Endeavouring to understand how an ethnic group with a populace of over a million can be considered the world’s most persecuted people is perplexing, but this is the reality for Burma’s Rohingya Muslims.
Where are the Rohingya from? Why aren’t they recognised?
As part of citizenship laws passed in 1982, the oppressed Muslim minority was denied citizenship and furthermore were not recognised as one of the 135 official ethnic groups of Burma (also known as Myanmar), a predominantly Buddhist state. These laws effectively rendered anyone in the Rohingya community stateless unless they could prove either fluency in a national language, or that family members had been living in Burma prior to 1948.
These illiberal citizenship regulations remain in place even today.
Historians maintain the Rohingya have lived in Burma since the 12th century and almost all of them now live in Rakhine, a state along Burma’s west coast. The region also happens to be one of the most poverty-stricken in the country.
The Rohingya’s citizenship status means that their rights to vote, work, marry, travel, and freely practice their religion are restricted.
Reports of torture, rape, and murder have been reported since the early 1970s, as crackdowns on the Rohingya caused thousands to flee into neighbouring countries.
More recently, in 2012, over 100,000 Rohingya fled Burma into camps in neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.
Why are they being persecuted?
Although violence has been on and off for years; circumstances escalated in October 2016, when the Burmese government blamed so-called Rohingya fighters for the deaths of nine border police. In the months ensuing, security crackdowns in the Rakhine state resulted in numerous human rights abuses which were denied by the government.
In August 2017, an army base was attacked causing Burma’s military to force even stricter crackdowns on the Rohingya. The latest figures show that this has resulted in the deaths of more than 400 Rohingya, according to the South China Morning Post, who revealed that Burma’s military commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, had posted the figure in a statement on his Facebook page.
His statement also further disclosed that 399 of the 428 deaths were insurgents, and that there had been 30 armed clashes on August 25 which forced the army to initiate clearance operations. The violence comes after the government blamed Rohingya insurgents for the murders of Buddhists in Rakhine.
Government officials have continuously maintained that the violence was instigated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), however Rohingya refugees say this is an excuse to force them out of their own country.
Last Thursday twenty-six men, women, and children drowned after three boats carrying Rohingya refugees capsized. They were part of a much larger number of an estimated 75,000 who have crossed the border and into Bangladesh.
The Independent revealed many were lucky to escape horrific crimes committed by the Burmese armed forces, stating that a five-hour attack in Chut Pyin (a Rohingya village) left many dead or injured, after it was reported by refugees that even children were not spared from beheadings or being burned alive.
“The Myanmar authorities are failing to protect civilians and save lives. International pressure is critically needed.”
A 41-year-old man from the village shed light on the ordeal, saying “we found [my other family members] in the fields. They had marks on their bodies from bullets and some had cuts … My two nephews, their heads were off. One was six years old and the other was nine years old. My sister-in-law was shot with a gun.”
The violence prompted human rights advocates to demand that the Burmese authorities be held accountable for their actions. Matthew Smith from humanitarian charity, Fortify Rights, stated that “the Myanmar authorities are failing to protect civilians and save lives. International pressure is critically needed.”
It is highly likely that similar attacks have occurred, however bans from the Burmese government prohibit journalists from gaining access to the affected areas.