The most recent surge of violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar, the impoverished state where most of the Rohingya people live, came after an attack by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) on border police last month, leading to a ruthless counter-offensive and almost 300,000 people fleeing in the past two weeks. Though this conflict is decades-old and the accusations of ethnic cleansing are not new, the recent escalations have been described as the worst in the past five years and the involvement of Arsa, a group active since last October, is likely to change the dynamics of the conflict.
The Rohingya are a mostly-Muslim ethnic group, although not recognised as one by the Myanmar government who deny them citizenship, rendering them effectively stateless. Many Rakhine Buddhists view the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’, thereby contesting their roots in Myanmar and, crucially, their legal right to be there. Described as ‘the world’s most persecuted minority’, those who have fled to Bangladesh have told of indiscriminate killings and sexual violence. Claims and numbers are often hard to verify due to restricted access to Rakhine which has led to misleading photos being shared on social media. This should not discredit findings such as those in the UN report from February, detailing the horrific abuses against the Rohingya in the wake of the previous major escalation of violence in October. It paints a picture of violence and forced displacement, ‘very likely’ amounting to crimes against humanity, against a backdrop of systemic ethnic and religious discrimination. The report notes that such crimes have been ‘described in other contexts as ethnic cleansing’.
The UN report is a difficult read, partly in its familiarity. Only a few weeks ago, I was at the Srebrenica memorial in Sarajevo listening to similar stories – of children killed, of mass rapes, of men rounded up and never seen again. On the 11th July 1995, the Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladić took the opportunity to deny the ethnic heritage of Bosniaks, calling them Turks, one last time before leading the calculated massacre of over 8,000 Muslims Bosniaks in Srebrenica, Bosnia. This denial of the ethnic heritage of a group in a given territory is a key tool of ethnic cleansing, as is the case with the Rohingya Muslims being viewed as ‘Bengali.’ This is seen, most disturbingly, in stories of rapes, which since the Yugoslav wars have come to be seen as a tool of ethnic cleansing. A Rohingya survivor tells of her rape in the UN report, “I only understood one word “khalar” that they were repeating, which means Bengali people from Bangladesh.”
The excuse for these actions has been a counter-insurgency against Arsa, recently branded a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government. The number of people displaced, as well as their stories, suggests the response is not merely that of targeted attacks against militants. Particularly post-9/11, the threat of ‘terrorism’ has been used to justify a wide range of actions, mainly impacting Muslims – from the PATRIOT Act in the US to Assad’s continued offensives in Syria. Since the definition is so vague, who the terrorists are is usually left up to the bigger actors to decide. For example, when the fight against communism was more pertinent than the fight against Islamic extremism, the Afghan Mujahideen were called ‘freedom-fighters’ by the Western powers. Now, of course, the focus is on Islamic extremists.
According to the Myanmar government, this is also the problem in Rakhine, although it is clear that the far bigger problem is the acts of violence being committed by the Buddhist majority against the Muslim minority. This is not to dismiss the legitimate questions being asked about Arsa – the International Crisis Group claims that it is being led by Rohingya people in Saudi Arabia and its militants are receiving international training. The intervention of conservative Muslim countries in global crises affecting Muslims is not unprecedented, and can be a cause for concern. Those receiving the help are not exactly in a place to be rejecting it, which can play a part in the radicalisation of Muslims even in such historically multicultural and tolerant cities as Sarajevo. Arsa is not the best answer to the Rohingya’s plight, but there certainly aren’t many others.
Stopping Arsa is clearly not the real aim. Arsa is merely a symptom of the problem; the best way to deal with it would be to address the cause. Unfortunately, the situation seems to be heading in a far darker direction, one familiar to those who know of ethnic conflict. Many have escaped, and there is evidence that the army are allowing them to. Meanwhile, the Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has stated that only those who are citizens will be allowed to return – that excludes most Rohingya. Even more stateless than they began, the future for the Rohingya is not bright.
Photograph: DYKT Mohigan via Flickr