The Rohingya issue is a matter of misperceptions and differences in opinions between Myanmar’s government and the Rohingya community. The government is worried about national security and adopts a defensive position to fight against what they consider as radical militant and extremist groups in the Northern state of Rakhine where the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group lives.
Reinforcing such perceptions, Rohingya militants launched raids on Rakhine law enforcement outposts on August 25, 2017 and killed 12 law enforcers. These attacks were mostly in the form of surprise ambushes and guerrilla warfare, reflective of low tech warfare practiced by militants and villagers. The response led by the Myanmarese military triggered off a massive exodus of refugees, including women and children, from Rohingya villages into nearby Bangladesh.
In some villages, escape routes run through treacherous river currents but still people continued to flee, fearing a worse fate if they stayed behind in Myanmar. Some victims were shot in the water or on the riverbanks. Some accounts claim that the military’s response to the attacks on the law enforcement outposts have killed around 3,000 individuals. Other estimations place it at a few hundred. All figures are at best estimations as free access to the region is not possible.
The government claims that the perpetrators of the attacks are inciters and terrorists. More conservative sections of the Myanmar society views Rohingyas as separatist radicals who are trying to form a state in Rakhine. Rohingyas have been variously labelled as “Bengalis” or “illegal immigrants” by those who do not recognize them as being part of Myanmar. They are currently in a position of statelessness. However, pro-Rohingya rights advocates argue that some of the Rohingya families have been in Myanmar for centuries.
Under Myanmar’s citizenship laws, Rohingyas require verification before they can be re-admitted back to the country. There is an estimated 1.1 million or so Rohingyas in Myanmar and reportedly, about 370,000 of them have fled the country. Census have not been very successful in capturing the number of Rohingyas with accuracy, therefore making it difficult for them to return from refugee camps.
There is also a religious element involved, as Myanmar is a Buddhist nation while the Rohingyas are mostly Muslims. Amongst the Myanmarese, there are Buddhist nationalist groups led by conservative right-wing nationalistic monks who are keen to eject Muslim Rohingya from their lands. The idea amongst this group of anti-Rohingya conservative nationalistic elements is to eventually remove Rakhine’s Rohingya community from the state itself.
The international community is concerned about bloodshed and ethnic cleansing scenarios. There are claims of rapes, killings, massacres, genocides, etc., and women and children are particularly vulnerable. There are also allegations of mass graves that cannot be independently verified at the moment due to the lack of access to those areas. Some refugees from villages in the northwest region have to navigate treacherous river currents that can easily sweep adults and children away. Others have fled into the jungles and the hills. It takes a few days to travel through difficult terrain on foot to Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself has visited the refugee camps and urged the Myanmarese authorities to take back the refugees.
According to Rohingyas who have fled the country, the Myanmarese army set villages on fire in a bid to get rid of them. Some burned-down village houses have been spotted by the international media. Satellite images also appear to indicate that some villages were razed to the ground, but further verification on land and eyewitness accounts are needed. Human rights groups have also observed some of these burnt-out villages. Some refugees have stepped on government land mines and suffered decapitated limbs. Mines may be found along Myanmar’s north-western border where refugees are fleeing. A 1997 landmark treaty has banned the use of mines in warfare but Myanmar is not a signatory to that treaty.
The government’s interpretation of an embattled Myanmarese heartland where government forces are fighting separatist elements shows dissonance with accounts saying that refugees are fleeing persecution from the authorities.
An earlier exodus of Rohingyas out of Myanmar had taken place in 2012. Some refuges ended up in illegal trafficking camps in Southeast Asia. Human traffickers took advantage of their vulnerable situations and exploited them for labor and other activities stripped of human dignity. Some ended up in mass graves. Others died at sea before reaching land, while some who reached landfall died in the jungles. In such cases, difficult terrains, physical obstacles to passage, exploitative human smugglers and traffickers and fear of persecution became a cocktail of destruction that conspired to create deadly consequences for the Rohingyas.
Meanwhile, in terms of humanitarian challenges, the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh have run into weather challenges caused by this year’s strong monsoon season. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself has visited the refugee camps and urged the Myanmarese authorities to take back the refugees. Bangladesh’s foreign minister has also criticized the Myanmarese government’s management of the issue.
Besides Bangladesh, India also plans to repatriate 40,000 Rohingyas who fled Myanmar in the recent and earlier conflicts between Rohingya militant elements and the Myanmarese government. It urged restraint on the part of the Myanmarese authorities in handling the situation and pledged its support to the government in managing the issue earlier. The international community including neighboring India and China hope that peace and order can be restored to the region. Even the Pope is mobilizing a refugee rescue ship to be re-deployed from Libya to Myanmar.
In the midst of all these, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi faced increasing pressure from the international community to do something about the conflict in the country. Some concerned quarters in the US Congress were pressuring the government to discontinue cooperation with the Myanmarese government due to the Rohingya issue. Some former Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai called on her to help prevent the conflict from deepening. Even the Dalai Lama came out to remind Myanmarese Buddhists of the teaching of Buddha in a bid to mitigate the conflict at hand.
On September 19, Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a national address in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar to address the situation. She expressed concern for the “suffering of all people” swept up in the latest violence. Although she acknowledged the intensity of the violence, she refused to blame any specific group.