The Rohingya Predicament – Why Myanmar’s Army Gets Away with Ethnic Cleansing

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The Rohingya Predicament – Why Myanmar’s Army Gets Away with Ethnic Cleansing
By Zoltan Barany — is the Frank C. Erwin Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas, USA.

The atrocities against and the privations of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar are well documented. Much less awareness exists about the reasons why Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has been able to get away with ethnic cleansing in an ostensibly democratising Buddhist state. The military has used the attacks of an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, as a pretext for carrying out a brutal campaign of eviction, repressions and executions. This anti-Rohingya campaign is fairly popular among Myanmar’s population, which further explains why the civilian government de facto led by Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the Tatmadaw. Actually, at present there is no state or international organisation that can realistically rein in Myanmar’s military. China and India have contentious relations with their own Muslim minorities and strategic and economic interests in Myanmar. They will support its regime. Neighbouring states have only modest influence over Burmese politics, as do international organisations. Yet the latter still represent whatever hope there is of holding the regime and its generals accountable.

This exchange took place at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 4 July 2018: “[Myanmar is] committed to the defence of human rights” (U Kyaw Moe Tun, senior Myanmar diplomat). “[Your claim] almost creates its own level of preposterousness. Have you no shame, sir? Have you no shame?” (Zeid Ra’ad al- Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).

On the morning of 25 August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched coordinated attacks on more than two dozen small security installations in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. ARSA militants were lightly armed but they killed twelve uniformed personnel and escaped with some weapons from the armouries of the security outposts. According to an ARSA spokesman, the goal of the attack was to attract international attention to the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority, money from benefactors in the Gulf – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and young men to join ARSA’s ranks.

The response by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, was immediate and massively disproportionate. The army’s tactics included mass murder, torture, gang-raping of women and girls, and burning down entire villages. By the beginning of December 2017, more than 688,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and 392 villages were partially or totally destroyed – before-and-after satellite images show that the villages simply vanished. The death toll was conservatively estimated at 10,000. According to Médecins sans Frontières, nearly 70 per cent of the victims died of gunshot wounds and 9 per cent were burned to death in their homes.4 The persecution did not stop. By August 2018, altogether 723,000 Rohingya had left their home state of Rakhine. An average of 1,733 escaped to Bangladesh on a monthly basis.5 Evidence shows that the Tatmadaw’s operation was premeditated and ARSA’s attack was merely a convenient excuse to set off the army’s campaign of ethnic cleansing or, according to some, genocide.

The privations of the Rohingya and the crusade to drive them out of Myanmar have received wide attention in the recent past from activists, historians and social scientists. Their predicament is impossible to properly understand, however, without the larger domestic and foreign political context that has allowed this tragedy to unfold while the world has looked on. Most critical is the question: Why has the Tatmadaw got away with ethnic cleansing?

Myanmar has a population of 54 million and officially recognises dozens of ethnic groups – although not quite the “135 national races” that some authors mention. Yet the Rohingya are not among these. In fact, Myanmar authorities, including the country’s de facto prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi, refuse to even use the term “Rohingya”. The Rohingya, however, are indisputably a distinct group with a long history in Myanmar. They are the descendants of people whom British colonial authorities, searching for cheap labour, encouraged to emigrate from eastern Bengal (contemporary Bangladesh) to the sparsely populated western regions of Burma from the first half of the nineteenth century (beginning in 1824) until the end of colonial rule.

British colonial administrators usually managed to maintain control over tensions between the Rohingya and the surrounding Buddhist and other communities. During World War II, however, the Buddhist population took the side of the invading Japanese while the Rohingya remained loyal to the British. The resulting conflict became more severe, culminating in major inter-ethnic violence. No Rohingya were invited to the pre-independence negotiations or to the signing of the historic treaty that established the Union of Burma, the first iteration of post-colonial independent Myanmar. After independence in 1948, the Rohingya situation became worse and deteriorated further following the 1962 military coup and establishment of a totalitarian, socialist-leaning government.

The military regime declared the Rohingya “aliens from Bengal” and refused to consider extending citizenship to them. It pursued an outright assimilationist policy and staged several major operations to evict them from the country. In 1978 at least 200,000 Rohingya crossed the River Naf that separates Burma and Bangladesh, escaping the violence visited upon them by Buddhist neighbours supported by the armed forces. A further 250,000 followed in 1991–1992.14 Following Bangladeshi– Burmese negotiations facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some of these refugees were repatriated. However, by March 1992 there were over 270,000 Rohingya scattered in camps along Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

The direct precursors of the Tatmadaw’s 2017 ethnic cleansing campaign are the violent upheavals in June 2012 and October 2016. Since the end of August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.

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