Since October 9, 2016, 66,000 Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have fled Rakhine State in the country’s west and entered neighboring Bangladesh. They crossed the river separating the two countries on boats or by holding on to plastic containers—these ramshackle vessels and flimsy objects their best hope of reaching safety. The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution. Today, they are not fleeing Rakhine Buddhists, with whom they first clashed in May 2012. They are fleeing their own government.
When Myanmar’s current leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in the November 2015 elections, expectations were high for the country’s first civilian government since the 1960s. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” Aung San Suu Kyi declared after the election that the peace process between armed ethnic groups on Myanmar’s periphery and the state would be her government’s first priority. In a speech marking Independence Day in January 2016, she acknowledged that “[w]e can do nothing without peace in our country.”
Her government, however, has not applied the logic of peace to the situation in Rakhine State. A key NLD official, U Win Htein, stated shortly after the party’s victory that “we have other priorities” than the Rohingya. Indeed, the government continues to reject the use of the term “Rohingya,” which is perceived as an attempt to establish the community as one of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized indigenous groups. Many in Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. An onerous 1982 Citizenship Law has the effect of denying the Rohingya citizenship. Without this, the Rohingya suffer some of the worst discrimination and abuse out of all the groups in the country.
A LONG TIME COMING
In June 2012, riots in Rakhine State led to violent clashes between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhist communities, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. In the almost five years since then, around 140,000 Rohingya have languished in segregated camps purportedly “for their own security.” They, along with the Rohingya still in their villages, have little or no access to basic sanitation, health care, or education. Freedom of movement is severely curtailed, limiting work and other opportunities. In the run-up to the 2015 national elections, Rohingya were disenfranchised, removing their last best hope of peaceful influence. These indignities follow decades of exclusion and marginalization in one of Myanmar’s poorest states.
Faced with deepening despair, some Rohingya have resorted to violence. On October 9, 2016, armed groups of Rohingya launched simultaneous attacks on three border police bases in northern Rakhine State, killing nine police officers and capturing weapons and ammunition. A month later, on November 12, a lieutenant colonel was killed in further clashes between soldiers and armed militants.
The attacks marked the beginning of an insurgency by a militant group which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement. It is led by Rohingya émigrés living in Saudi Arabia, is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training, and has sought religious legitimacy for its actions through fatwas (religious edicts) issued by local and foreign clerics. But the group’s aims, according to the International Crisis Group, are strictly local: they are to stop the persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and autonomy as Myanmar citizens.
The insurgents’ targeting of security forces has led the latter to respond with deadly force in what the government has called “area-clearance operations,” nominally meant to capture militants and recover weapons. Journalists and NGOs have been denied access to the conflict zones, making it difficult to establish facts on the ground. But UN officials have suggested that over 1,000 Rohingya may have already been killed in such operations. A February report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded “widespread” and “systematic” attacks by security forces against Rohingya, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and arson. The report, based on interviews with Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh, ascertained the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity” in Rakhine State. Over half of the 101 women interviewed reported having survived rape or experienced other forms of sexual violence. The perpetrators were identified as mainly military, although rapes by police and Rakhine villagers were also reported. Separately, Human Rights Watch found that government forces committed gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults against Rohingya women and girls, broadly corroborating the OHCHR’s findings.