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By Natalie Brinham
September 28, 2017

Demanding the ‘right of return’ for Rohingya eases the way for countries to forcibly repatriate them back to Myanmar. Again.

Rohingya refugees wait in a line for food aid at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 25 September 2017. KM Asad/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Even as Rohingya in Bangladesh watch their villages burn across the Naff river, even as trapped and internally displaced Rohingya desperately seek safe passage around the road blocks and landmines to Bangladesh, all talk it seems is focused on returning Rohingya to Myanmar.

As Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheik Hasina opens the door to 400,000 newly-arrived Rohingya victims of “ethnic cleansing” with one hand, she shakes her fist with the other, calling on Myanmar to stop referring to Rohingya as Bengali and accept their return from Bangladesh. In the same breath as calling on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action against Rohingya, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, speaks of “the right of return” for those who have left the country. 

Meanwhile, the government of India is securing the borders and fighting it out in the Supreme Court, seeking permission to deport Rohingya who have fled previous waves of persecution. Thailand is preparing to resume the Navy “push-backs” of Rohingya escaping by sea, and Australia continues to offer Rohingya payments to return to Myanmar – as though the horrors of the last three weeks in Myanmar are just another temporary blip.

For their part, as Rohingya activists desperately await news of their family and friends’ safe arrival in Bangladesh, they also proclaim that their hearts will never leave their ancestral lands in Rakhine state and that they will never lose hope of return. Their bodies, however, are another matter. Approximately 50% of all Rohingya villages now stand empty. Half the population has been displaced in the space of three weeks and unknown thousands – who will remain uncounted – have been killed.

For many Rohingya in diaspora, the latest exodus has displaced the very last of their family members from their homeland – now only dead bodies, ashes and memories are left. As a Rohingya friend living in London told me, “our home town was destroyed. We wept through each night waiting to receive news from our family. Yesterday we heard my brother and sister had finally reached Bangladesh. We are relieved, but they were the last of our relatives in Rakhine. Rakhine was our homeland. We have only memories now”. 

The right to (forced) repatriation

There is a fine line to walk between securing the “right of return” for Rohingya and enabling refoulement or forced repatriation. Talk of the “right of return” correctly reasserts Rohingya’s rightful claim to belong to Myanmar. That citizenship is rightly theirs – even if they have no papers to prove it.1 But there is a distinct danger that the focus on return – before fleeing Rohingya families have even found shelter from the rain – could open the door for forced repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar. 


And, in waiting for return, the failure to secure durable solutions for Rohingya outside Myanmar could lead to high risk journeys and exploitation, as they seek refuge in a third or fourth countries. 


Rohingyas know all about forced repatriation. It’s a staple of their collective memories and oral histories. Each time Rohingya have fled, Myanmar has been outmanoeuvred and has been forced to accept Rohingya back into the country. In 1978, 270,000 Rohingya were driven from Myanmar into Bangladesh during Operation Nagamin – which targeted all Rohingya under the guise of an immigration sweep. Within sixteen months the vast majority had been returned to Myanmar, under duress with no change in conditions in Myanmar. Food rations were withheld in Bangladesh to ensure return. An estimated 12,000 Rohingya perished. Shortly afterwards and partially in response to the repatriations, the 1982 Citizenship Law was brought in leaving the vast majority of Rohingya unrecognised as citizens. 

In 1991-2, 250,000 Rohingya fleeing human rights abuses in Myanmar arrived in Bangladesh. 


Between 1992 and 1994, most of these refugees were returned to Myanmar.


Protests against repatriation broke out in the camps in Bangladesh. Excessive force was used to return them. UNHCR oversaw the repatriations and attempted to secure documentation for Rohingya. Promises did not materialise. There were no changes in the conditions on the ground in Rakhine State. Abuses in Myanmar continued unabated. 


And this time around? 

The de-facto leader of the Myanmar government, Suu Kyi, in her attempts to placate the growing international condemnation, has claimed that Myanmar stands ready to take back those “verified as refugees from this country (Myanmar)”. An announcement of a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on repatriations is expected in the next few days. But they will not verify the vast majority of Rohingya as their own. Rohingyas in Bangladesh are defiantly waving their ration cards printed with: “Country: Myanmar, Nationality: Rohingya”, but Myanmar persistently denies their roots and their collective identity.

The Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 19 September 2017. Can Erok/Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Stateless by design

Rohingya citizenship in its substantive sense was not singlehandedly revoked by the 1982 Citizenship Act, as is often claimed.2 A 40-year process, beginning under military rule and continuing until today, has slowly and torturously severed Rohingyas’ relationship with their homeland and the state. This has laid the groundwork for the persecution of Rohingya through law and policy as well as collective violence. The Myanmar military are not about to welcome them back. Much less in safety and dignity.

The production of Rohingya statelessness by the Myanmar military and government is best understood not as the result of historical disputes, but as a deliberate attempt to purify or cleanse the nation of racial and religious ‘others’ through bureaucratic means.3 Citizenship law in Myanmar – with its 135 fixed, immutable and externally-ascribed categories of ‘national races’ or Tai Yin Tha4– serves an additional, less ‘bureaucratic’ purpose.

It is the single most powerful and immovable discourse there is regarding race and exclusion in Myanmar. It cements revisionist historical narratives that exclude Rohingya and legitimises primordial notions of race that feed hatred. As Hinton explains in his 2002 book Genocide and Anthropology, genocidal regimes “manufacture difference by constructing essentialized categories of identity and belonging … linked to emotionally resonant notions of purity and contamination”. Killing is then motivated out of resultant “ideologies of hate”5 a la the Nuremburg laws in Nazi Germany.

International efforts to address Rohingya statelessness over past decades have attempted to provide pathways to “paper citizenship” for Rohingya in the hope that human rights will somehow follow. It’s a vain hope echoed in the final report of the Myanmar government’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan.

Yet Rohingya statelessness is not a documentation issue. It’s a tool of genocide that aims to destroy the Rohingya as a group, not only by removing their rights, but also by destroying their identity from the inside out. It is the statelessness that Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin6 wrote about in the 1940s – the kind that foreshadowed and preceded the holocaust, not the kind for which UNHCR usually offers technical assistance to states to resolve. Indeed, as Rohingyas know only too well, the government’s documentation processes cost them the right to self-identify as Rohingya. For this reason, most Rohingya do not seek documentation, or paper citizenship, at any cost. They know the state has been destroying their identity and their collective “belonging” to Myanmar over decades. 

Rohingya that cannot be removed from Myanmar by bureaucratic means or through the production of their statelessness, are removed through military operations and pogroms that have taken place over decades and have recently escalated. What we are witnessing now is the Myanmar military attempting to prevent a repeat of the past cycles of repatriation – an attempt to remove them from the territory and sever their links to home. Forever. Shooting Rohingyas in the back as they flee, placing landmines in their flight paths across the border, targeting babies and children, burning Rohingya village after Rohingya village. By law, land, once burnt, reverts to ownership of the state. These tactics are all designed to prevent return and complete the “unfinished business”.

A bleak future

Survival for Rohingya in their homeland, for the time being, has become untenable. This is devastating not only for the most recent Rohingya victims, but also for the many Rohingya living in diaspora. It is absolutely right that Myanmar is internationally condemned for its genocidal project. But to break the decades-long cycle of displacement, repatriation, and exploitation of Rohingya, it is to also necessary to ensure Rohingya are able to live in safety and dignity outside the country. Not contained in camps for decades, not dependent on aid or kept in limbo with irregular status, not denied access to integration and resettlement programmes. Instead, provided with opportunities for work and education, opportunities for movement and family reunification across borders, opportunities for meaningful contribution to the localities they’ve ended up in. 


Each Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in recent years has been accompanied by a spike in the numbers of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh, seeking safety and security elsewhere. As we witnessed in 2012, as Rohingya become increasingly desperate the levels of extortion and exploitation they face on their journeys rise as well. Those unable to pay the full cost of their passage frequently become trapped by debt bondage into horrific labour conditions, such as in the factories and rubbish dumps in India. They are imprisoned in jungle camps, where they are beaten and tortured to extort money from their relatives in Malaysia and Thailand. Some die on route or are killed in the camps when they become a financial liability to the smugglers.

As long as Rohingya have no options for safe migration and decent work to support their families, the prosecutions of traffickers, even the high-profile cases recently in Thailand, will not bring about the end of these forms of exploitation. There are around one and a half million Rohingya living outside Myanmar. Of these, many are in situations of protracted displacement in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, India and beyond.

Some have been there for decades. Some have tried two or three countries and have been repeatedly displaced. Some have been stuck in indefinite detention for years. In these conditions they continue to struggle for their survival. Unable to regularise their status, they eke out a living in dangerous and insecure jobs in the informal economy, without security or protection from arrest, dependent on the good will of local populations, and sometimes the subject of politically-instigated hate-campaigns. 

Many Rohingya in the diaspora are traumatised by the atrocities they have already borne or witnessed, and their daily lives are little more than hand-to-mouth survival. Already they are at breaking point, and now they are anxiously wondering how to move relatives beyond the desperate and untenable humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. Their desperation and urgency has a direct effect on their bargaining power. With their resources so low, and with so many risks involved, they are knowingly and unknowingly entering into relationships of exploitation and extortion with the brokers. 


Bangladesh cannot absorb 800,000 Rohingya into its ailing local economy on the borderlands near Myanmar, or support them indefinitely. The responsibility needs to be one that is shared internationally – with the acknowledgement that home might not be a safe option for a long time to come. A joined-up effort to secure durable solutions for Rohingya outside Myanmar (the new-comers and the old) – from both concerned Western and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries is vital. Efforts to provide Rohingya with safe passage to countries in which they can build their lives should accompany the pledges of aid. This will avert the secondary humanitarian crisis as Rohingya once again take to the seas and smuggling routes on which so many lives have already been lost. 

One of the conditions for returning Rohingya to Myanmar will likely be access to (future) nationality or citizenship. Sometimes documentation has been conflated with citizenship. The international community has fallen, time and time again, for Myanmar’s false promises relating to documenting Rohingya with a view towards citizenship. Long ago the documentation processes themselves became sites of persecution for Rohingya. When Rohingya statelessness is understood within the context of wider genocidal processes7, it is clear that Rohingya don’t just need documents to return to Myanmar, they need their group identity to be recognised there as well. And for toxic, primordial notions of race to be dismantled from the top down. History is on repeat and the cycle of persecution, displacement, forced repatriation and exploitation needs to be broken before the Myanmar military ends the cycle their way.

  1. See Para’s 19 & 20 of UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), CCPR General Comment No. 27: Article 12 (Freedom of Movement), 2 November 1999, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.9. 
  2. See Nyi Nyi Kyaw (2017) ‘Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas’, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 15(3), 269-286. 
  3. Robert M. Hayden describes how nationality laws in the former-Yugoslavia, that were based on primordial notions of race, were used as “bureaucratic ethnic cleansing” and were a precursor for mass expulsions and mass killings. See Hayden (2002), ‘Imagined communities and real victims: self-determination and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia’, American Ethnologist, 23(4), 783-801. ↩︎
  4. See Nick Cheesman (2017) ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 47(3), 461-483. 
  5. Alexander Laban Hinton, Alexander Laban(, 2002, ), ‘Genocide: An Anthropological Reader’, p10. 
  6. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “Genocide” and tirelessly campaigned for the inclusion of genocide in international criminal law, used the term “denationalisation” to describe the production of statelessness as part of the genocidal process. Lemkin understood genocide to involve “destruction of the national pattern” or social engineering by the oppressors to destroy a group both culturally and physically. 
  7. For a historic account of these processes, see Zarni and Cowley (2014), ‘The slow-burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’, Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, 23(3). 

About the author

Natalie Brinham is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London researching statelessness. She has worked for many years in NGOs in the UK and Southeast Asia on forced migration, trafficking and statelessness in both frontline service provision roles and research and advocacy roles. She holds an MA from UCL Institute of Education and a BA from SOAS.

By James Griffiths
September 19, 2017

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave a much-anticipated address Tuesday on the ongoing crisis following the exodus of than 400,000 minority Rohingya Muslims from the country. 

Speaking for over 30 minutes in English, it's the first time Suu Kyi has addressed the situation in northern Rakhine State or the growing international criticism of her and her government

However, many of the claims made in her speech are somewhat dubious, with some even appearing to contradict the findings of an official report commissioned by the government and compiled by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

'We want to find out why this exodus is happening' 

Suu Kyi's protestations that the government does not know the root causes of the crisis are peculiar, especially as she repeatedly referenced the Annan report, the Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

The report, released in August, identified several key issues, including the lack of citizenship for stateless Rohingya Muslims as well as socio-economic challenges facing Rakhine, and police and military action in the state. 

Following attacks on border police posts in October 2016, the report said, "subsequent military and police operations led to tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh." 

"While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarized response is unlikely to bring peace to the area," the report said. 

"Unless concerted action -- led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society -- is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State," Annan said in a statement. 

UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has said the situation in Myanmar seems like a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing," a claim which has been repeated by multiple human rights groups.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published damning reports on the causes of the exodus, including accusations the Myanmar military has deliberately burned Rohingya villages in a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the minority

They backed up this conclusion with satellite imagery of fires, photos and videos from the ground, and witness testimony of human rights abuses by the Myanmar authorities. 

'Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny'

Suu Kyi said she is aware of the "world's attention" focused on Myanmar presently, but said her government "does not fear international scrutiny."

"If you are interested in joining us in our endeavors, please let us know," she added. "We can arrange for you to visit these areas and to ask (those who have stayed) why they have not fled, why they have chosen to remain in their villages."

While the situation may change following Suu Kyi's speech, access to Rakhine State has been heavily restricted to media, human rights groups, and diplomats. 

A tightly government-controlled media trip to Rakhine state was organized earlier this month, but permits for journalists to visit the area independently and interview people without official interference have been next to impossible to come by. 

Amnesty International has accused the government of denying aid workers access to the state, while in January UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee was prevented from visiting some parts of the state for "security reasons." 

Doctors Without Borders said it had been providing services to displaced people within Rakhine, "but international staff have not been granted travel authorizations to visit the health facilities since August, whilst national staff have been too afraid to go to work following remarks by Myanmar officials accusing NGOs of colluding with (militant groups)." 

In December, Kofi Annan also appeared to criticize the government's denial of access to Rakhine to aid groups and other NGOs. 

'The great majority of Rakhines in the state have not joined the exodus'

Rakhine State has a population of around 3.1 million, some one million of which are Rohingya Muslims. 

The UN estimates that over 400,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25. They joined around one million Rohingya already in the country who traveled there during previous periods of unrest. 

Earlier this month, the government said 176 out of 471, or 37.4% of all Rohingya villages were empty of people, and an additional 34 villages were "partially abandoned." During her speech, Suu Kyi said, "50% of the villages of Muslims are intact."

Suu Kyi did not use the word "Rohingya" in her speech to describe Muslims living in Rakhine, so it is difficult to ascertain whether she is referring to the state's entire population, or specifically the Rohingya population the UN and others say have been disproportionally affected by recent violence. 

"Rohingya" is a politically charged term in Myanmar and one the government has repeatedly refused to endorse.

The only time Suu Kyi said the word during her speech was when she referred to the ARSA militant group -- the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. 

"She chooses to use the word in relation to a terrorist group, that means that is the only identity that Rohingya will be attached to, from her perspective and she hopes from the international perspective," said Penny Green, a professor of law at Queen Mary University of London.

'All people (in Rakhine) have access to education and health care services'

Suu Kyi's claims Rohingya have access to the same services as their non-Muslim neighbors is contradicted by the Annan commission's report which found Muslims, in particular internally displaced persons, are "deprived of freedom of movement." 

"Movement restrictions have a wide range of detrimental effects, including reduced access to education, health and services, strengthened communal segregation, and reduced economic interaction," the report said. 

Moreover, it found that "access to health is particularly low within the Muslim community in the northern and central parts of the state. In some areas, Muslims face discriminative obstacles that prevent available lifesaving services from being accessed." 

Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy who has visited internally displaced person camps within Myanmar, told CNN the population there "don't have the same level of access at all to anything."

'No clearance operations' since September 5

In late August, Rohingya militants attacked and killed 12 security officers, according to Myanmar's state media, which kicked off the latest round of violence.

Human rights groups and other observers say those attacks were responded to with a major military and security operation that included helicopter attacks and the burning of Rohingya villages. Refugees have also told CNN non-Muslim groups were armed and encouraged to attack their Muslim neighbors

Government efforts to "restore the situation to normalcy" are succeeding, Suu Kyi said. "Since the fifth of September, there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations." 

However, satellite imagery examined by Amnesty International appears to show more than a dozen burned villages and fires since that date. 

Human Rights Watch said 62 villages were torched between August 25 and September 14. 

CNN's Bex Wright and Josh Berlinger contributed reporting.

Southeast Asia leaders pose for a group photo at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila.
Image Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

By Jera Lego
May 17, 2017

On April 26, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened for the 30th ASEAN Summit, where they discussed “an integrated, peaceful, stable, and resilient ASEAN Community.” Only one day prior to this summit, Reuters released a report documenting military operations by the government of Myanmar that killed hundreds of Rohingya and caused some 75,000 of them to flee to Bangladesh in November 2016.

The Rohingya, now dubbed Myanmar’s perpetual other, have long been viewed by majority of Myanmarese society as “Bengali intruders” despite having lived in Rakhine state for centuries. They have been systematically and increasingly oppressed by the Burmese government through violent immigration crackdowns, citizenship laws, and census measures that effectively rendered them stateless and disenfranchised. Denial of basic rights, various human abuses, and growing communal violence, especially since 2012, have resulted in a continuous stream of Rohingyas fleeing to neighboring countries.

In 2015, their plight briefly drew the world’s attention when some 8,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants and refugees in overcrowded boats were left stranded at sea for several days until they were allowed to disembark. In February 2017, a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described an “unprecedented level of violence” against the Rohingya, including “the killing of babies, toddlers, children, women, and [the] elderly; opening fire at people fleeing; burning of entire villages; massive detention; massive and systematic rape and sexual violence; [and] deliberate destruction of food and sources of food sources.” These horrors were perpetrated by “either Myanmar security forces or Rakhine villagers.” Shortly after the report was published, Pope Francis joined in condemning the abuses.

Despite mounting criticism, the Rohingya crisis didn’t make its way to the 30th ASEAN Summit’s official agenda. The 25-page Chairman’s Statement on the summit mentions four issues under the heading “Regional Issues and Developments,” namely the South China Sea, maritime security and cooperation, the Korean peninsula, and terrorism and extremism. The statement did welcome the entry into force of the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), acknowledge contributions to the Trust Fund to Support Emergency Humanitarian Relief Efforts in the Event of Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia, reaffirm “commitment to addressing the irregular movement of persons in the region,” reiterate the need to explore establishing a Task Force to respond to “crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons in Southeast Asia,” and mention efforts to improve border management. The statement also “noted with satisfaction the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ progress on the promotion of human rights,” and reaffirmed the vision of a “people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN,” all without any mention of the abuses against the Rohingya.

The glaring omission is not surprising given that ASEAN countries continue to observe non-interference as a guiding principle in intra-ASEAN relations. There is evidence, however, that this is gradually changing. On December 4, 2016, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a rally protesting what he called Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya. In a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on December 19, 2016, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said that the situation of Rohingya Muslims was now “of a regional concern and should be resolved together.” More recently, on the sidelines of the recently concluded summit, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo discussed the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Jokowi was said to have told Suu Kyi that stability in Myanmar was important not only for the country but also the region. Regardless of Najib’s or other leaders’ motivations in voicing their criticism, these instances reveal that there is significant concern for the plight of the Rohingya, at least in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.

It would be tempting for concerned countries like Malaysia and Indonesia not to push any harder, or for other ASEAN countries to look inward and focus on their respective economies and other domestic concerns. It is, after all, in the very nature of the refugee problem that politicians and government officials perceive little incentive in addressing the needs of refugees. Acknowledging their condition entails political risk, while allocating resources to assist them seems to pose no immediate benefit to politicians who are more concerned with their own constituencies. However, it is in the interest of every ASEAN country to pay attention to abuses against the Rohingya and the consequences.

Security Implications

Violence begets violence; situations of insecurity tend to breed other forms of insecurity. Longstanding oppression of the Rohingya has compelled tens of thousands of them take dangerous journeys in search of better lives. Such journeys, as in other parts of the world, both enable and are enabled by trafficking rings, often in collusion with corrupt officials, thus feeding into vicious cycles of crime, corruption, and exploitation spread across countries. Deepening violence against the Rohingya in recent years, however, appears to be causing even greater dangers. The International Crisis Group, in a December 2016 report, warns of a new Muslim insurgent group known as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) seeking an end to persecution of the Rohingya and recognition of their rights as Myanmar citizens. HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist terrorist agenda but ICG warns that continued use of disproportionate force, particularly in the absence of efforts to build stronger, more positive relations with Muslim communities, could create conditions to further radicalize sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit for their own agenda. Clearly, this poses serious security threats that merit a concerted effort by ASEAN governments in response.

Political Implications

Even if the situation doesn’t lead to the emergence of a radical jihadist group, any protracted conflict would seriously hamper the road to democratization in Myanmar. Myanmar’s military continues to operate independent of the governing party, has control of key ministries, and holds enough seats to block any constitutional amendment. Fighting with ethnic groups continues and repressive laws remain in place. Yet with Suu Kyi in government, Myanmar is closer to democratizing than it has been. Unresolved conflicts, not just in Rakhine but in other border states where ethnic groups continue to seek autonomy, appear to justify military solutions where broad-based, political solutions are needed. Without progress in terms of peace and security, the military junta’s hold on power will not weaken and democratization grows more distant.

Governance Implications

Apart from critiques coming from Malaysia and Indonesia, it seems that ASEAN as a regional grouping will be reactive rather than proactive concerning displacement and forced migration of the Rohingya. At best, the regional grouping acknowledges the need to explore establishing task forces to respond to similar crises. This betrays ad hoc and short-sighted thinking rather than long-term strategizing in responding to irregular movement of people. The fact is that there has not been a time in history when every nation and people group corresponded neatly within political borders. Unresolved historical issues, ongoing and future conflicts, the possibility of religious, social, and political persecution, as well as environmental factors, are only some of the reasons that would compel people to flee their habitual place of residence. It is therefore in every government’s interest to adopt and institutionalize comprehensive frameworks for managing the movement of people — whether arriving through commercial airlines or by boat, skilled or unskilled, forced or by choice, but especially when those people are in need of protection.

Economic Implications

Any security threat is of course a threat to peace and stability which could hinder trade and investments. But before such threats could even manifest, economic implications might already be felt. The Nikkei Asian Reviewreports that widespread condemnation of Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims has raised concerns among some investors about sanctions that could hinder foreign investment.

It goes without saying that there are ethical and humanitarian reasons for addressing conflict in the Rakhine and the dire needs of oppressed Rohingya Muslims. These ethical considerations also pose questions on the kind of community ASEAN wants to be — whether it seeks to be a tolerant and inclusive one, or one that is complicit in excluding and oppressing minorities. In an increasingly conflicted world, it is easy to be indifferent to those concerns. But as Jokowi and Anifah have acknowledged, the Rohingya crisis is not just an internal problem for Myanmar, but one with immediate and long-term economic, political, and security implications for the rest of the region. These risks include, among others, the threat of growing Muslim insurgency, Myanmar reversing its path to democratization, and undermining the peace and stability prerequisite to growth and development in the region. Now more than ever, ASEAN must turn its attention to this long-standing crisis and work together towards a truly integrated, peaceful, stable, and people-centered ASEAN community.

Jera Lego wrote her dissertation on refugee politics in Southeast Asia and currently works for an international research institute.

By Alice Cowley and Maung Zarni
April 21, 2017

“Send us as many birth control pills as you can. They (Myanmar troops) are gang-raping our women. They are arresting and killing all our men. There is nothing else you can do. Just pray to Allah and to wish us speedy deaths! This is just simply unbearable,” said a Rohingya woman talking from her mobile phone from Myanmar’s predominantly Rohingya region of Northern Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.[1] [See Figure below right.] She was talking to her brother, an unregistered refugee living and working in a poor and rough neighborhood called Salayang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Among the handful of Burmese eager for updates, listening to the phone conversation on speaker phone was U Maung Maung, a respected Muslim leader and activist from Mandalay, also making a living in Malaysia. Maung immediately posted this on his Facebook timeline on November 20, 2016,[2] hoping to alert people to the shocking events unfolding. Western experts on the region note there is an “information blackhole,”[3] owing to the Myanmar government’s lockdown of Northern Rakhine State for its ‘security clearance operations.’ As such, Myanmar authorities have barred access to humanitarian aid groups and local and international media. This latest lockdown was a result of the killing of nine Myanmar police officers which was believed to have been instigated by Rohingya hoping to form a resistance group.

However, Maung’s attempt to alert the world via Facebook came to naught. The post was in Burmese language. But more importantly, his alert — like many others conveyed by ‘locals’ — had not been vetted by any Western organizations or international human rights ‘experts,’ who have become the standard bearers of facts or “truth-conveyors” relating to other peoples’ experiences of atrocities. Victims and their accounts need first to be vetted by these mediating agencies — a system understood only too well by the Burmese government with its blanket denials of the allegations coming out of the information black hole it created. Aung San Suu Kyi Government’s Information Committee referred to the atrocities on many occasions, “fake rape”[4] and “exaggerations” or “fabrications.”[5]

Following hundreds of similar allegations and coordinated documentation by Rohingya groups of mass killings, mass rape, and destruction of whole villages, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) sent a team to interview Rohingya refugees who had recently fled to Bangladesh — 70,000[6] of whom had arrived in four months. Based on over 200 interviews, OHCR issued a damning Flash Report (Feb 3) complete with harrowing tales of burning elderly Rohingya men alive and slitting children’s throats.[7] The U.N. estimates that Myanmar may have killed as many as 1,000 Rohingya men in recent violence alone.[8] This information, presented at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council,[9] did not result in the much-hoped-and-lobbied-for U.N. Commission of Inquiry with a view towards the International Criminal Court. The result was a compromise — a ‘Fact Finding Mission’[10] — which both the military[11] and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government[12] are determined not to accept or cooperate with. 

We have previously argued that far from being a new phenomenon, waves of state-directed violence and communal destruction such as these have been occurring since 1978 and are part of a process of ‘slow-burning genocide.’[13] Two other independent studies published a year later reinforce our findings.[14] Over these decades, Rohingya experiences and sufferings have been tossed across multiple discourses that deny the central role of the military such as “communal violence”[15] or since the October 9 raids, “Muslim insurgency” pregnant with potential for escalations involving “international terrorism.”[16] In recent years, these have run concurrently with human rights bodies and organizations framing the situation as “ethnic cleansing”[17] and “crimes against humanity”— U.N. Special Rapporteurs and the OHCHR included.

Despite these shifting narratives, the fundamental nature of the problem has remained constant. The military-controlled state has attempted to “cleanse”the nation of the largest Muslim minority in Myanmar, unique with legitimate claims to Northern Rakhine as their ancestral home. Firstly, this has been attempted through legal, bureaucratic, and administrative means — such as removing their rights to citizenship, destroying and revoking documents in Rohingya possession, refusing to register thousands of Rohingya infants, household checks, as well as subjecting them to a web of criss-crossing security grids by which the freedom of movement of the Rohingya population is severely restricted and monitored.[18] Secondly, it has been attempted through denial of their history/identity and propaganda campaigns that serve to de-nationalize them.[19] Where these two attempts have not been achieved, communities have also been subjected to physical destruction through methods such as burning property, evictions, and killings.

However, this has not always been the case. In 1961, the Burmese co-author’s late great uncle, Zeya Kyaw Htin Major Ant Kywe, a decorated nationalist solider, was the Deputy Commander of the administrative district of Mayu in 1961, which was effectively established as a homeland for Rohingya in Rakhine State in order to maintain law and order[20] in the region where the central government was confronted with rebellions from two different fronts: Muslim Rohingya separatists and Buddhist Rakhine nationalists clamouring for statehood. 

On Myanmar’s Independence Day (January 4, 1948), even as the Union Jack was lowered at the colonial Secretariat in Rangoon, the Burma Army was engaged in ferocious battles against armed Rakhine (Buddhist) rebels[21] who wanted to reclaim the sovereignty they had lost to the militarily dominant Burmese Buddhist group in 1784. 

In the years following Myanmar independence in 1948, the central government, specifically the Ministry of Defense, strategically sought to embrace Rohingyas as a bona fide ethnic minority of the new Union of Burma,[22] with equal and full citizenship rights, along with multiple other minorities with armed revolts against the ethnically Burmese central government. It is essential to see the root of the Rohingya persecution not simply in the sectarian ethnic conflict between the two main co-habitant communities in Rakhine state of Western Burma, namely Rakhine Buddhist majority and Rohingya Muslim minorities, but in the ethnic triangle involving also the majority Burmese in ultimate control of the state (both the military under General Ne Win and the civilian political coalition headed by PM U Nu).[23]

Although the Burma Army was fighting battles on two fronts in West Myanmar, it was the Rakhine rebellions that presented a more serious threat to the central government than the simultaneous Muslim/Rohingya armed movements, some of which sought, with no success, to join with the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan (East Pakistan). During the Rohingya surrender ceremony of 290 Muslim rebels, held on 4 July 1961 in Northern Rakhine town of Buthidaung, the Commander of the Border Area Administration and Territorial Forces Colonel Saw Myint promised “absolutely no religious or ethnic discrimination” against Rohingyas — vis-à-vis Rakhine Buddhists —and guaranteed “equal protection under Law for all those who abide by the law and live in peace.”[24] Saw Myint’s superior and the second in command, after General Ne Win of the Burma Army Brigadier Aung Gyi, presided over the ceremony and explained the need for Rohingyas as an ethnic minority group to recognize and accept the primacy of political allegiance to the Union of Burma over their kinship, cultural, and religious ties in exchange for the full citizenship rights and ethnic equality which they were offered.[25]

In addition, as early as May 1960, the Ministry of Defense agreed to the Rohingyas’ request to carve out the predominantly Rohingya geographic pocket in Northern Rakhine State and establish a new district named after the local river Mayu. The co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the then-young Lt-Colonel Tin Oo, was tasked with establishing the Mayu District, which was to be administered centrally from the Burmese-controlled Rakhine Military Command.[26] Rohingyas’ request was precipitated by the moves made by Prime Minister U Nu’s re-elected civilian government in order to fulfil its election pledge of granting Rakhine Buddhists a separate statehood, within the Union of Burma.[27]

Within eight months of the establishment of the May-U District, General Ne Win and his deputies staged a coup against U Nu’s government on the pretext that Nu’s opportunistic electioneering and weak leadership were emboldening ethnic minorities’ demands for devolution of power away from the Burmese centre. While the coup leaders continued to honour the arrangements with Rohingyas, the policy orientation of the military leadership shifted towards racist, isolationist, xenophobic, and socialistically doctrinaire. The more liberal and less radical military leaders such as the Deputy Commander in Chief of Army Brigadier General Aung Gyi and Colonel Chit Myaing were sacked in 1963 and 1964.[28]The remaining military leaders under Ne Win’s commandership began to marginalize and eventually cleanse the Armed Forces of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu officers unless they agreed to convert to Buddhism. Having remade this once-multiethnic, multi-faith national institution of unrivalled power and control over society, the military leadership turned its sights to society at large.[29] Most important, the army leadership initiated, promoted, and sustained the process of radically reimagining ethnic and political histories, national identity, and the society at large along the army’s new “purist” Buddhist vision.[30]

In 1978, Ne Win launched a centrally organized, violent operation against Rohingyas of both Southern and Northern Rakhine, under the pretext of surprise immigration checks. Known as Operation King Dragon, the events of 1978 are carved into the consciousness and the inter-generational memories of Rohingya communities. It was conducted as an interagency campaign of terror involving Immigration, Religious Affairs, Police, Courts, Army, Navy, and police intelligence, as well as local administrations made up of anti-Rohingya Rakhine.[32] Myanmar’s former chief of military intelligence until 2004, Ex-General Khin Nyunt, who was operationally involved on the ground as a young major from Special Operations Bureau, Ministry of Defense, serving as the Commander of Infantry Regiment No. 20 based in Rakhine, wrote that a total of 277,938 fled, between February 12 and June 3, from Western Burma into the neighboring Bangladesh.[33] Shut off from the outside world by an isolationist military regime, the Burmese public — the Burmese co-author included — was misinformed of this operation as an act of national defense, under the slogan “the (Buddhist) race could be swallowed up by other (alien) race”[34] — an understanding that still resounds today. This was the first of the chronic waves of state-sponsored and state-condoned violence against Rohingyas which have resulted each time in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing “unbearable life on land.”

Following Ne Win’s coup in 1962, the nation’s vision fundamentally changed — from one that sought to establish peace through a unified multiethnic nation based on equality, to one which harnessed and mobilized the Buddhist public’s anti-colonial sentiments, and along with this their anti-Indian (subcontinent) and anti-Muslim racisms, which emerged out of the colonial-era political economy in which locals were subordinated to Indians.[31] It was a vision which sought to ‘cleanse’ the nation through systematic attempts to subjugate some ethnic minorities whilst removing others (such as Rohingyas) from the national fold.

The now internationally infamous 1982 Citizenship Act was one part of a long process of stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship and the rights of future generations of Rohingya to obtain Myanmar citizenship. It was accompanied by eviction, land confiscation, and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya. Although this controversial law does not mention Rohingyas by name, viewed within the historical context of large scale forced repatriations from Bangladesh, and based on accounts of those involved in drafting the Act, it can be concluded that the primary aim in drafting the Act was to exclude Rohingyas from citizenship.[35] The law — and its application regarding 135 fixed ethnic nationalities excluding Rohingya, on the basis of their absence in the dubious colonial censuses, who in fact existed in Myanmar prior to the first British Annexation of Western Burma in 1826 — has not simply left Rohingya vulnerable to multiple discriminatory policies aimed at non-nationals, it has also fed popular anti-colonial racisms in society that have led to pervasive social ostracism of Rohingya and violence in which Rakhine Buddhists and state security forces have worked hand in glove. 

Despite annual U.N. human rights monitoring in Myanmar since 1992[36] and the UNHCR having a presence on the ground in northern Rakhine State since the early 1990s, violent persecution of the Rohingya has continued unabated and indeed increased. This persecution was largely perceived as a part of the authoritarian regime’s general pattern of rights violations, for the Myanmar military was notoriously repressive towards ethnically Burmese opposition movement under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership across the country, as well as other non-Bama ethnic groups in the country’s North and North East regions.

Myanmar’s rights abuses in Rohingya regions of Western Myanmar weren’t seen as something that demanded special attention. Today, while the anti-historical and institutionally amnesiac discourses such as “humanitarian concern,” “communal conflict,” “security and terrorism,” “lack of development,” and “livelihood creation” float through the ether world of foreign embassies, development, and U.N. agencies, the decades of facts relating to the instrumental role of the central Myanmar State in the abuses of Rohingya are buried alongside very real human corpses — again — waiting to be verified and validated by the right kind of foreign experts and the right kind of U.N. process. People and processes that never come. As Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine wait and their diasporic relatives post desperate calls for U.N. peacekeepers and intervention on Facebook, “Never again!”— the foundational myth of the United Nations — must sound bitterly hollow.

Fifty-five years ago, the Myanmar Ministry of Defense and its military leaders officially embraced Rohingya as an ethnic minority, granted them equal rights, and full citizenship while enabling them to make contributions to the country’s politics, society, and economy. Today, the military’s radical reversal of Rohingya policy created the space in society where Rohingyas are commonly seen as “leaches,” their identity and history “a hoax,” and their presence a demographic and jihadist threat to the Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, over the same period, under the same national visions, other ethnic communities along the country’s strategic, resource-rich borderlands including Kachins, Shan, Karenni, etc., were offered promises, pledges, and agreements by generations of military and civilian leaders, only to have them reneged when powerful stakeholders changed their strategic calculations. Under the military regime, those that refused to be co-opted into the military’s national vision complete with its Burmese dominance, were and still are subject to persecution, oppression, and war. They are victims of the same ideologies that cleanse the nation of Rohingyas and all those that oppose or live in contradiction to the state’s centralized control and organization of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

With NLD elected to government and with Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto leader, one would hope for at least a dilution of the military leadership’s post-1962 purist ideologies, or at best for a radical re-imagination of the Burmese national community incorporating her late father’s (Aung San) vision of post-colonial Burma as a secular, progressive, multi-culturalist, multiethnic nation. Tragically, it is not only the armed forces that have implemented internal cleansing of their institutions. NLD is now also without a single Muslim representative from the population. Every time the government calls rape ‘fake’ on the military’s behalf or refuses to cooperate with U.N. bodies' attempts to unearth and validate atrocities, Aung San’s multiethnic vision of Burma is trampled further into the ground.

[1] Amartya Sen, the foremost scholar on famines, explains why Burma’s intentional measures to deny, severely limit, or block Rohingyas’ access to livelihoods, nutritional opportunities, and essential medical services is an act of “institutionalized killing,” a slow genocide, not like Khmer Rouge’s genocide, Rwanda or the Holocaust. Conference on the Plight of the Rohingya, Harvard University, November 4, 2014, accessed April 5, 2017,

[2] Ibid.

[3] International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), Queen Mary University of London, “Genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar may be entering a new and deadly phase, October 17, 2016, April 3, 2017,

[4] Myanmar State Counsellor Information Committee, “Information Committee Refutes Rumours of Rape,” December 26, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017, See also “Aung San Suu Kyi is making war time rape easier to commit,”, December 26, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[5] “Aung San Suu Kyi laughs out loud at Rohingya genocide allegations while in Singapore,” The Independent, January 5, 2017, April 3, 2017,; and Jonah Fisher, “Myanmar’s Rohingya: Truth, lies and Aung San Suu Kyi,” BBC, accessed April 3, 2017, Accessed 3 April 2017.

[7] “Devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men detailed in UN human rights report,” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), February 3, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, Accessed 3 April 2017. See the full report at 3 April 2017. 

[8] “Exclusive: More than 1,000 feared killed in Myanmar army crackdown on Rohingya - U.N. officials,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[9] U.N. OHCR, “Statement by Ms. Yanghee LEE, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council,” March 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[10] “Rohingya issue: UN to send fact-finding mission to Myanmar,” ANI News, March 24, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, 3 April 2017.

[11] “Myanmar Military Chief Defends Crackdown Against Rohingya in Rakhine State,” Radio Free Asia, March 27, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[12] “Myanmar rejects UN call for rights probe,” Bangkok Post, March 25, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[13]Maung Zarni and Alice Cowley, “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal 23, 3 (2014): 683-754, accessed April 3, 2017, (Hereafter “The Slow-Burning Genocide”). 

[14] See Penny Green, Thomas MacManus & Alicia de la Cour Venning, “Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar,” International State Crime Initiative Report, Queen Mary University of London, 2015, accessed April 3, 2017,; and “Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State?: A Legal Analysis,” Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, October 2015, accessed April 3, 2017,

[15] See, for instance, Jim Della-Giacoma, “A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar,” International Crisis Group, March 28. 2013, accessed April 3, 2017, See also “Why is there communal violence in Myanmar?” BBC, July 3, 2014, accessed April 3, 2017,

[16] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group Report No. 283/Asia, December 15, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,; Tim Johnston and Anagha Neelakantan, “The World's Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma,” TIME, December 13, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[17] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: End Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims,” April 22, 2013, accessed April 3, 2017, See also Jocelyne Sambira, “Myanmar minorities suffer 'systemic' discrimination, abuse: UN,” United Nations Radio, June 20, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[18] See “The Slow-Burning Genocide.” See also Widney Brown, “Where there is police There is persecution, Physicians for Human Rights,” Physicians for Human Rights, October 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[19] In addition to the state-controlled mass media and official speeches by the generals and ex-generals, Myanmar Military Intelligence Services spread deliberately false historical information through teachers’ refresher courses at the Civil Servant Training School at Hpaung Gyi, which thousands of Burmese state school teachers are required to attend, according to Daw Khin Hla, former Rohingya Middle School Teacher, from Myanmar, who spoke at the conference on Rohingya Persecution, November 4, 2014, accessed April 3, 2017,

[20] “Finally, peace has prevailed in Mayu Borderlands District,” Editorial, Special Issue on Mayu, Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 5. (Burmese Language publication).

[21] Tape-recorded Interview in Virginia, U.S. (July 1994) with retired Colonel Chit Myaing, former member of General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council (1962). As the Deputy Commander of the Burma Rifle Brigade 5, Chit Myaing led the government’s military campaign against the armed Rakhine rebellion in January 1948.

[22] The full text of the official Burmese language transcript of the speech delivered by Brigadier General Aung Gyi, Vice Chief of Staff (Army), at the Surrender Ceremony of Mujahideen Rohingya troops, Maung Daw Town, Northern Rakhine State, 4 July 1961. See “Special Issue on Mayu”, Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 8-10 & 23-24. (Hereafter Brigadier General Aung Gyi’s speech).

[23] For the detailed records of this triangular politics amongst Rakhine-Burmese-Rohingya see the book-length Burmese language publication, Kyaw Win, Mya Han and Thein Hlaing, “Myanmar Naing Ngan Yay” (Burma’s Politics), Volume 3 (years 1958-1962), (Rangoon: Universities Press, 1991), in particular Chapter 12, pp. 167-250. (Hereafter “Burma’s Politics,” 1991).

[24] The full text of the official Burmese language transcript of the speech by Colonel Saw Myint, Chief of the Border Areas Administration and Commander of the Territorial Forces, “Special Issue on Mayu,” Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 15.

[25] Brigadier General Aung Gyi’s Speech, 1961.

[26] Transcript of the Current Affairs magazine discussions with Prime Minister’s Private Secretary-2 U Khin Nyunt, “Special Issue on Mayu,” Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 16-20.

[27] “Burma’s Politics” (1991), 230.

[28] Interview with retired Colonel Chit Myaing, 1994, op cit.

[29] Within Myanmar Armed Forces – and in the society at large – it is widely known that non-Buddhist military officers no longer get promoted beyond the ranks of Major. 

[30] Wa Lone, “Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pledges to help safeguard Buddhism,” Myanmar Times, June 24, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[31] Maung Zarni, “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

Institutionalized racism against the Rohingya Muslims led Burma to genocide”, Feature, Tricycle, Spring 2013, 3 April 2017.

[32] Personal Testimony delivered by U Ba Sein, a former Rohingya civil servant – now a refugee in London, UK - who lived through this King Dragon Operation in N. Rakhine, Permanent People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, Queen Mary University of London. March 6-7, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, (Ba Sein’s testimony begins at 7:55 minutes).

[33] Ex-General Khin Nyunt, Naing Ngan Ei Ah Nauk Hpet Ta Gar Pauk Ka Pya Tha Na (or The Crisis from the Western Gate of Burma), (Rangoon: Pan Myo Ta Yar Press, 2016), particularly Chapter 3, pp. 21-43.

[34] Although race/ethnicity and faith are two different “things,” the majority Buddhist Burmese public collapse the two. The Burmese popular saying sums it up: “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist.”

[35] The Burmese co-author and a key drafter, the late Rakhine historian Dr Aye Kyaw, were friends and fellow exiles for years in the United States. A few years before the two bouts of violence against Rohingyas in 2012 Aye Kyaw gave a Burmese language interview to the influential Irrawaddy News Group wherein he explained in details the internal discussions among the Drafting Committee members, that focused on the best ways to de-nationalize Rohingya through the citizenship act. Irrawaddy has since removed Aye Kyaw’s Burmese language interview. 

[36] See the mountains of Human Rights Situation Reports on Myanmar for the last 25 years beginning March 3, 1992, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed April 3, 2017,

Rohingya Muslim refugees shout slogans during a protest against what organizers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar, in New Delhi, India (December 19, 2016). Image Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Michael Hart
The Diplomat
January 18, 2017

Decades of persecution have left the Rohingya on the brink of genocide.
Amidst the latest wave of brutal violence unleashed by security forces in Rakhine state, Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya stand on the precipice of genocide. The final months of 2016 witnessed untold state-sponsored devastation and suffering in the isolated communities of the country’s remote far western region, home to almost all of Myanmar’s minority Muslim population.

The present bloodbath however is far from an isolated occurrence and should not be labeled merely as an overzealous reaction to the killing of nine border guards in an attack by unidentified gunmen on October 9, which provided the initial spark for the onslaught. Instead, the current campaign follows decades of systematic discrimination, persecution, and dehumanization, which has served to legitimize multiple waves of violence and now leaves the increasingly-helpless Rohingya on the edge of genocide.

Soon after security forces launched a crackdown in the wake of the October incident, reports began to emerge of indiscriminate and widespread human rights violations being committed in Rakhine State. Human Rights Watch reported that the army imposed strict curfews on the local population and denied access to journalists, before proceeding to carry out a sustained campaign of destruction encompassing extra-judicial executions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests.

High-resolution satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch provided evidence of the destruction of 1,250 buildings – including several mosques – across the five worst-affected villages since the violence erupted. In addition, thermal satellite data showed the presence of multiple active fires across the affected areas, which were later blamed on unspecified “terrorists” by the government. Myanmar’s leaders have labeled the violence as “communal” in nature, and have continually denied complicity in human rights abuses.

Amnesty International, however, has accused Myanmar’s authorities of subjecting the Rohingya to “collective punishment.” The respected human rights group has obtained first-hand accounts of security forces “firing at villagers from helicopter gunships, torching hundreds of homes, carrying out arbitrary arrests, and raping women and girls.” Amnesty has also described the response of the army to the October attack on the border guards as disproportionate, accusing the military of targeting “whole families and villages” of Rohingya, solely “on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.”

Despite the difficulty in obtaining information due to journalists and international observers being barred from the area, it is estimated that hundreds were killed and around 30,000 Rohingya displaced from their homes in the last few months of 2016, according to the UN. This is in addition to thousands already killed and up to 500,000 Rohingya previously displaced in earlier waves of violence. Many of the displaced live in extreme vulnerability and hardship as undocumented refugees in overcrowded and squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh.

Considering the multiple reports of atrocities carried out on the basis of identity, it becomes apparent that recent events in Rakhine State may amount to genocide. According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, its occurrence is defined as when specific acts – such as killing, or deliberately seeking to make life intolerable for certain elements of the population – are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The UN definition allows considerable room for interpretation when applied in practice – assigning a specific moment or certain number of deaths after which a campaign of killing should be labelled as “genocide” is not easy, and the boundaries will remain indefinitely blurred. However, the plight of the Rohingya appears to be heading in this direction.

So how did we get to this desperate stage – where a country which had seemingly embraced democracy after the 2015 election of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi stands on the verge of being complicit in genocide against a minority group living within its borders? To answer this question, it is necessary to trace the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar, exploring how their long-term alienation and marginalization from society has legitimized continual persecution and violence.

The primary cause of their marginalization dates back to the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, drawn up by the military government of General Ne Win. The law lists 135 ethnic groups that are officially recognized as having permanently settled within the boundaries of modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823. Notably, that list excludes the Rohingya. The Citizenship Law still applies today and serves to deny the Rohingya citizenship, which effectively renders the minority group’s 800,000 members in Myanmar stateless. As a result, the Rohingya are denied even the most basic of rights – they have been prevented from traveling to other parts of the country and have been denied access to education, healthcare, land ownership, and job opportunities.

Many people in Myanmar firmly support the government’s stance, justifying the Rohingya’s exclusion from society on the basis that they do not constitute an indigenous ethnic group. Instead, they claim the term “Rohingya” is only a recent invention, used to describe colonial-era immigrants who arrived in Myanmar from modern-day India and Bangladesh during the period of British rule. This wave of migration caused much resentment at the time, due to the belief that the new arrivals were taking over jobs and land rightfully owned by native residents. The resentment lingers, with many in Myanmar still referring to the Rohingya in pejorative terms as “Bengalis” or “illegal immigrants.”

This narrative has been contested as representing only a partial truth, with historical records suggesting that a sizeable Muslim minority has lived in Arakan – the area now known as Rakhine State – for centuries, descending from Arab traders who were later assimilated by further immigration from the Indian subcontinent. However, even if the dominant narrative was wholly accurate, it should in no way serve as justification for decades of discrimination, persecution, and indiscriminate violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Over the decades, a strong sense of Buddhist nationalism has fueled anti-Rohingya sentiments, resulting in the group being subjected to periodic cycles of violence. Thousands fled to Bangladesh after large-scale crackdowns in 1978 and 1991. Yet the worst outbreak of violence came in 2012, when according to Human Rights Watch, the authorities – along with mobs of local Arakanese men – committed crimes against humanity across Rakhine State. It was reported that mobs attacked Muslim communities and razed entire villages, whilst the security forces stood aside – and in some cases participated in the violence. The deadliest incident occurred in October 2012, when 70 Rohingya – including 28 children – were massacred in Yan Thei village.

Human Rights Watch found evidence of at least four mass grave sites after the 2012 crackdown, during which more than 125,000 Rohingya were displaced from their homes and forced to live in overcrowded camps lacking adequate food, water, and medical supplies. In the years since, around 110,000 refugees have left the country on flimsy boats – becoming known as the “boat people” and raising global awareness of the Rohingya’s plight – in an attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing and claim asylum in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

In light of the latest round of bloodshed, many observers have strongly criticized Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her failure to condemn the violence in Rakhine State. There was considerable hope that things would change for the Rohingya after her sweeping electoral victory in November 2015, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) ended decades of military rule. Whilst Suu Kyi has acknowledged there are “difficulties” in western Myanmar, she has remained reluctant to speak out in defense of the Rohingya, and has instead suggested that the international media often fail to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s internal affairs.

In reality, Aung San Suu Kyi is in an extremely difficult position. Criticism of her silence on the issue must be muted by recognition of the fact that Myanmar’s fragile democracy is still in its infancy, whilst the military retains a dominant influence over defense and security affairs. As a result, she may be reluctant to challenge the establishment on the Rohingya issue for fear of hard-earned progress being reversed, and the even more daunting prospect of the country returning to full military rule. In this context, her ability to intervene on the Rohingya issue is severely restricted.

As long as there remains little political will within Myanmar to avert the bloodshed in Rakhine state, the situation of the Rohingya will continue to deteriorate despite widespread international outcry and growing calls for action. The recent spike in violence is indicative of a renewed campaign to remove the Muslim minority group from Myanmar – at the very least by spreading fear and forcing thousands to risk their lives and flee across borders or the open seas. Until institutionalized and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya – sustained across decades – is meaningfully challenged within Myanmar itself, violence will continue to be legitimized, and the Rohingya will always seemingly stand on the brink of genocide.

Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has run the website Geopolitical Conflict since December 2015, which was established to provide news and analysis of conflicts which are under-reported in the mainstream media.

Rohingya Exodus