Today’s crisis in Myanmaris one of lots of conflicts happening around the globe, however – one of themost dramatic ones.
Thousands of refugees crossing the Bangladesh border everyday tell stories full of horrifying details, and stay in refugee camps facingdanger of diseases and starvation with just one desire – never come back toMyanmar, where their husbands and wives, sons and daughter, brothers andsisters were raped and murdered. Satellite images of the territory of exodusshow smoke and ashes in the place of villages. And Myanmar governmentofficials, asked by NGO’s and members of international community about theevents, deny any possible human rights violations approved by the state,blaming “Bengali terrorists” spreading fear and forcing Muslim people of Burmato leave their homes. What is really going on there? Who is responsible foremergence and escalation of the crisis, who are the main victims and moreimportantly, what can be done to help people in distress? The aim of this paperis, through studying and analysing different perspectives on the crisis,represent the situation not just as an ethnicity being repressed byauthoritarian government, but as a complex ethnical, religious and politicalconflict, in which both sides are responsible to some extend for the escalationof violence. Table of contents:1) Introduction2) Backgroundinformation 3) Mainelements of repressions4) Wavesof violence, fear and danger of intervention5) Refugeesand genocide debate6) Contradictionsand flaws of the reports7) Viewon the conflict – insurgent groups8) Conclusions9) Bibliography IntroductionHumanitarian crises areterrible. In history books, we can read about great sufferings people had to gothrough against their will. Natural catastrophes are devastating, but when theresponsibility for the disaster lies on other people, it is even worse. And themost terrifying example of such human-caused crisis is genocide.
No matter whenand where it happened – in Poland, Ukraine, Rwanda – reports and details of theseevents fill our hearts with grief and fear. And today’s crisis in Myanmar isargued to be just that – a genocide. Numerous of international organisationsand experts cannot qualify this situation any differently.
However, theofficial position of the government is that there are no violations of humanrights committed on the territory of their state, and all reports are beingenormously exaggerated. The massive exodus of Muslim people to the neighbouringstates – Bangladesh, mostly – is being explained as caused by fear spread by”Bengali terrorists”. Moreover, the UN refuses to characterise the state ofaffairs a genocide. The situation requires immediate action, though no realmeasures have been taken by the members of international community, and membersof NGO’s, trying to help people in distress are being humiliated, extraditedand attacked. So what is really going on there? Who is causing all the troubleand provoking the violence? To what extent can this situation can be considereda genocide and who is responsible for it? This paper is intended to analysedifferent perspectives, represented in NGO’s reports, official claims ofMyanmar government, reports of UN and EU commissions and interviews withlocals. By doing that, it might be possible to put together most of the factsand present to the reader the picture of this complex situation – and,hopefully, the best course of action to take will be clearer then. History and backgroundMyanmar used to be aBritish colony and gained independence in 1948.
First, after the Brits left,the democratic regime was established. But it did not last long – thegovernment was overthrown in 1962 by a military led by general Ne Win. Thatyear marked the beginning of a long and difficult period in the history onBurma – the period of military dictatorship. While the junta was earning moneyby exploiting country’s natural resources and enjoying unlimited power, peoplewere being oppressed, and economic conditions were extremely tough, povertylevel rose significantly, and the relationships between communities within theregions worsened. (FortifyRights) The situation reached its climax in 1988,resulting in so called “8888 Uprising”. Massive protests, spread all over thecountry and supported by the majority of the population, although resulted inbloodbath, eventually brought its fruits – the military government performed aset of reforms, transferring from the Constitution of 1974 to the new martiallaw, and forming the new government under the name of State Law and OrderRestoration Council (SLORC) (Zarni and Cowley). The key event after the newcourse taken by the government can be considered the elections of May 1990. Theresults did not bring any difference; however, it can be considered a firststep towards democratization of Burma.
The National League for Democracy (NLD)won a vast majority of the votes, although the leaders of the party were keptunder arrest. (Fortify Rights) Since the replacement of the SLORC governmentfor State Peace and Development Council in 1997, the military governmentstarted slowly giving up some of its functions to the majority oppositionparty, even though its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi had to go through several timesof being under house arrest. Despite its ongoing process of democratization,Myanmar had to go through several insurgencies and civil protests, caused bythe oppressive character of the implementation of governmental policies andharsh economic state of affairs.
The population of Myanmarhistorically consists of more than 150 ethnic groups, spread around the regionsand sometimes having very different cultural traditions. (Zarni, Cowley) Mostof the population are Buddhists, but there is also a significant number (around2 million) of Sunni Muslims, calling themselves “Rohingya”, living in theprovince of Rakhine, or Arakan, in their terminology, situated on the Westerncoast of Burma. Other diasporas of Rohingya Muslims can be found in Bangladesh,Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and several other countries,raising the total population number to as many as 8 million people. Since the country’s independence in 1948, theRohingya became the most repressed ethnic group in Myanmar and one of the mostrepressed ethnic groups in the world (Lindblom)Main elements ofrepressionsMost of the reportsconcerning the situation start with the history and the background informationon the Rohingya, and then elaborate the policies and measures taken by thegovernment to exclude the Rohingya from the social and political life of thestate. One of the most important policies, passed back in 1948 the UnionCitizenship act defined Myanmar citizenship and identified specificethnicities – the “indigenous races of Burma”—that were allowed to gaincitizenship.
The Rohingya were not included in the list. (FortifyRights) Eventhough initially gaining the full citizenship for Rohingya was hard, butpossible, after 1982 the possibility was almost lost for good. This caused lotsof difficulties – from inability to own property and address the court, denialof provision of healthcare and education.
(FortifyRights, Green et al.) Othermeasures include, for example, the law passed in 1990’s, requiring Muslims ofthe Rakhine state to obtain marriage licenses. These licenses were given understrict conditions, many of which contradicted to traditional local beliefs,making it impossible for the couples to obtain these licenses. In the view ofthis law, local police forces could persecute the couples who were living togetherwithout such licences, either not being married or married according to localtraditions. (FortifyRights) The regulations passed by the local authorities in1993 and 2005 were made to regulate birth control, restricting populationincrease for Muslims. (FortifyRights). The members of the police and localauthorities also consistently made Rohingya men and boys perform physicallabour, or made them guard the villages at night, despite their occupation andhealth conditions. (FortifyRights) Some reports claim that Burmese governmentsince 2000’s started forming detention camps and “prison villages”, forcinghundreds of thousands of people to move there, with their lives at theselocations being even harder than before, denying them both their citizenshipand human rights.
(Green et al.) In all the above-mentioned cases, which do notrepresent the full list of governmentally approved measures to contain andoppress the Rohingya, any sign of resistance was immediately and severelypunished, sometimes putting the whole village or the local community under thethreat of redemption. (Green et al.)Waves of violence, fearand danger of interventionTotalitarian rule of militaryjunta, worsening economic situation and systematic repressions against certainethnic groups couldn’t last forever without provoking any kind of response:apart from 8888 Uprising, the biggest resistance so far in the history ofMyanmar, there have been numerous cases of insurgencies and “waves ofviolence”. These unrests, originally provoked by the government and dating backto as far as 1970’s, represented the most brutal measures taken to repress theRohingya – physical elimination.
(Zarni, Cowley) While the first act ofviolence looked like forced migration of the Muslims towards Bangladesh withthe government holding back the provisions, (Zarni, Cowley) with time membersof local Buddhist communities became involved, as in case of 2012 violence. Theorigin of the unrest is connected to several Muslims raping and murdering aBuddhist woman in one of the villages of Rakhine, and thus causing a wave ofhatred and violence among the Buddhists. (Green et al.) The clashes between theBuddhist and the Muslim communities were claimed by some researchers to besupported and sponsored by the government (FortifyRights), though there islittle reliable factual evidence. However, the clashes continued, provoked,sometimes unwillingly, by both Rohingya insurgents, as has been seen in Augustthis year, and the Buddhists. (FortifyRights) Speaking about provocations amongthe Buddhists, it seems necessary to include the role Buddhist monks play inthe propaganda of hatred against the Muslims. There are several unions of themonks, such as 969 union, for example, actively supported by the government,which continuously argue for dehumanisation of the Rohingya, claiming that itis necessary to completely obliterate them. They are described as “beasts”,that look for any advantage to gain power, rape and murder Buddhist women, andwipe out the Buddhist community.
(FortifyRights) Moreover, to add to thecomplexity of situation, as the members of the international community,especially representatives of NGO’s, try to provide humanitarian aid toRohingya communities and argue for their human rights, they are being seen asenemies, and the organisations being controlled by Muslims, who are trying toend stability within Rakhine state. The level of hatred and intrust within theRakhine community towards everything connected to the Rohingya is so high, thatthere have been several reports of the attack attempts on the members of NGO’s,performed by Rakhine nationalists. (Green et al.) These attitudes withinregular members of the Buddhist community can be connected with very highdegree of authority that Buddhist monks have on the society, and thus having anopportunity to seed the ideas of hatred within the villagers. Moreover,Rohingya culture is somehow similar to the traditions of Bangladesh, and itadds up to the image of Rohingya as being “illegal Bengali immigrants”. (Greenet al.)Refugees and genocidedebateMembers of the Rohingyacommunity, facing threats, violence and heavy oppression, bound to inevitablyface a choice – accept the fate of being wiped out, join the insurgencies, or fleethe country. As for Rohingya it is impossible to address any courts within thestate to demand citizenship, and most of the people are not inclined to jointhe insurgent groups and spread violence, more and more Rohingya every daybecome refugees, crossing borders of neighbouring states in desperate attemptto find shelter.
(MSF) And several NGO’s, such as the Red Cross or MSF, are nowaccommodating almost half a million people in refugee camps at the borderregion of Bangladesh. Living conditions in these camps are severe, there havebeen documented cases of deaths from starvation and diseases spread due to lowsanity level. (MSF) Moreover, after the last wave of violence occurred inAugust, facing the perspective of hundreds of thousands more refugees coming toits border, Bangladesh is starting to deny the refugees to its territory. (Lone,Marshall) In addition to that, Thailand has reportedly been denying therefugees on its territory, making the coast guard push the refugee boats awayfrom its coast, or kidnapping the refugees and either demanding bail or sellingthem as slaves to local fishermen. (McPherson) Medecins Sans Frontieres intheir report continuously indicate dangers which refugees living in campsaround Bangladesh are facing every day. Malnutrition, floods, poor access toclean water and medicine – with periodic fails of financing or humanitarianconvoys being blocked, creating an extremely dangerous situation for the peopleseeking help as refugees.
(MSF). Fortify Rights, amongothers, has made a thorough legal analysis on possibility of application of thelaw of genocide to the Rohingya people. Theirs arguments are based on theConvention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, thatstates:Any ofthe following acts committed with intent to destroy,in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religiousgroup, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mentalharm to members of the group; (c) Deliberatelyinflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring aboutits physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measuresintended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forciblytransferring children of the group to another group.
(Zarni,Cowley) In their research, taking the law as a base,they argue that the Rohingya people are being targeted as a group, facingrepetitive violence with intention of total extermination. (FortifyRights) Intheir analysis, the conclusion is made that the Myanmar crisis can be called agenocide, and an independent UNHCR-led commission is necessary for furtherinvestigation and finding people accountable. (FortifyRights)However, the officialposition of the UN is far less radical – the closest definition to “genocide”,applied officially, was “possibly ethnic cleansing”. Jonah Fisher in her reportfor the BBC quotes several interviews UN officials, claiming that due to the UNpolicy of long-term democratization and tensions easing, any radical positiontowards the Myanmar situation is viewed as unacceptable and can cause differentdisciplinary measures, such as enforced change of working position.
(Fisher)These facts can partly explain very indistinct position of high UN officials. The official position ofthe Burmese government, announced at the UN Security Council, states that thereare no violations of human rights performed against the people of Rohingya, andthere are no specific policies and measures implemented to repress and destroyRohingya community as a whole, or any of its members. (Zarni, Cowley; UNSC)According to Myanmar officials, mass exodus of the Rohingya refugees toneighbouring countries is caused by “Burmese terrorists” and fear spread bythem (UNSC), consequently, all witnesses of atrocities committed in Rakhinestate are “heavily exaggerated”. (UNSC) A number of sources alsoindicates that the resolution of the UNSC was blocked by Russia and China,presumably because of China’s economic interests in Myanmar. (EuropeanParliament Database) The statement, blocked by the Council, contained demandsto “release all political prisoners, begin widespread dialogue and end itsmilitary attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities”. (UN NewsCentre) The opponents of the resolution claimed that Myanmar crisis is not athreat to international peace and security, and therefore has to be handled byother UN agencies. (UN News Centre)Contradictions and flawsof reportsAs has been previouslyindicated, there have been numerous reports made by different NGO’s addressingthe Rohingya problem.
However, most of them concentrate on specific aspects ofthe problem, failing to view the situation as a whole, and thereby missingvital details. Such organisations as Medecins Sans Fontieres emphasize theirreports on the living conditions of the members of Rohingya community withinMyanmar, and the refugees outside of its borders. Their reports are vital forunderstanding particular features of the crisis, but do not provide anyrealistic recommendations. The reports made by Fortify Rights and Zarni andCowley, which have been used numerous times in this paper, concentrate theirefforts on providing thorough background information and carrying out legalanalysis concerning the law of genocide. These writings are particularly usefuldue to the extensive character of their research, which helps to understand thecomplexity of the situation. However, the importance of international communityis shown very vaguely, and there is little or no attention paid to internalconflicts between members of Buddhist and Muslim communities within Rakhinestate, and hardly any mentioning of Rohingya insurgencies.
Moreover, while mostof the reports are emphasizing the seriousness of the situation and criticalcondition of the Rohingya community, the official report, carried out by KofiAnnan Foundation, though taking into consideration all the repressive andviolent measures taken by the government against the Rohingya, fails to mentionanything about the possibility of genocide, and the recommendations, providedby it, cannot be characterised as anything different but being weak andinsufficient. Insurgent groupsTalking about the crisisin the Rakhine state, it is extremely important to mention the insurgencies,especially the Rohingya ones. Overall population of Muslims un Myanmarestimates around 16% of total population, and is divided into 4 distinctcommunities, with very different relations with Burmese Buddhists. (Selth)Historically speaking, Muslims had a significant amount of political powerduring the colonial period, but their influence started rapidly deterioratingafter Myanmar independence in 1948, and especially after 1988. Throughout theyears state discriminatory policies were supported and even expanded by locals,who viewed Muslims as aliens, a threat to their normal way of life and future.(Selth) The Rohingya, after 1948,”wishedfor the northern part of Arakan to be included in newly created East Pakistan.Others known as Mujahids called for an independent Muslim state to be createdin the area between the Kaladan and Mayu Rivers”. (Selth) Supporting Mujahidspoint of view and opposing Ne Win’s regime, Rohingya Independence Force (RIF),the first organised insurgency group, was created in 1963.
In following yearsRohingya Patriotic Front, Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front and others were formed.(Selth) These groups eventually started a guerrilla war against the centralgovernment, lasting for over 50 years. Their claims were different, the mostradical ones demanding for a separate Muslim state, or demanding to be grantedfull Burmese citizenship, though most of them were fighting simply for “freedomof worship, guarantees against religious persecution, and the same politicaland economic rights for Muslims as other communities in Burma”. (Selth) Membersof one of the groups claimed responsible for several killings in August thisyear, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, say that their actions are nothing morebut a response to years of persecutions, and that in case of being denied theirrights, the war will continue until total extinction. (McPherson) It has alsobeen noted that religion is not always the main motivating factor for recruits,as fate of their community and their families seems much more vital.
(McPherson) Rohingya ethnicity has been spreadto several countries throughout the years. The biggest diasporas, except forBangladesh, are situated in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A report made byInternational Crisis Group claims that Rohingya insurgencies in Myanmar havebeen supported from these countries both financially and by providing trainedtroops. The report says that emergence of a well-organised, well-funded group,called Harakahal-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) led by experienced commanders can be a gamechanger in Myanmar’ situation, and thus poses a great challenge to thegovernment. Finally, as it is concluded, the current trend shows that violence,historically viewed by members of the Rohingya community as counterproductive,is now being viewed as possibly the only choice left.
(International CrisisGroup) This perspective, however obviously needing further investigation,proves the extent of the seriousness of the situation, and warns theinternational community of possible further escalation of the conflict.Conclusion The current position ofthe international community is that authoritarian government of Myanmar hasbeen oppressing the Rohingya ethnic group for decades, since the military coupof 1962, and the scale of violence and repressions has come to the brink of thegenocide. Denial of citizenship, dehumanisation, restricting marriages andbirth control, forced labour, rapes and killings – several legal analyses haveproved that the crisis can be characterised as nothing more but a genocide.
However, it seems necessary to say that the repressions of the Rohingya peoplehave not only been caused by the government, but also by members of localBuddhist communities, sometimes led and supported by radical religious groupsof monks. Taking that into consideration, the crisis can be characterised alsoas a religious and ethnic conflict between historical Burmese communities –Muslim and Buddhist, which make up the entity called “Myanmar”. Moreover, inseveral cases the violence has been provoked by the groups of insurgents, whichalso play their roles in escalation of tensions. Most of them probably justwant to end the oppression and finally being considered as human beings, withsome sources even indicating forced recruitment in such groups. (McPherson)However, as been pointed out in the report made by International Crisis Group,these groups, sometimes well trained and financed from abroad, can represent asignificant danger for peace and stability of the country.
Taking all thesearguments into consideration, it seems that viewing the crisis solely as astate-sponsored genocide is incorrect. The situation is much more complex andserious, and requires serious and immediate measures from the members ofinternational community. Whereas there is no doubt that the violence has to bestopped as soon as possible, the regulations of tensions is most likely goingto be a long and hard process, as current hostile attitude towards members ofRohingya community cannot be changed easily.
It requires a set of long-termmeasures, aimed at educational work with the population, and elimination ofradical groups of monks, who have an enormous authority over common Buddhists.The situation is extremely serious, being probably the most serioushumanitarian crisis of today. It calls for immediate response, and it is up tointernational community for how it will be remembered – a tragedy or a miracle.