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The Rohingya crisis, deeper insight

A more detailed look into the situation with Dr. Southwick
© Katherine Southwick

The following text has been written by Katherine Southwick, PhD, National University of Singapore.

The Rohingya refugee crisis has endured for more than four decades, and is a result of ethnonationalist policies carried out by the Myanmar military.

Currently, an estimated 900,000 Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh, living in sprawling camps and dependent on humanitarian aid. Thousands more have sought refuge in other countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia, where they are not formally recognized as refugees since these governments are not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Smaller numbers have successfully sought asylum in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and other Western countries. An estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, with around 100,000 confined to internal displacement camps.

The Rohingya are largely Muslim, with a small Christian minority. They have roots in Myanmar’s precolonial history and in Muslim migration to Rakhine State from India during the nineteenth century under British colonial rule. The Rohingya coexisted with other Muslims, as well as Buddhist and ethnically Rakhine groups through the late colonial period. Inter-group conflict flared during World War Two, when Buddhist nationalist groups allied with Japan in order to end British rule, while Muslims in Rakhine State sided with the British government. Following independence in 1948, the Constitution afforded major ethnic groups some autonomy and most Rohingya had citizenship.

After the 1962 military coup, General Ne Win promoted national identity on the basis of a racial hierarchy with the majority Bamar at the top. Anti-minority sentiments escalated through the 1960s and 1970s, culminating for the Rohingya in 1978, when close to 200,000 fled to Bangladesh in the course of a violent military campaign carried out on the pretext of verifying immigration status. Other major episodes of mass violence and displacement against the Rohingya took place in 1991-92, 2012, 2013, and 2017. The last three episodes occurred during a transitional period toward democracy, during which Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became in 2015 the de facto head of state, though without control over the military.

A 1982 citizenship law is widely understood to have created the basis for denying the Rohingya citizenship, rendering them stateless. This lack of status in turn enabled the passage of discriminatory laws and policies, including restrictions on freedom of movement; access to livelihoods, education, and health care; as well as limits on the right to marry and have children. These extreme levels of persecution compel Rohingya to continue to leave Myanmar, paying traffickers large sums of money to transport them to precarious futures within the region. Each year, hundreds of Rohingya die at sea, stranded on boats because neighboring countries refuse to admit them into their borders.

In response to the violence in 2017, legal proceedings commenced in 2019 in the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, and the Argentinian courts (under universal jurisdiction principles) based on allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide against Myanmar state officials. While humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh has continued, a concerted international response to resolve the Rohingya crisis has persistently failed to materialize. Myanmar’s broad-based democracy movement launched in February 2021 following the military’s rejection of national election results offers some hope. Whether or not the movement succeeds in wresting power from the military, the protests demonstrate a significant change in public consciousness favoring equality and inclusion for all ethnic groups, including the Rohingya.

© Katherine Southwick
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