Rohingyas: a Humanitarian Crisis in Search of a Political Solution


Media reports and images of 25,000 Rohingyas fleeing persecution by boat are reminiscent of Vietnamese boat people from the late 1970s to 1990s. Their similarity ends there.

Rohingya refugees are dwarfed by the Vietnamese boat people in number. Over a million Vietnamese, mostly of Hoa or Chinese ethnicity, risked pirate attacks, monsoon storms on South China Sea, and starvation to escape the government’s purge and persecution at home. Between 200,000 and 400,000 were reported to have perished at sea. Those fortunate enough to survive the perilous sea journey found themselves unwelcome when they made landfall in SE Asian countries. More than 800,000 of them languished in UNHCR refugee camps for years before they were resettled in Europe and the US.

Rohingya boat people have better luck than the Chinese Vietnamese boat people. Malaysia agreed to resettle thousands of their Muslim brethren, whereas it had refused to take in a single Vietnamese boat people previously. Malaysian officials and media condemned the Myanmar government on the Rohingya refugee crisis, setting off a minor diplomatic row, when not a pip was heard from the Malaysians on the Vietnamese boat people. Such selective moral outrage is particularly vehement in SE Asian Muslim nations.

Rohingyas are a humanitarian problem in need and in search of a political solution. Like other minority groups in Myanmar, Rohingyas are the victims of the longest civil war in modern history. Their plight is real, but not on the scale or proportion of ethnic cleansing or genocide a la Jews in Nazi Germany in WW2.

Myanmar or Burma is a country of great contrasts and contradictions.  In the Land of Buddhist Pagodas, and the birthplace of U Thant who was the first Asian to serve as UN Secretary General (1961to 1971), a civil war has raged on far longer than any other country in modern history: 69 years and counting.

These contradictions are caused by the refusal of the ethnic majority Bamars to share power of the central government with the minorities, and Bamars’ reneging on an agreement to grant them autonomy at the regional level. The disharmony is exacerbated by historical hostility and distrust between Bamars and the more than 100 ethic minority groups, about 5 million of whom are Christians and Muslims. Those are a small fraction of the predominantly Buddhist population in excess of 40 million.

The violence besetting the Rakhine state in recent years isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, internal conflict with racial and religious undertones. Since the first post-independence government in 1948 tore up the Panglong Agreement, the government has been embroiled in a civil war with the country’s minority groups.

The civil war in Myanmar is characterized by the military attacking different and shifting blocks of ethnic armed groups at various times. Ceasefires, often more like temporary truces,  were fragile and unreliable. They have been used by the military to prevent a united resistance front among the various minority groups.

There are 4 distinct stages in the civil war. The first was shortly after independence in 1948, when the government reneged on the Panglong Agreement. Karen, Kareni, Pa’O, Arakanese, Mon and others turned to armed resistance. The second phase was after army general Ne Win staged a coup to overthrow the U Nu civilian rule. The military junta adopted the Four Cuts policy to deprive the armed minority groups of  food, funds, intelligence and recruits. Villagers were relocated by force to government-controlled areas, hundreds of villages were razed to the ground , and civilians suspected of aiding the armed minority groups were tortured or killed.

The third stage was from 1988 to 1992, after the uprising by Bamar civilians on August 8, 1988 as a result of Ne Win demonetising currency notes of certain denominations. This period witnessed the most intense fighting since independence. Ceasefires were offered to selective minority groups, while 80,000 troops were deployed to fight against Karen, Kareni, Mon and Kachin militants. During this period, 200,000 Arakan Muslims or Rohingyas fled violence across the border into Bangladesh.

The fourth or current stage started in 2011 when the military breached a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin group. Fighting spread later to Shan, Karen, Rahkine and Kokang.

A human rights group issued this report :”Since the 2010 elections, sources from various ethnic groups have reported incidents of killings, torture, abductions, and forced labour of civilians; the use of civilians as human shields and mine sweepers; and rape as a war tactic in Shan, Kachin, and Karen States.”

A  Harvard study in 2005 found that “during a military campaign known as “the Offensive,” Myanmar’s army had been attacking civilian areas, destroying food stores, laying land mines in civilian locations, and shooting fleeing civilians. The Myanmar army has also been accused of sexual violence, forced labor, and the use of child soldiers in their campaigns.”

A 2010 BBC documentary stated this: “After interviewing Chin refugees in neighbouring India, [we] concluded that the Chins are subjected to forced labour, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial killings as part of a Burmese government policy to suppress the Chin people and their ethnic identity.”

All those reports and findings of atrocities committed by the military against Karen, Shan, Kachin and Chin minorities were almost identical to recent reports of human rights violations by the military against Rohingyas since 2012. The two differences are a new law in 1982 which effectively denies citizenship to most Rakhine Muslims or Rohingyas, and an extremist Buddhist Rakhine group led by a radical monk Ashin Wirathu that burned down houses and killed up to 100 Muslims in Rakhine in the communal violence in 2012.

The civil war since 1948 has caused between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths of minority combatants and civilians. Almost one million minorities have been internally displaced, with another one and a half million fleeing to refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border over the period. The most affected is the Karen group, with many fleeing the war from Kayin State and Myanmar altogether.

Enmity between Bamars and minority groups went back centuries, when  Bamars, Mon-Khmer, and Arakanese kingdoms fought each other. The hostility was aggravated with those minorities regarding the British as their  liberators in the Anglo-Burmese Wars. The British exploited the ethnic tension by establishing two separate administrative regions after Burma became a British colony: one for the Bamars, another for the Frontier Areas inhabited by the minorities.  The colonial master also recruited the Karens for two separate army battalions. During WW2, the minorities including the Rohingyas fought alongside the British against the Japanese. The Bamars fought alongside the Japanese against the British, with a view to getting rid of the century-old colonial rule.

Like other minorities, Rohingyas were armed by the British to fight against the Japanese in WW2. The British recruited Rohingyas to form V Force, an intelligence unit when they retreated to India in 1942. In the Arakan massacre that year, armed Rohingyas killed 50,000 Buddhist Arakanese for collaborating with the Japanese. About 40,000 Rohingyas were said to have been killed in retaliation.

The British “divide and rule” perpetuated and worsened ethnic tension and strife. America turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the military junta against the minorities. Silence of  the global  media on such human rights violations was deafening until the uprising by Bamars in Rangoon in 1988.

An essay in Dissent Magazine stated this:

“The problem was that the West—namely the United States and Britain—was covertly supportive of Ne Win’s military counterinsurgency program. According to recently declassified CIA documents, members of the U.S. State Department were reassured by Ne Win’s coup. They had feared that U Nu was “losing his grip on the affairs of the nation.” The United States reasoned (as it likely does now) that a Burma divided by ethnic interests would be more apt to fall under China’s influence. If Burma were to be pulled into the “communist orbit”,  all of Southeast Asia could do the same, followed by the Middle East, if not Japan and Europe. What was preferable was a country held tightly together in the dictatorial fist of a man who declared himself to be nonaligned in the Cold War. “

The Myanmar military is an empire unto itself. Even before the coup in 1962, it exercised major influence. Over half a century from 1962 to 2011 when civilian rule was restored under Thein Sein, the military junta controlled every aspect of the government, from the economy it nationalised to stepped up war against the minorities. Atrocities were committed wantonly against many minorities, including Karen, Chin, Kareni, Mon and Rohingya groups. Except for the Rohingyas in recent years, there’s no press coverage of wide-ranging human rights violations against other minorities.

Though the party of Aung San Suu Kyi won majority seats in the legislature, the military or Tatmadaw still controls the key defence, home affairs and border affairs, in addition to one quarter of parliamentary seats which confer on the military veto power over the Constitution. ASSK has limited power to stop the civil war. The remaining minority armed groups which have yet to enter into ceasefire, have responded to ASSK’s call for peace talk. But it remains for the military to honour the ceasefire agreement when it’s reached. And that’s highly uncertain, given the military’s chequered past record. Only when ceasefire holds, can the next stage of negotiations on giving autonomy to the minorities proceed.

It’s pointless and unproductive to blame ASSK for not speaking out against  the atrocities committed by the military. She is powerless to stop it; and she is a politician, not Mother Teresa. It’s political suicide for her to speak out on the atrocities against the minorities, especially during the election campaign last year.

International pressure should be brought to bear on the military. Surgical sanctions can be imposed on the military leaders for a start, from declaring them persona non grata to freezing their foreign bank accounts. Hit them where it hurts most.

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