It has triggered the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in recent years
Efforts to deprive the Rohingya -- the ethnic Muslim community living in the Rakhine State of Myanmar for time-immemorial -- from citizenship began shortly after Myanmar’s independence.
The 1948 Union Citizenship Act defined Myanmar citizenship and identified specific ethnicities that were allowed to gain citizenship -- and did not include the Rohingya. After the military coup in 1962, the government began giving documentation to fewer and fewer Rohingya children, refusing to recognize new generations. Violence against the Rohingya continues, with continued military involvement and the government’s denial to protect them.
What ethnic cleansing is
In 1990, the term “ethnic cleansing” came into wider usage, to explicate and describe the situation suffered by particular ethnic groups during conflicts that erupted after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing has been defined as the attempt to get rid of (through deportation, displacement or even mass killing) members of an unwanted ethnic group in order to establish an ethnically homogeneous geographic area.
The term ethnic cleansing has been reserved for some of the worst atrocities in history. The UN defines it as a purposeful policy, designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove, by violent and terror-inspiring means, the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has linked ethnic cleansing more specifically to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, stating that ethnic cleansing could constitute all three of those other offenses. In this way, despite controversy over its exact definition, ethnic cleansing is now clearly covered under international law, though efforts to prevent and punish acts of ethnic cleansing are still in development.
The Rohingya crisis
Since August 2017, over a million refugees have entered Bangladesh, crossing the border of Myanmar where the state military launched a cleansing operation against the Rohingya.
The situation cannot yet be assessed fully and independently, as Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. Satellite imagery showing burned villages confirm the situation as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing -- the military of a Buddhist majority country attacking a Muslim minority.
The recent wave of violence is the latest in a pattern of discrimination that started over 50 years ago in 1962. Myanmar, then called Burma, was taken over by the military in a coup led by General Ne Win.
They promoted fierce nationalism based on the country's Buddhist identity and when they needed a common enemy to help unite the population, the Rohingya were singled out as a threat. Tensions between the Burmese Buddhist population and the Rohingya go back to WWII, when each group supported opposing sides.
The Rohingya with a population of about one million became a stateless people in 1991, and Myanmar's military launched a campaign to rid them, resulting in 250,000 Rohingya fleing to Bangladesh. Tensions continued to build in the 2000s. Violence broke out in 2012, when four Muslim men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman in Rakhine. Buddhist nationalists, backed by security forces, attacked Muslim neighbourhoods and burned homes, displacing tens of thousands.
The Rohingya were persecuted, disenfranchised, and stateless in 2016. A Rohingya militant group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged and coordinated small-scale attacks on border police stations. An attack on August 25th 2017 left 12 police officers dead, and sparked the current crisis against Rohingya civilians. A brutal retaliation by the state security forces has led to thousands of deaths, and the mass exodus to Bangladesh.
Since the August attack, 210 villages have been burned to the ground. The violent campaign has triggered the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in recent years, but Myanmar's de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has barely acknowledged the attacks.
Recent reports claimed that the military has planted land mines along the Bangladesh border to prevent the Rohingya from returning. Myanmar's government has systematically stripped their citizenship, terrorized them, and destroyed their homes, and now it wants to keep them from ever coming back.
Role of the world community
In mid-October 2017, the European Union Council of Foreign Ministers annulled ties and incorporated travel bans for the Myanmar military, as did the United States. Both also began reviewing the possibility of further formal sanctions. Meanwhile the Pope’s late-November visit to Myanmar to denounce the violence must have hit home to the Rohingya just how helpless the West had become.
Over the issue of Rohingya, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been mostly silent and has not taken a stand on the growing number of asylum seekers in member countries, largely because of its members’ commitment to the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
ASEAN’s only response to the crisis so far has been a bland statement -- almost a month after the atrocities in Rakhine -- expressing “concern” about the situation, and failing to even mention the word Rohingya. Amnesty International has criticized the organization, alleging it has “failed” the refugees.
India stated, “We stand by Myanmar, we strongly condemn the terrorist attack and condole the death of policemen and soldiers.” However, India has also sent 7,000 metric-tons of relief materials to Bangladesh. China has been advocating resolution through bilateral efforts between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and has offered to negotiate. Beijing and Moscow questioned UNSC's jurisdiction to take any measure, and contended that any interference would worsen the situation.
Hence, the world’s largest democracy, the biggest communist state, and a powerful Eurasian country, all have lined up with Myanmar, turning a blind eye to the “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” as aptly stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, while Bangladesh is taking the burden of all the Rohingya refugees with its limited capacity.
Farjana Afruj Khan Alin is a PhD candidate, University of Malaya, Malaysia.