The Past, the Present, and the Future of the Rohingya Crisis

Jason Fehrnstrom, Scarlet Staff

Students, faculty, community members, and advocates gathered Thursday, Sept. 20, to hear an eclectic panel address the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in the southeast Asian country of Myanmar. The panel’s presentation, “The Past, The Present and the Future of the Rohingya Crisis,” addressed the persecution by Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhist majority against a beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority.

The patterns of Rohingya abuse are part of the historical fabric of the region. Tun Khin, a Rohingya from Arakan State and the founder of a U.K.-based advocacy group, Burmese Rohingya Association, endowed the audience with a cursory understanding of the historical consciousness of his people.

The Rohingya are the predominant Muslim minority in the Western Burmese region, which is now internationally recognized as Myanmar. At the inception of Myanmar’s statehood in 1948, the Rohingya numbered approximately 3 million. Tun Khin emphasized the multi-generational continuity of the social, economic, political, and physical oppression that has shaped his family’s existence. However, the seminal moment in his life which spelled disaster for his people occured in 1982. The Citizenship Law, which was passed in that year, is what Khin considers “the root of the problem.” The law denied civil status and other “fundamental human rights” to the Rohingya, and has effectively authorized the violence towards and oppression of the Rohingya for decades. This has included forced population transfer, summary executions, rape, and other mass atrocities.

In 2010, Myanmar ostensibly shed its image as a parochial, oppressive, undemocratic regime. The military, which had consolidated control in 1962, accepted a subsidiary role underneath a democratic regime led by formerly jailed political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. Her governmental party, the National League for Democracy, opened the country up to the international community and enacted a host of quasi-democratic reforms. However, the tokenistic transition to westernized political reforms has done nothing to disembed an abiding ethno-nationalist impulse among some elements of the Buddhist population.

A combination of historically rooted ethno-nationalism and the rise of social media has been a particularly combustible mix. Matthew Wells, a senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International, characterized this familiar combination as one that creates a “daily mass of incitement to violence, dehumanization, and otherization” of the Rohingya people and Muslim community at large. Rohingya are characterized as invasive Bengali Muslims who have no legitimate claim to exist as a represented people in Myanmar. These forces massed and strengthened until they reached a breaking point in August, 2017, when a diverse coalition of militias, civilian groups, and military units killed 6,200 Rohingya, continuing their campaign of dispossession and exile.

This eminent sequence of events compelled The United Nations’ top human rights official to characterize this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The National League for Democracy and their leader have “condemned human rights groups, denounced claims of rape and mass atrocity,” and jailed those who have tried to shed light on this pressing humanitarian issue. The regime coupled this course of action with a defensive approach towards the international community, reluctantly completing the bare minimum to comply with UN led inquiries.

The panelists all agreed that it is difficult to know with certainty how events will unfold over the next few years. International condemnation and protection can only do so much for the Rohingya, with many afraid to return to Apartheid conditions in their country. At the current moment, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya reside in displaced persons camps at the border of Bangladesh.

According to Tun Khin, a Rohingya himself, the healing process must go far beyond ceasing violence and repatriating the Rohingya. Khin wants his people to be able to “live peacefully as citizens whose fundamental rights are recognized by the government.” In order to do this, the system which denies Rohingya equal access to the rights of citizenship, travel, education, health, and work must be completely reimagined. Certainly, this is a daunting task that must address decades of sustained oppression.