The Rohingya have long been labelled as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, yet they have received little international attention. That has changed in recent weeks as more than 500,000 Rohingya fled their communities in western Myanmar to Bangladesh. Still, whether they will receive adequate assistance is uncertain.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in western Myanmar, closely related to Muslim communities in eastern Bangladesh. Since 1982, Myanmar has only extended citizenship to government-recognized national races and those who can prove their forebears’ residence before the British began colonizing the country in 1824. While most Rohingya trace their ancestry in Myanmar back several generations, the Myanmar government, military and much of the population refuse to recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous group, as that would imply their right to citizenship. Instead, they call them Bengalis, framing them as foreigners.
The Rohingya have endured decades of state-sponsored discrimination. This has included restrictions on mobility, which have limited access to schooling, jobs, health care and even marriage at times. In 1978 and 1992, military operations compelled hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. With Bangladeshi and international pressure, many were eventually able to return to Myanmar but conditions did not improve. Over the years, Rohingya people have sought a better life in many countries, including India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Rarely though have they been able to obtain citizenship.
Few Rohingya have responded to their ill treatment with violence, but a Rohingya militant group mounted attacks against Myanmar border security outposts in 2016 and again in August 2017, killing a dozen policemen. The military quickly launched a broad counter-insurgency campaign that led to the exodus. Certainly there was just cause for going after the militants, but Rohingya refugees say civilians were abused indiscriminately and whole villages were burned down. The United Nations Human Rights chief has called it a classic case of ethnic cleansing.
The Myanmar military and much of the country’s Buddhist population see the situation differently. They feel that their religion and national identity are under threat. Although the Rohingya make up only about 2 percent of the country’s population – and other Muslim populations another 2 percent – they fear a Muslim takeover. This is particularly true in Rakhine State, where the Muslim population is concentrated. Years of anti-Rohingya state propaganda, political and economic uncertainty and Islamic militant activities elsewhere have stoked Buddhist nationalist sentiment and created an environment in which there is little empathy for the Rohingya.
Thus, the international community must lend its support. GW students can urge their governments to do three things. First, provide assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and to internally displaced people of all ethnicities in northern Rakhine State. Second, work with the Myanmar government to ensure a safe and sustainable return for displaced Rohingya. And third, open up opportunities for Rohingya to obtain permanent legal status in other countries. All of these efforts can contribute toward creating a better future for a population that has suffered far too much already.
Christina Fink, a professor of practice of international affairs, is an expert on Myanmar.