What’s the Deal With Suppression and Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar?

Hello All,untitled4

Welcome to another edition of ‘What’s the Deal’, the blog that has yet to cross the mighty Irawaddy.

In this post, we re-examine familiar terrain in Myanmar (which was covered back in 2012) in regards to relations between the central Burmese dominated central government and minority populations within Myanmar. Specifically, we’ll look at the well publicized refugee outpouring from Western Myanmar into Bangladesh of the Muslim ethnic group known as the Rohingya due to cultural repression, burning of villages, shooting of civilians and a state of affairs that has been deemed to be outright ethnic cleansing by the United States and others.

We’ll analyze what this might mean for Myanmar’s political leadership under the popular Aung San Suu Kyi and discuss whether the dark shadow of Myanmar’s military is beginning to creep back into the picture.

The Current:

Last week, Pope Francis visited Myanmar in an attempt to begin a dialogue of finding a solution  to the Rohyinga problem.


Francis and Myamar’s civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Only he didn’t say Rohyinga (at least not publicly) while on his diplomatic mission. Merely saying the name of the group of people who have been forcibly displaced after facing years of repression, violence, and culture shredding immediately begets responses from Myanmar officials of “There is no such thing as Rohyinga” an example of the efforts by the Burmese controlled majority attempting to eliminate the ethnic group from the culture and history of Myanmar.

The pontiff pointed out that using the word would have ended any hope of negotiation or discussion from the get-go, but due to the extreme humanitarian crisis that has emerged, his removal of the word has drawn criticism from some as he returned to the Vatican.

Myanmar military forces known as the Tatmadaw, which are made up from the primarily Buddhist majority Burmese have performed what many are calling ethnic cleansing and “appalling acts of barbarity” in driving over 624,000 ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim group from northern Rahkine state into neighboring Bangladesh. The catalyst for the military’s most recent actions was the August 25 attacks by a militant separatist group known as ARSA killing 12 members of the security forces during the fighting.  Previous attacks in other areas, such as in October 2016 also contributed to rising tension between government forces and Rohingya.


The Razing of Rohingya Villages

The attacks have triggered a reprisal from the military in an effort to find the shadowy militant group and in the process has uprooted entire communities and local cultures. Not only have violence and atrocities been executed against Rohingya Muslims, most of whom were innocent civilians, but anti-Rohingya push by the government has shifted the cultural norms as neighborhoods that were once mixed with Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims now see individual acts of repression and violence by Buddhist vigilante groups that are not prevented or encouraged by security forces.

Population data analyzed by the International Crisis Group suggests that over 85% of Rohingya have fled their homes from three major townships in Rakhine state in only 12 months. Since the August attacks, the Myanmar government has blocked access to Rakhine state for most humanitarian aid groups making delivering food aid or health care extremely challenging and complicating the task of reaching refugees or rebuilding any sense of community.


The long march to Bangladesh

In the meantime, the huge influx of refugees into Bangladesh has created enormous issues in a country that is not exactly equipped to handle such numbers of people (let alone its own population). Refugee camps near the Bangladesh / Myanmar border are in appalling conditions and are attempting to accommodate such numbers from the recent events on top of thousands of Rohingya who had fled in previous years.  Organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) are working to help prevent public health emergencies and help provide basic sanitation and water access.

So to break it down quickly:

  • hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim people have been forced to flee their homeland in Myanmar in a only a few months
  • The military and Buddhist vigilante groups razed homes, businesses, committed crimes against humanity in an effort to drive out the Rohingya
  • Myanmar’s military initiated this response in retaliation to terror attacks by the militant Rohingya group ARSA attacked patrol groups and targeted some Buddhist civilian locations.
  • The refugee crisis has reached a peak and likely will be sustained as Rohingya civilians are unlikely to return / be allowed to repatriate to a place that would be unwelcoming or unsafe.

Let’s try to learn the historical strife of the Rohingya people in Myanmar to help us grapple with the causes behind the crisis outside of the ARSA attacks.

A Historical Connection – Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh

It was not simply a single terror attack that brought upon the ethnic violence and “cleansing” we are seeing in Rakhine state of Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims that have forced their departure into neighboring Bangladesh. There is a long history of conflict over Rohingya’s place within the country now known as Myanmar and seeking refuge across the border in Bangladesh.


Rohingya: a muslim people of the land between modern day Bangladesh and Myanmar

The Rohingya are people with ancestral ties to the Mughal, Bengali, Moorish, and other peoples that historically have lived in the coastal region along the area now bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. They practice a Sufi-influenced form of Sunni Islam, have their own language (rohingya, which is similar to Bengali) and many of their own unique cultural practices. They also number at the present, the largest group of stateless people in the world, meaning that no country consider the Rohingya part of their citizenry.

Some trace the Rohingya ancestry within Rakhine state of Myanmar (the name Rohingya is traced from the old name for Rakhine, Rohang, or Arakan and “gya” from, both from the Rohingya dialect) back to the 15th century. This was during the time of the Arakan Kingdom which presided over the modern day Rakhine region at that time while also later ruled by Indian and Burmese kingdoms from Bagan and later under the British colonial empire as part of the Indian Colony.


Sherman tank Brigade made of Indian troops as part of the British forces in Burma

During the Japanese invasion during World War II, the Burmese initially took sides with the invading forces while the Rohingya and other groups sided with the British colonial forces. The Burmese ended up switching sides towards the end of the war to defeat the Japanese. Following independence for the countries of Indian subcontinent from the British (including India and Burma), the Burmese government did not recognize the Rohingya as full citizens.

Following the military coup in Burma in 1962 and the long  dictatorship that followed, the Rohingya were stripped of any citizenship including the 1982 Citizenship Act denying them full rights, a law limiting access to health care and education, and enforced a two – child limit and denied inter-faith marriages.

Modern Exclusion and The Road to the Refugee Crisis

Given their connection to peoples to the west, it fuels the current government contention and the popular majority Burmese belief that the Rohingya are outsiders or illegal immigrants who are not historically part of Rakhine state or Myanmar and arrived during the British colonial era.

It may seem like the refugee crisis is new, but it has been a persistent struggle since the 1970s. Indeed, the discriminatory laws mentioned above that did not include the Rohingya as part of Myanmar pushed thousands over the border into newly independent Bangladesh in the 1970s forcing refugee camps to be formed. These same refugee camps persist and are struggling to accommodate the newest influx of Rohingya refugees today. A 2008 UNHCR Report detailed the problems following the refugee migrations in 1978 and 1991 into Bangladesh but also into several other countries of South East Asia. untitled

The conditions of the camps as most refugee camps were very poor and the numbers of Rohingya increasing each year. For example, from 2006 – 2010, number of refugees increased by 1,325 and 1,437 from the Kutupalong and Nayapara camp respectfully. Not only were the refugee numbers increasing before the latest influx and repatriation efforts to Myanmar were shown to have little effect. For example, the grand total of repatriation submissions to various countries including Myanmar from 2006 – 2010 totaled 1,997 while the number of actual departures was much fewer, a measly 920.

Now with much larger numbers exiting Myanmar, a regional solution must be adopted, perhaps with the collective wisdom of the ASEAN (association of south east Asian nations).

Conclusion:  Continued Statelessness

Though Myanmar does recognize around 135 different ethnic groups as part of their citizenry, the Rohingya do not make the list. This is an interesting fact given that the Myanmar military has been fighting militant groups from the Karen and Kachin groups for decades – a situation which was profiled in a previous blog. Since the reforms in 2011 from military dictatorship and the return of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to legislative power the international community has opened up avenues of economic growth and investment that were long overdue in the impoverished and oppressive military junta that ruled from 1962 before the recent reform era.

Following Suu Kyi’s election and the government reform in 2012, violence against Rohingya following a rape and murder of a Buddhist sparked revenge attacks and a further crackdown against Rohingya, forcing thousands to begin migrating away from Rakhine. Since then neither she, nor pressure from the international community has been able to stop the military’s crackdown nor the official Myanmar government’s position of the Rohingya as non-existent entities of the state.

The intensification also spurred the growth of militia groups such as ARSA to defend and attack the military. The group has received praise from such groups as Al-Qaeda and ISIS for its efforts to fight for the Muslim Rohingya’s existence in its homeland – a situation which does not help the Rohingya’s stateless position amongst the international community. Though ARSA has commitments to only fighting the Tatmadaw, several instances of attacks against civilians have been documented which of course only fuel the anti-Rohingya flames.

As far as Ms. Suu Kyi is concerned, many have called for her Nobel Peace Prize to be taken away for her silence on the forced removal of Rohingya. Her official response to the crisis, in addition to cancelling a UN General Assembly meeting, was to say that “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interests of terrorists.”

While this has been the official response, it is difficult to say whether or not this is actually her stated position. Given the Buddhist majority that elected her, however, it is not a politically savvy move to support the Rohingya plight. Furthermore, the actual power the military has in making government decisions and enforcing them is unknown, but given the historical power of the military junta over the country, it may not be too big of a stretch to say that Suu Kyi’s position is influenced by the military.untitled3

In addition, the frightening campaign against the Rohingya is very similar to efforts by the Hutus in Rwanda to cite reasons for violence against Tutsis, to label them as outsiders. Just like in Rwanda, the Rohingya who stay are likely to experience persecution, violence, or worse and so are forcibly removed.

Solutions are hard to conceive at this point with Myanmar choosing not to recognize the problem and the diaspora of the Rohingya facing difficulties in repatriation or migration to new countries. At the present, they still remain bogged down in refugee camps as they have for decades, stuck in statelessness.

Until the next forced migration,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:


Beech, Hannah. “‘No Such Thing as Rohingya’: Myanmar Erases a History.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/02/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-denial-history.html?ref=oembed.

Cumming-bruce, Nick. “Myanmar’s Rohingya Actions May Be Genocide, U.N. Official Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 5, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-genocide-un.html?ref=oembed.

Mohdin, Aamna. “A Brief History of the Word.” Quartz. Quartz, October 2, 2017. https://qz.com/1092313/a-brief-history-of-the-word-rohingya-at-the-heart-of-a-humanitarian-crisis/.

“Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase.” Crisis Group, December 7, 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/292-myanmars-rohingya-crisis-enters-dangerous-new-phase.

Specia, Megan. “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 13, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-muslim.html?ref=oembed.

Staff, Al Jazeera. “Myanmar: Who Are the Rohingya?” Asia Pacific | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, November 30, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/rohingya-muslims-170831065142812.html.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “States of Denial: A Review of UNHCR’s Response to the Protracted Situation of Stateless Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh. Esther Kiragu, Angela Li Rosi, Tim Morris, December 2011.” UNHCR, n.d. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/research/evalreports/4ee754c19/states-denial-review-unhcrs-response-protracted-situation-stateless-rohingya.html?query=largest stateless group.

“What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.





About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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