World Leaders Should Have Seen the Rohingya Crisis Coming

By: Sara Sirota, Columnist

Photo Credit: New York Times

Myanmar’s expulsion of 500,000 Rohingya Muslims is not a sudden or unexpected event. It follows decades of systemic oppression and months of heightened fragility in Rakhine state, where the Burmese Army and Buddhist extremists look upon their Rohingya neighbors as unwanted foreigners and threats to regional security. A close look at this history predicts this “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” that now shocks the world.[i] Meanwhile, despite evidence of atrocities, international policymakers did little to prevent the current crisis, hoping Aung San Suu Kyi would bring about democratization.

The Rohingya have suffered institutional discrimination in Myanmar for years. Notably, in 1982, most Rohingya lost citizenship rights under a law that mandated proof of ancestry residence in the country prior to 1823. Despite evidence that some Rohingya migrated to Myanmar as early as the eighth century, the law does not recognize them as one of the many official ethnic groups in the country. This (non) status denies them basic rights such as freedom of movement, access to higher education, and even the ability to campaign for public office.[ii] In other words, the Rohingya have suffered social, economic, and political subjugation in their own country for years.

While any minority group that experiences state-led civil rights abuses may be at risk of displacement, the Rohingya’s vulnerability stands out. Since the 1970s, the Burmese Army and Buddhist extremists have provoked exoduses of Rohingya from Myanmar in waves. In 1977, military authorities conducted Operation Nagamin, which sought to identify non-nationals for an upcoming census. More than 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh by 1978, citing evictions, murder, and rape by the army. Between 1991 and 1992, more than 250,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar, once again alleging that the army persecuted and engaged in violent acts against them.[iii] In 2012, sectarian clashes with their Buddhist neighbors led 100,000 Rohingya to flee. Locals attacked one another with swords, clubs, and sharpened bicycle spokes. They burned one another’s monasteries and mosques.[iv]

The 2012 exodus highlights the persecution of the Rohingya by, not just the government or army, but also by the local Buddhist people who view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[v] Some members of the Buddhist population in Rakhine, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya live, have become more Islamophobic and extreme over the years. Responding to the 2012 clashes, the general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party said, “We are very fearful of Islamicization… This is our native land; it’s the land of our ancestors.”[vi]

The ferocity of the 2012 clashes should have warned world leaders and prompted their action. Instead, they averted their eyes from the evidence before them, afraid to disrupt the country’s democratization process. Following decades of military rule, the Union Solidarity Development Party won a majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections, leading to former army general Thein Sein’s presidency alongside a civilian-led parliament in 2011.[vii] The new government freed thousands of prisoners, including more than 200 political prisoners. Myanmar signaled to the world a new era of reform.[viii]

In the aftermath of the 2012 clashes, Barack Obama visited Myanmar—the first time an American president stepped foot in the Southeast Asian country—much to the displeasure of human rights activists. “I want to be very clear that we see this visit as building on the progress that the Burmese government has made, but that they are at the beginning of a journey towards democracy and human rights,” the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Asia, Danny Russel, said at the time.[ix]

In 2014, Obama called on the Burmese government to end its oppression of the Rohingya, but this criticism did not translate into policy.[x] The 2015 victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections brought even more hope for democratization than the 2012 transition to civilian rule.[xi] Citing the progress her government had made toward reform and human rights, Obama lifted US sanctions against Myanmar in October 2016.[xii]

However, the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi was not accompanied by justice for the Rohingya. The army that had provoked exoduses with its abuse time and time again still held power, as the constitution reserves one-quarter of parliamentary seats for the military.[xiii] Kyi’s government also had not granted the Rohingya citizenship. Most importantly, the ethnic tensions underlying the 2012 clashes remained within the local communities in Rakhine. A Buddhist extremist group, Ma Ba Tha, formed in 2013 and began preaching anti-Rohingya sentiments. The same currents that provoked violence against the Rohingya and prompted their exoduses in the past remained woven in the country’s social and political structures. Soon enough, thousands would flee their homes in yet another crisis. Hope for Aung San Suu Kyi’s governance appears to have overshadowed any concerns that international policymakers had—or should have had.

That next crisis occurred in October 2016. A Rohingya militant group, Harakah al-Yaqin, murdered nine border police guards, compelling the Burmese government to launch counterinsurgency operations in Rakhine.[xiv] Rohingya refugees reported that the army extrajudicially killed, raped, and tortured them. By February 2017, an estimated 74,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.[xv]

Fears of an Islamist threat after the attacks emboldened members of Ma Ba Tha. They protested an aid shipment bound for Rakhine, demanded local authorities close two Muslim schools, and called on police to raid an apartment they believed to be a safe house for illegal Muslim migrants.[xvi] In an effort to calm tensions, Myanmar’s top Buddhist authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, in May ordered Ma Ba Tha to remove its signs around the country and banned the use of its name. Nevertheless, the group continued to grow.[xvii]

In March 2017, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee warned that the government “may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether.”[xviii] Again, the army’s response to the October 2016 attacks, as well as extremism in the local population, should have sent warning signals to world leaders. They took no action either because of continued faith in Aung San Suu Kyi, the lack of any policy toolkit to address these types of situations, or sheer indifference.

Moving forward, policymakers should consider drawing up plans for how to defend populations at imminent risk of ethnic cleansing—or worse—by their governments or local communities. Such plans might include enacting sanctions, deploying peacekeepers, or strengthening diplomacy with military and political leaders. Importantly, this policy should not just be one that politicians put down on paper but one that they will put into effect if necessary.

In the case of Myanmar, the Obama or Trump administrations could have reinstated the sanctions that President Obama terminated in October 2016, just two days before Harakah al-Yaqin’s attacks. Or, in August 2017—just a few days before an attack that would trigger the current expulsion of Rohingya—US Ambassador Scot Marciel could have rejected an agreement to provide law enforcement assistance to the Burmese government.[xix] While the primary responsibility for the protection of the Rohingya remains with Myanmar and its people, the United States and other worldwide powers should use their influence to prevent atrocities and encourage the observance of human rights.

[i] “UN human rights chief points to ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar.” UN News Centre, September 11, 2017.

[ii] “Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution.” Human Rights Watch, May 2000.; Albert, Eleanor. “The Rohingya Migrant Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations, September 13, 2017.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Fuller, Thomas. “Ethnic Hatred Tears Apart a Region of Myanmar.” The New York Times, November 29, 2012.

[v] Ratcliffe, Rebecca. “Who are the Rohingya and what is happening in Myanmar?” The Guardian, September 5, 2017.

[vi] Fuller, Thomas. “Ethnic Hatred Tears Apart a Region of Myanmar.” The New York Times, November 29, 2012.

[vii] “Burma transfer of power complete.” BBC, March 30, 2011.

[viii] “Timeline: Reforms in Myanmar.” BBC, July 8, 2015.

[ix] Eimer, David. “Barack Obama under pressure to address human rights in Burma.” The Telegraph, November 16, 2012.

[x] Ferrie, Jared. “Obama calls on Myanmar to protect Rohingya; Suu Kyi urges harmony.” Reuters, November 14, 2014.

[xi] Holmes, Oliver. “Aung San Suu Kyi wins outright majority in Myanmar election.” The Guardian, November 13, 2015.

[xii] “Executive Order: Termination of Emergency with Respect to the Actions and Policies of the Government of Burma.” US Department of Treasury, October 7, 2016.

[xiii] Oliver Holmes, “Aung San Suu Kyi casts vote in Myanmar’s first free election for 25 years,” The Guardian, November 8, 2015.

[xiv] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State.” International Crisis Group, December 15, 2016.

[xv] “168,000 Rohingya likely fled Myanmar since 2012 – UNHCR report,” The UN Refugee Agency, May 3, 2017.

[xvi] “Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar.” International Crisis Group, September 5, 2017.

[xvii] Ives, Mike. “Ultranationalist Monks in Myanmar, Facing Crackdown, Say They’re Unrepentant.” The New York Times, May 26, 2017.

[xviii] “168,000 Rohingya likely fled Myanmar since 2012 – UNHCR report,” The UN Refugee Agency, May 3, 2017.

[xix] “U.S. Embassy Signs Agreement on Law Enforcement, Counternarcotics and Rule of Law Assistance.” U.S. Embassy in Burma, August 22, 2017.

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