Today’s crisis inMyanmar is one of lots of conflicts happening around the globe, however – oneof the most dramatic ones.
Thousands of refugees crossing the Bangladesh borderevery day tell stories full of horrifying details, and stay in refugee camps facingdanger of diseases and starvation with just one desire – never come back toMyanmar, where their husbands and wives, sons and daughter, brothers andsisters were raped and murdered. Satellite images of the territory of exodusshow smoke and ashes in the place of villages. And Myanmar governmentofficials, asked by NGO’s and members of international community about theevents, deny any possible human rights violations approved by the state,blaming “Bengali terrorists” spreading fear and forcing Muslim people of Burmato leave their homes. What is really going on there? Who is responsible foremergence and escalation of the crisis, who are the main victims and moreimportantly, what can be done to help people in distress? The aim of this paperis, through studying and analysing different perspectives on the crisis,represent the situation not just as an ethnicity being repressed byauthoritarian government, but as a complex ethnical, religious and politicalconflict, in which both sides are responsible to some extend for the escalationof violence. Tableof contents:1) Introduction2) Backgroundinformation 3) Mainelements of repressions4) Wavesof violence, fear and danger of intervention5) Refugeesand genocide debate6) Contradictionsand flaws of the reports7) Viewon the conflict – insurgent groups8) Conclusions9) Bibliography IntroductionHumanitariancrises are terrible. In history books, we can read about great sufferingspeople had to go through against their will. Natural catastrophes aredevastating, but when the responsibility for the disaster lies on other people,it is even worse.
And the most terrifying example of such human-caused crisisis genocide. No matter when and where it happened – in Poland, Ukraine, Rwanda– reports and details of these events fill our hearts with grief and fear. And today’scrisis in Myanmar is argued to be just that – a genocide.
Numerous ofinternational organisations and experts cannot qualify this situation anydifferently. However, the official position of the government is that there areno violations of human rights committed on the territory of their state, andall reports are being enormously exaggerated. The massive exodus of Muslimpeople to the neighbouring states – Bangladesh, mostly – is being explained ascaused by fear spread by “Bengali terrorists”. Moreover, the UN refuses tocharacterise the state of affairs a genocide. The situation requires immediateaction, though no real measures have been taken by the members of internationalcommunity, and members of NGO’s, trying to help people in distress are beinghumiliated, extradited and attacked. So what is really going on there? Who iscausing all the trouble and provoking the violence? To what extent can thissituation can be considered a genocide and who is responsible for it? Thispaper is intended to analyse different perspectives, represented in NGO’sreports, official claims of Myanmar government, reports of UN and EUcommissions and interviews with locals.
By doing that, it might be possible toput together most of the facts and present to the reader the picture of thiscomplex situation – and, hopefully, the best course of action to take will beclearer then. Historyand backgroundMyanmar used to bea British colony and gained independence in 1948. First, after the Brits left,the democratic regime was established. But it did not last long – thegovernment was overthrown in 1962 by a military led by general Ne Win. Thatyear marked the beginning of a long and difficult period in the history onBurma – the period of military dictatorship. While the junta was earning moneyby exploiting country’s natural resources and enjoying unlimited power, peoplewere being oppressed, and economic conditions were extremely tough, povertylevel rose significantly, and the relationships between communities within theregions worsened. (FortifyRights) The situation reached its climax in 1988,resulting in so called “8888 Uprising”. Massive protests, spread all over thecountry and supported by the majority of the population, although resulted inbloodbath, eventually brought its fruits – the military government performed aset of reforms, transferring from the Constitution of 1974 to the new martiallaw, and forming the new government under the name of State Law and OrderRestoration Council (SLORC) (Zarni and Cowley).
The key event after the newcourse taken by the government can be considered the elections of May 1990. Theresults did not bring any difference; however, it can be considered a firststep towards democratization of Burma. The National League for Democracy (NLD)won a vast majority of the votes, although the leaders of the party were keptunder arrest. (Fortify Rights) Since the replacement of the SLORC governmentfor State Peace and Development Council in 1997, the military governmentstarted slowly giving up some of its functions to the majority oppositionparty, even though its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi had to go through several timesof being under house arrest. Despite its ongoing process of democratization,Myanmar had to go through several insurgencies and civil protests, caused bythe oppressive character of the implementation of governmental policies andharsh economic state of affairs.The population ofMyanmar historically consists of more than 150 ethnic groups, spread around theregions and sometimes having very different cultural traditions. (Zarni,Cowley) Most of the population are Buddhists, but there is also a significantnumber (around 2 million) of Sunni Muslims, calling themselves “Rohingya”,living in the province of Rakhine, or Arakan, in their terminology, situated onthe Western coast of Burma. Other diasporas of Rohingya Muslims can be found inBangladesh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and several othercountries, raising the total population number to as many as 8 million people.
Since the country’s independence in 1948, theRohingya became the most repressed ethnic group in Myanmar and one of the mostrepressed ethnic groups in the world (Lindblom)Mainelements of repressionsMost of thereports concerning the situation start with the history and the backgroundinformation on the Rohingya, and then elaborate the policies and measures takenby the government to exclude the Rohingya from the social and political life ofthe state. One of the most important policies, passed back in 1948 the UnionCitizenship act defined Myanmar citizenship and identified specificethnicities – the “indigenous races of Burma”—that were allowed to gaincitizenship. The Rohingya were not included in the list. (FortifyRights) Eventhough initially gaining the full citizenship for Rohingya was hard, butpossible, after 1982 the possibility was almost lost for good. This caused lotsof difficulties – from inability to own property and address the court, denialof provision of healthcare and education. (FortifyRights, Green et al.
) Othermeasures include, for example, the law passed in 1990’s, requiring Muslims ofthe Rakhine state to obtain marriage licenses. These licenses were given understrict conditions, many of which contradicted to traditional local beliefs,making it impossible for the couples to obtain these licenses. In the view ofthis law, local police forces could persecute the couples who were living togetherwithout such licences, either not being married or married according to localtraditions. (FortifyRights) The regulations passed by the local authorities in1993 and 2005 were made to regulate birth control, restricting populationincrease for Muslims. (FortifyRights). The members of the police and localauthorities also consistently made Rohingya men and boys perform physicallabour, or made them guard the villages at night, despite their occupation andhealth conditions. (FortifyRights) Some reports claim that Burmese governmentsince 2000’s started forming detention camps and “prison villages”, forcinghundreds of thousands of people to move there, with their lives at theselocations being even harder than before, denying them both their citizenshipand human rights. (Green et al.
) In all the above-mentioned cases, which do notrepresent the full list of governmentally approved measures to contain andoppress the Rohingya, any sign of resistance was immediately and severelypunished, sometimes putting the whole village or the local community under thethreat of redemption. (Green et al.)Wavesof violence, fear and danger of interventionTotalitarian rule of militaryjunta, worsening economic situation and systematic repressions against certainethnic groups couldn’t last forever without provoking any kind of response:apart from 8888 Uprising, the biggest resistance so far in the history ofMyanmar, there have been numerous cases of insurgencies and “waves ofviolence”. These unrests, originally provoked by the government and dating backto as far as 1970’s, represented the most brutal measures taken to repress theRohingya – physical elimination. (Zarni, Cowley) While the first act ofviolence looked like forced migration of the Muslims towards Bangladesh withthe government holding back the provisions, (Zarni, Cowley) with time membersof local Buddhist communities became involved, as in case of 2012 violence. Theorigin of the unrest is connected to several Muslims raping and murdering aBuddhist woman in one of the villages of Rakhine, and thus causing a wave ofhatred and violence among the Buddhists. (Green et al.
) The clashes between theBuddhist and the Muslim communities were claimed by some researchers to besupported and sponsored by the government (FortifyRights), though there islittle reliable factual evidence. However, the clashes continued, provoked,sometimes unwillingly, by both Rohingya insurgents, as has been seen in Augustthis year, and the Buddhists. (FortifyRights) Speaking about provocations amongthe Buddhists, it seems necessary to include the role Buddhist monks play inthe propaganda of hatred against the Muslims. There are several unions of themonks, such as 969 union, for example, actively supported by the government,which continuously argue for dehumanisation of the Rohingya, claiming that itis necessary to completely obliterate them. They are described as “beasts”,that look for any advantage to gain power, rape and murder Buddhist women, andwipe out the Buddhist community. (FortifyRights) Moreover, to add to thecomplexity of situation, as the members of the international community,especially representatives of NGO’s, try to provide humanitarian aid toRohingya communities and argue for their human rights, they are being seen asenemies, and the organisations being controlled by Muslims, who are trying toend stability within Rakhine state. The level of hatred and intrust within theRakhine community towards everything connected to the Rohingya is so high, thatthere have been several reports of the attack attempts on the members of NGO’s,performed by Rakhine nationalists.
(Green et al.) These attitudes withinregular members of the Buddhist community can be connected with very highdegree of authority that Buddhist monks have on the society, and thus having anopportunity to seed the ideas of hatred within the villagers. Moreover,Rohingya culture is somehow similar to the traditions of Bangladesh, and itadds up to the image of Rohingya as being “illegal Bengali immigrants”. (Greenet al.)Refugeesand genocide debateMembers of theRohingya community, facing threats, violence and heavy oppression, bound toinevitably face a choice – accept the fate of being wiped out, join theinsurgencies, or flee the country.
As for Rohingya it is impossible to addressany courts within the state to demand citizenship, and most of the people arenot inclined to join the insurgent groups and spread violence, more and moreRohingya every day become refugees, crossing borders of neighbouring states indesperate attempt to find shelter. (MSF) And several NGO’s, such as the RedCross or MSF, are now accommodating almost half a million people in refugeecamps at the border region of Bangladesh. Living conditions in these camps aresevere, there have been documented cases of deaths from starvation and diseasesspread due to low sanity level. (MSF) Moreover, after the last wave of violenceoccurred in August, facing the perspective of hundreds of thousands morerefugees coming to its border, Bangladesh is starting to deny the refugees toits territory. (Lone, Marshall) In addition to that, Thailand has reportedlybeen denying the refugees on its territory, making the coast guard push therefugee boats away from its coast, or kidnapping the refugees and eitherdemanding bail or selling them as slaves to local fishermen.
(McPherson) MedecinsSans Frontieres in their report continuously indicate dangers which refugeesliving in camps around Bangladesh are facing every day. Malnutrition, floods,poor access to clean water and medicine – with periodic fails of financing orhumanitarian convoys being blocked, creating an extremely dangerous situationfor the people seeking help as refugees. (MSF). Fortify Rights,among others, has made a thorough legal analysis on possibility of applicationof the law of genocide to the Rohingya people. Theirs arguments are based onthe Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, thatstates:Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mentalharm to members of the group; (c) Deliberatelyinflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring aboutits physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measuresintended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forciblytransferring children of the group to another group. (Zarni,Cowley) In their research, taking the law as a base,they argue that the Rohingya people are being targeted as a group, facingrepetitive violence with intention of total extermination. (FortifyRights) Intheir analysis, the conclusion is made that the Myanmar crisis can be called agenocide, and an independent UNHCR-led commission is necessary for furtherinvestigation and finding people accountable.
(FortifyRights)However, theofficial position of the UN is far less radical – the closest definition to”genocide”, applied officially, was “possibly ethnic cleansing”. Jonah Fisherin her report for the BBC quotes several interviews UN officials, claiming thatdue to the UN policy of long-term democratization and tensions easing, anyradical position towards the Myanmar situation is viewed as unacceptable andcan cause different disciplinary measures, such as enforced change of workingposition. (Fisher) These facts can partly explain very indistinct position ofhigh UN officials. The officialposition of the Burmese government, announced at the UN Security Council,states that there are no violations of human rights performed against thepeople of Rohingya, and there are no specific policies and measures implementedto repress and destroy Rohingya community as a whole, or any of its members.
(Zarni, Cowley; UNSC) According to Myanmar officials, mass exodus of theRohingya refugees to neighbouring countries is caused by “Burmese terrorists”and fear spread by them (UNSC), consequently, all witnesses of atrocitiescommitted in Rakhine state are “heavily exaggerated”. (UNSC) A number ofsources also indicates that the resolution of the UNSC was blocked by Russiaand China, presumably because of China’s economic interests in Myanmar.(European Parliament Database) The statement, blocked by the Council, containeddemands to “release all political prisoners, begin widespread dialogue and endits military attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities”. (UNNews Centre) The opponents of the resolution claimed that Myanmar crisis is nota threat to international peace and security, and therefore has to be handledby other UN agencies. (UN News Centre)Contradictionsand flaws of reportsAs has beenpreviously indicated, there have been numerous reports made by different NGO’saddressing the Rohingya problem.
However, most of them concentrate on specificaspects of the problem, failing to view the situation as a whole, and therebymissing vital details. Such organisations as Medecins Sans Fontieres emphasizetheir reports on the living conditions of the members of Rohingya communitywithin Myanmar, and the refugees outside of its borders. Their reports arevital for understanding particular features of the crisis, but do not provideany realistic recommendations.
The reports made by Fortify Rights and Zarni andCowley, which have been used numerous times in this paper, concentrate theirefforts on providing thorough background information and carrying out legalanalysis concerning the law of genocide. These writings are particularly usefuldue to the extensive character of their research, which helps to understand thecomplexity of the situation. However, the importance of international communityis shown very vaguely, and there is little or no attention paid to internalconflicts between members of Buddhist and Muslim communities within Rakhinestate, and hardly any mentioning of Rohingya insurgencies.
Moreover, while mostof the reports are emphasizing the seriousness of the situation and criticalcondition of the Rohingya community, the official report, carried out by KofiAnnan Foundation, though taking into consideration all the repressive andviolent measures taken by the government against the Rohingya, fails to mentionanything about the possibility of genocide, and the recommendations, providedby it, cannot be characterised as anything different but being weak andinsufficient. InsurgentgroupsTalking about thecrisis in the Rakhine state, it is extremely important to mention theinsurgencies, especially the Rohingya ones. Overall population of Muslims unMyanmar estimates around 16% of total population, and is divided into 4distinct communities, with very different relations with Burmese Buddhists.(Selth) Historically speaking, Muslims had a significant amount of politicalpower during the colonial period, but their influence started rapidlydeteriorating after Myanmar independence in 1948, and especially after 1988.Throughout the years state discriminatory policies were supported and evenexpanded by locals, who viewed Muslims as aliens, a threat to their normal wayof life and future. (Selth) The Rohingya,after 1948, “wished for the northern part of Arakan to beincluded in newly created East Pakistan. Others known as Mujahids called for anindependent Muslim state to be created in the area between the Kaladan and MayuRivers”. (Selth) Supporting Mujahids point of view and opposing Ne Win’sregime, Rohingya Independence Force (RIF), the first organised insurgencygroup, was created in 1963.
In following years Rohingya Patriotic Front, ArakanRohingya Islamic Front and others were formed. (Selth) These groups eventuallystarted a guerrilla war against the central government, lasting for over 50years. Their claims were different, the most radical ones demanding for aseparate Muslim state, or demanding to be granted full Burmese citizenship,though most of them were fighting simply for “freedom of worship, guaranteesagainst religious persecution, and the same political and economic rights forMuslims as other communities in Burma”. (Selth) Members of one of the groupsclaimed responsible for several killings in August this year, Arakan RohingyaSalvation Army, say that their actions are nothing more but a response to yearsof persecutions, and that in case of being denied their rights, the war willcontinue until total extinction. (McPherson) It has also been noted thatreligion is not always the main motivating factor for recruits, as fate oftheir community and their families seems much more vital. (McPherson) Rohingya ethnicity has beenspread to several countries throughout the years.
The biggest diasporas, exceptfor Bangladesh, are situated in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A report made byInternational Crisis Group claims that Rohingya insurgencies in Myanmar havebeen supported from these countries both financially and by providing trainedtroops. The report says that emergence of a well-organised, well-funded group,called Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) led byexperienced commanders can be a game changer in Myanmar’ situation, and thusposes a great challenge to the government.
Finally, as it is concluded, thecurrent trend shows that violence, historically viewed by members of theRohingya community as counterproductive, is now being viewed as possibly theonly choice left. (International Crisis Group) This perspective, howeverobviously needing further investigation, proves the extent of the seriousnessof the situation, and warns the international community of possible furtherescalation of the conflict.Conclusion The currentposition of the international community is that authoritarian government ofMyanmar has been oppressing the Rohingya ethnic group for decades, since themilitary coup of 1962, and the scale of violence and repressions has come tothe brink of the genocide.
Denial of citizenship, dehumanisation, restrictingmarriages and birth control, forced labour, rapes and killings – several legalanalyses have proved that the crisis can be characterised as nothing more but agenocide. However, it seems necessary to say that the repressions of theRohingya people have not only been caused by the government, but also bymembers of local Buddhist communities, sometimes led and supported by radicalreligious groups of monks. Taking that into consideration, the crisis can becharacterised also as a religious and ethnic conflict between historicalBurmese communities – Muslim and Buddhist, which make up the entity called”Myanmar”.
Moreover, in several cases the violence has been provoked by thegroups of insurgents, which also play their roles in escalation of tensions.Most of them probably just want to end the oppression and finally beingconsidered as human beings, with some sources even indicating forcedrecruitment in such groups. (McPherson) However, as been pointed out in thereport made by International Crisis Group, these groups, sometimes well trainedand financed from abroad, can represent a significant danger for peace andstability of the country.Taking all thesearguments into consideration, it seems that viewing the crisis solely as astate-sponsored genocide is incorrect. The situation is much more complex andserious, and requires serious and immediate measures from the members ofinternational community. Whereas there is no doubt that the violence has to bestopped as soon as possible, the regulations of tensions is most likely goingto be a long and hard process, as current hostile attitude towards members ofRohingya community cannot be changed easily. It requires a set of long-termmeasures, aimed at educational work with the population, and elimination ofradical groups of monks, who have an enormous authority over common Buddhists.The situation is extremely serious, being probably the most serioushumanitarian crisis of today.
It calls for immediate response, and it is up tointernational community for how it will be remembered – a tragedy or a miracle.