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ENDING THE CYCLE: A HISTORY OF ROHINGYA PERSECUTION AND ANALYSIS
By Curtis T. Knie and Travis E. Pride — Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, California, USA. September 2018
In August 2017, the forced mass migration of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, became world news after the country’s military began to drive thousands from their homes. Within months, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya had left the country, and today remain with over 200,000 previous refugees in overcrowded, underfunded camps in Bangladesh.
This thesis aims to investigate the root causes of Rohingya persecution by the government and military of Myanmar, the likelihood that this population will become radicalized, and possible solutions to the crisis. It uses a mixed method approach to examine these questions, including a qualitative look at the history of the Rohingya; visual analytic techniques to evaluate the international response to the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis; and a game theoretic approach to better understand the possibility of a nonviolence solution that focuses on citizenship and regional autonomy for the Rohingya.
This thesis finds that the most recent wave of forced migration has placed the Rohingya at increased risk of radicalization and offers three recommendations for mitigating these risks: providing more international aid to sustain the refugees in Bangladesh; moving beyond simply repatriating the Rohingya; and creating incentives for Myanmar to recognize the Rohingya as citizens and give them greater autonomy in Rakhine State.
As of August 2018, the violence and mass migration has subsided, but over 900,000 Rohingya remain in Bangladesh and are confined to camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Bilateral talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar, aided by international organizations, have attempted to begin the repatriation process. However, short of a long-term solution to address the underlying causes of the mass migration, the cycle of violence and persecution will likely continue.
Furthermore, the massive forced migration and protracted persecution of the Rohingya raises concerns about the potential for substantial radicalization of this group, especially in Bangladesh. In September 2017, during a UN Security Council session discussing the Rohingya crisis, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, warned that “the devastating humanitarian situation is not only a breeding ground for radicalization, it also puts vulnerable people–including young children–at risk of criminal elements including trafficking.” In response to the influx of refugees, Bangladesh increased security forces in the Cox’s Bazar district, and local officials expressed concern about the presence of insurgents intermingled with the refugees.
This thesis aims to examine the following questions: What are the conditions that have caused the repeated incidents of forced migration of Rohingya from the country of Myanmar? Given the repeated incidents of discrimination and forced migration, what is the likelihood that the Muslim minority will turn towards radicalization? And, what are the conditions that would allow Myanmar and the Rohingya to reach an agreement that decreases the likelihood of future incidents of forced migration?
This thesis aims to answer these questions through three different methods. First, it examines these questions through qualitative methods, specifically by providing a historic overview of the Rohingya, the state of Myanmar, and five waves of forced migration (1963–1967, 1971–1979, 1988–1992, 2012–2013, and 2016–2017). It identifies competing narratives between the Rohingya and the government of Myanmar over the origins of the Rohingya and examines five major historical periods in Myanmar (pre-colonial, colonial, independence, authoritarian rule, and new democracy), with an emphasis on key events since Myanmar’s independence in 1948.
Second, the thesis uses visual analytic techniques to display critical risk factors for radicalization, specifically analyzing the size and density of refugee camps in Bangladesh, the sources of financial donations to the Rohingya crisis, and mapping the international community’s inconsistent behavior regarding the crisis. The technique consolidates data from many fields to help identify relationships between various factors.
Third, the thesis uses game theory to model the conflict between the Rohingya and the government of Myanmar to explore a way to achieve an agreement that could secure a lasting solution to the crisis. The thesis uses a sequential, two-person, partial conflict game with two strategies available to each player (violence or nonviolence) to model the conflict over Rohingya citizenship and regional autonomy in Rakhine State. From this game, the thesis identifies the need for a third-party guarantor to ensure cooperation from the players and applies an arbitration technique, known as the adjusted winner procedure, to fairly divide the contentious issue of citizenship between the two players.
The thesis draws from scholarly journals, reports from international organizations, government documents, and secondary literature to investigate the history of the Rohingya and response to the 2016–2017 wave of persecution.
This investigation yields three findings: First, an examination of the history of the Rohingya shows that their claimed origins and time of arrival in the region drastically differ from the belief held by the government of Myanmar. The Rohingya claim a pre-colonial history and a unique identity from neighboring Bangladeshis, despite sharing the same religion and speaking the same language. The government of Myanmar, by contrast, views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants brought in from Bangladesh by the British. This fundamental disagreement has contributed to the continued persecution of the Rohingya, including five waves of forced migration.
Second, drawing from a 2015 refugee radicalization assessment tool developed by the RAND Corporation, the thesis finds that the most recent wave of forced migration, which began in 2016, has placed the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at an increased risk of future radicalization. While the fluid nature of the crisis has made measuring the presence of ARSA in the camps all but impossible, the 900,000 refugees in Bangladesh provide a vulnerable population in a fertile setting from which to recruit and grow the insurgent movement. Additionally, while ARSA has not adopted an overtly religious tone, the organization traces its origins to refugees in Saudi Arabia, and several Islamic clerics have issued fatwas (rulings by recognized Islamic authorities) that endorse their cause.
Third, a game theory approach finds that a resolution to the crisis is possible if both sides compromise on key issues, specifically the conditions for citizenship and regional autonomy for the Rohingya. However, a significant impediment to a compromise in this situation is that neither actor is unified. This is certainly the case with the Rohingya, who do not have a mechanism in place to express a singular opinion on an issue nor do they have someone who can represent their collective interests. Myanmar also does not speak with one voice; it is a nascent democracy with a civilian head of state; however, the military retains substantial autonomy and decision-making authority in its operations.
Chapter III uses a framework developed by the RAND Corporation for assessing the risk of refugee radicalization to investigate the likelihood of the Rohingya radicalizing in the most recent wave of forced migration, which began in 2016. Myanmar, allowing the government and military to continue its discriminatory policies and actions against the Rohingya. All of these factors put the Rohingya at risk for radicalization. Chapter IV models the Rohingya conflict using game theory, specifically a two-person, partial conflict game, and finds that both players—the Rohingya and the government of Myanmar (including its military)—can maximize their payoff through mutual nonviolence.
This payoff, however, requires a mutual “promise” not to pursue violence, which could be achieved through a negotiated agreement over the contentious issues, namely citizenship and regional autonomy for the Rohingya. Drawing from Chapter III, it identifies Japan, the UN, and the United States as possible third-party guarantors. Furthermore, radicalization of the Rohingya is still possible, and the international community should ensure that underlying issues to the crisis are addressed or the Rohingya may resort to violence to change the status quo. Lastly, Bangladesh and the international community should pressure Myanmar to confer citizenship on the Rohingya; repatriation alone will likely lead to another round of violence. Dr. Nasir Uddin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chittagong, describes the history of the Rohingya since 1962 as one “rife with exploitation, persecution, and discrimination.”
It was during the 1800s that the term “Rohingya” was first used in the historical record. In 1799, Dr. Francis Buchanan, a British medical doctor and a member of the diplomatic mission in the region, published a report that identified three distinct dialects spoken in the Arakan region, one of which was, “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves ‘Rooinga,’ or natives of Arakan.” This account is often used as evidence of Rohingya Muslims in pre-colonial times. However, Leider details the etymological and linguistic origins of the term “Rohingya” and concludes, “‘Rohingya’ does not refer to, or mean anything else, but ‘Rakhine’ in the local Muslim language,” and does not describe a distinct ethnic group. Leider further claims “Rohingyas conflate the history of all Muslims in Rakhine’s past with their own condition in Myanmar today and they hold the belief that ‘Rohingyas’ have existed in Rakhine for many generations.” This debate over the arrival and distinct origins of Rohingya Muslims would later have important implications for their citizenship in independent Myanmar.
In 1948, the leader of the Arakan Muslim rebels, Jafar Kawal, made the following five requests of the Burmese government: (1) declare the Akyab (Northern Arakan) district to be an autonomous Free Muslim State under the sovereignty of Burma; (2) recognize Urdu as the language of the state; (3) establish independent schools whose language of instruction would be Urdu; (4) release prisoners; (5) grant legal status to the Mujahid movement. In 1960, the first Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, promised to grant Arakan autonomy within Burma. Muslim leaders drafted a proposal that would ensure equal, proportionate representation for Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan and alternated between Muslim and non-Muslim leaders for both the head of state and deputy positions. Importantly, the proposal guaranteed each group the right to preserve their culture through religion, education, and language. In 1961, the Burmese government granted the Mujahid the “Mayu Frontier District” as a semi-autonomous region directly administered by the Burmese military. However, by 1964, the new military junta dissolved the Mayu District as part of ongoing changes throughout the country to consolidate power. This decision marked the beginning of 50 years of authoritarian, military rule in the country.
Dr M. Yegar argues that the government conducted Naga Min Operation to support General Ne Win’s goal of suppressing minorities seeking autonomy in the Arakan State. Yegar notes that the repatriation process was difficult because the Rohingya were required to provide proof of residency before being allowed into Burma and they were unable to return to their original towns because Arakan Buddhists had taken over the vacant villages.
In March 2018, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, visited Rohingya in Bangladesh and surmised, “the majority of the Rohingya want to return to Myanmar, but only when they are able to do so in safety, dignity and with access to the basic rights that are fundamental to us all.” Dieng elaborated:
“The solution to this problem lies first and foremost with the Myanmar authorities, by creating the conditions for the Rohingya population to return home in safety and be entitled to the same rights as any other citizen of Myanmar. The international community also has a responsibility to protect this population from the risk of further atrocity crimes. Under the present conditions, returning to Myanmar will put the Rohingya population at risk of further crimes.”
The game has two players: the Rohingya and Myanmar. Rohingya refers to the ethnic Muslims from Rakhine State in Myanmar who have undergone five major waves of persecution, as described in Chapter II. Currently, the largest population of Rohingya reside in refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, as described in Chapter III.