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The Rohingya Crisis CFS
Written BY Eleanor Albert & Lindsay Maizland — Council on Foreign Relations — Last updated January 23, 2020
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group, have fled persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, fueling a historic migration crisis.
Summary – 1) For decades, Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority group, in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, have faced institutionalized discrimination, such as exclusionary citizenship laws.
- The Myanmar government launched a military campaign in 2017 that forced seven hundred thousand Rohingya to flee. Rights groups suspect the government has committed genocide against the Rohingya, but officials deny the accusations.
- The United States and other countries have sanctioned military officials and given aid to Rohingya refugees who have fled to nearby countries, such as Bangladesh.
Discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government since the late 1970s have compelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee their homes in the predominantly Buddhist country. Most have crossed by land into Bangladesh, while others have taken to the sea to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Beginning in 2017, renewed violence, including reported rape, murder, and arson, triggered an exodus of Rohingya, as Myanmar’s security forces claimed they were carrying out a campaign to reinstate stability in the country’s western region. The United Nations has said that those forces showed “genocidal intent,” and international pressure on the country’s elected leaders to end the repression continues to rise.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. There are an estimated 3.5 million Rohingya dispersed worldwide. Before August 2017, the majority of the estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar resided in Rakhine State, where they accounted for nearly a third of the population. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.
The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries.
Neither the central government nor Rakhine’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group, known as the Rakhine, recognize the label “Rohingya,” a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s, which experts say provides the group with a collective political identity. Though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts its ties to land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
The government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and as a result most of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced another law twenty years later that stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Until recently, the Rohingya had been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as white cards, which the junta began issuing to many Muslims, both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, in the 1990s. The white cards conferred limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship.
Clashes in Rakhine broke out in August 2017, after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The government declared ARSA a terrorist organization and the military mounted a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced nearly seven hundred thousand Rohingya to leave Myanmar. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks, between August 25 and September 24, 2017, according to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders. Myanmar’s security forces also allegedly opened fire on fleeing civilians and planted land mines near border crossings used by Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the violence as ethnic cleansing and the humanitarian situation as catastrophic. Rights groups and other UN leaders suspect acts of genocide have taken place, and in September 2018, a UN fact-finding panel released a report [PDF] that claimed the Myanmar government had “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. The chair of the UN panel said it found clear patterns of abuse by the military, including systematic targeting of civilians, committing sexual violence, promoting discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and creating a climate of impunity for security forces.