohingya. It is common knowledge that no commander, local or national, has ever been persecuted for their mistreatment, abuses and rights violations of any Rohingya, men, women, children or the elderly. In short, Myanmar government’s official involvement is evidenced in the state impunity it has granted to any official or civilian that attacks Rohingya individuals and those who otherwise destroy Rohingya as an ethnic community.

If it was actually genocide then wouldn’t there be scenes like in Rwanda or Cambodia’s Killing Fields?

Popular perception of a genocide is about dramatic spikes of mass killings as in Cambodia of Khmer Rouge days (1975-79) or 1994 Rwanda. But a genocide is not simply about media-genic scenes of mass killings. The single most influential – and one and only – universally accepted legal definition of a genocide as spelled out by the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (January 1948) and Article 6 of the Rome Statute (July 2002) – specify 4 other genocidal acts: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”, besides “killing members of the group”, with the intent to destroy an ethnical or national group, in whole or in part.

While there may be no Hitler like genocidal demagogues in Myanmar, over the past 36 years there is a consistent and verifiable pattern of Myanmar’s discrimination and persecution of Rohingya which have resulted spikes of organized and well-structured violence, led to untold number of Rohingya deaths, destroyed Rohingya communities, butchered the group’s identity, and ultimately rendered life for Rohingya into such a living hell that thousands and thousands of Rohingya families have been choosing risks of death and other high risks fleeing the country on foot or by boats.

Wouldn’t the United Nations or US have done something if this was really important?

In its 2009 report, the Human Rights Watch prophetically observed that helping Rohingya advances no strategic or commercial interests. Decades of Rohingya persecution and destruction by Myanmar, a UN member state, are well-known and well-documented to all 5 permanent members of the Security Council. The OIC and its member states including Malaysia and Indonesia in Myanmar’s neighborhood have repeatedly expressed grave concerns about the plight of Rohingya. But beyond rhetoric there has not been a concerted effort or a political will to bring an end to the slow burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya. Rohingya are now becoming Asia’s Palestinians. Even the Palestinians have greater support and recognition from the United Nations. As a matter of fact, the UN agencies operating in Myanmar, as well as the United Nations Population Fund may be culpable in the ethnocide (destruction of an ethnic identity and culture) and the genocide. For the UN High Commission on Refugees have gagged its local and international staff in Myanmar and instructed them not to use even words like ‘segregation’ to describe the Rohingya persecution and discrimination, let alone report the case to the UN as that of a genocide by design and structure, with the intent – and result – of Rohingya group destruction.

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi and other Myanmar people? What are they doing about this?

Aung San Suu Kyi has not only maintained a wilful silence over the persecution of Rohingya but she has categorically denied that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya is taking place. Extremist Rakhine leaders who are her fellow parliamentarians are on the record stating that they have told her never to utter the word ‘Rohingya’, or lose any type of popular votes from 3 million Rakhine. In addition, she herself has proven to be an anti-Muslim Myanmar racist nationalist, not unlike the majority of the Burmese public. She both offered and justified Myanmar Buddhists’s fear of Muslims and global Muslim power, in a Radio Four interview on BBC in London in the fall of 2013.

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