Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar: The Rohingya Tragedy

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The stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, commonly known as Rohingya, is stripped off basic human rights and brutally victimized by the Myanmar government’s “ethnic cleansing” projects. Viewed as “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples,” the Rohingyas have seen their houses burnt to ashes, their family members butchered on broad day light, and their women raped by the Buddhist majority. The United Nations declared the Rohingya tragedy as a “crime against humanity,” and in a statement accused the Myanmar government as it “has largely failed to act on the recommendations made in a report by the UN Human Rights Office.” More than 120,000 Rohingya have been crammed into displacement camps since violence by Buddhist mobs in 2012. They are denied citizenship, health care and education and their movements are heavily curbed besides being routinely attacked and abused.

Who are the Rohingya People?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Although the Rohingyas and some scholars claim that they are indigenous to Rakhine state, some historians and the Myanmar government reject this claim. The Myanmar government sees the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants who migrated to the Arakan during the British colonial rule and after the Bangladesh liberation war. Historical facts suggest that Muslims settled in the Arakan region in the 1420s with the establishment of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U by Min Saw Mon. Min Saw Mon recognized the sovereignty of the Bengal Sultanate and received Islamic titles. After the death of the Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah in 1433, Min Saw Mon’s successors invaded Bengal and occupied Ramu in 1437 and Chittagong in 1459. Chittagong was under direct Arkanese rule till 1666. These facts reinforce the idea that Muslims settled in the Arakan region almost five hundred years ago. However, these long settled Muslims have been joined by approximately 500,000 Bangladeshi refugees during the liberation war in 1971. In 1978 General Ne Win pushed almost 200,000 refugees back to Bangladesh only to take them back when the UN interfered.

Why are the Rohingya Denied Citizenship by Myanmar?

Anti-colonial movement in India inspired the Rohingya Muslims to organize a separatist movement to merge the region with East Pakistan as a remedy to the violence and discriminations they were subjected to by the Buddhist majority. The leaders requested assistance from Muhammad Ali Jinnah who refused to get involved with Burmese internal affairs. Aimed at creating an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan, the disillusioned leaders formed a movement which was brutally suppressed by General Ne Win in the 1970s. The forced migration of the Rohingyas started at that time: many Burmese Muslims fled to Bangladesh and other neighboring states. In 1982, the Burmese government implemented citizenship law and declared the “Bangalis” are intruders.

What Sparked the Recent Rohingya Tragedy?

The long sectarian dispute between the majority Rohingya Muslism and the minority Buddhist Rakhines in the region has been sparked by the alleged gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by the Rohingyas and the murder of ten Rohingya Muslims by the Rakhines. An extremist Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu used this incident in inciting mob violence against the Rohingyas through his incriminatory speeches. For a detailed profile on Ashin, see the article “The Face of Buddhist Terror” ran by Time and the 2013 documentary by the BBC.

On Oct. 9, as Myanmar authorities claim, militant Rohingyas killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar Army torched down villages after villages, gunned down people, raped hundreds of women. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been trying to escape the state endorsed violence since then: thousands died in the effort. The maimed and charred dead bodies of men, women, and children that went viral on social media has outraged the mainstream news media across the world. However, as media access to the region is denied by the government, journalists and rights group had to rely completely on the victims’ accounts which are rejected outright by the Aung San Suu Kyi administration. Human Rights Watch published satellite images of the destruction carried out by the Myanmar army.

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar: An Undeniable Fact

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s routine refusal of the atrocities against the Rohingyas, the United Nations declared that proofs of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar seem evident. More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced by the government to live in camps where human suffering prompted many to choose suicide over survival. These people who get bare life-saving assistance from the government have received no food or medicine for almost two months. Death is inevitable for these trapped human beings, and the humanitarian aid workers as well as independent journalists can do nothing: Suu Kyi’s government does not allow any reporters in the Rohingya camps or the disputed Rohingya areas. The Rohingya are undoubtedly the most persecuted religious minority in the world.


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.


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