The ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

Written By: Laza Florina

Since August 2017, the world has witnessed the despair of an innocent group of people, whose only fault is they live in the wrong place and at the wrong time, bearing an unwanted identity. It was reported that more than 400.000 Rohingya men, children, and women have fled their homes in order to escape death and persecution. Reports claim that state armed forces have been killing and raping the Rohingya and has set their villages on fire in order to eradicate the minority.

            The Rohingya left with no belongings, but only horrifying memories of murder, rape and arson, all done by those who should have protected them. At least 6.700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five were killed in only one month after the decisive internal conflict erupted in August 2017. In its own defense, Myanmar uses the vail of counterinsurgencies, but nothing can truly explain the massive killings in the region except the wish to expel a minority Muslim who faced discriminations and oppression for decades in the region.

            Moreover, the government claims that the ”defense” operations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state ended in September, but there are still shreds of evidence that contradict their statements. The nature of violence has indeed changed from the bloody attacks and mass-rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and starvation with the purpose of determining the Rohingya leave the country. In other words, while they are promptly declaring they are ready to receive Rohingya returnees, they are, also, making constant pressures to drive them outside the country or prevent them from coming back.

            But who are the Rohingya and how everything started? First of all, the Rohingya are an ethnic minority group of 1 million people (at the begging of 2017) living in the Rakhine state in Myanmar. They have their own language and culture, claiming they are descendants of Arabs and other groups who have been wandering the region for generations. But despite all these, Myanmar doesn’t recognize them as citizens of the state, considering them only illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

            Howsoever, the conflict dates a long time ago during the Second World War, when the Burmese Buddhist population and the Rohingya supported opposite sides. The Rohingya sided with the British colonies to defend their land and way of life since they were the ruling authority at the time. And the Burmese sought support from the Japanese Empire to reclaim the country and end the British rule in the region. In 1962, Myanmar (then called Burma) was taken over by the Burmese Buddhist whose reforms transformed the country in a dictatorial state by getting rid of the constitution and promoting a fundamental Buddhist identity. They even decided to influence the Rohingya reputation by making them the sole enemy of the state with the purpose of creating unity among its citizen against a supposed vital threat.

            The first major event took place in 1978 when the government ordered a massive deportation by forcing about 200.000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military utilizes violent tactics and mass-rape to drive them outside the country’s borders. Later in 1982, the government passed the Citizenship Act which recognized 135 ethnic groups, but no mention of the Rohingya; an action that made a population of 1 million people becomes stateless, even though, their lineage can be traced back on the Burmese territory since the 15th Century.

            In 1991, Myanmar’s military started another campaign literally called “Operation clean and beautiful nation” determining about 250.000 Rohingya to leave for Bangladesh. The truth is that the tensions were perpetual. Another notable case is the one from 2012 when 4 Muslim men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman which determined many nationalists backed by armed forces to attack the Rohingya community by burning their homes and displacing tens of thousands of people again. The persecutions determined the Rohingya to create a militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army which succeeded in launching some small-scale attacks on border police stations since its formation in 2016, but nothing major.

            The tip of the iceberg for the Myanmar-Rohingya relationship was the 25th August 2017 attack that left 12 police officers dead. The government responded by launching numerous bloody attacks on the group, burning entire villages and steadily killing civilians. This is a harsh reality that can be witness form satellite images. This incident sparked the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in recent years. And because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators and closed borders to all foreign journalists, diplomats and most aid organizations in the northern Rakhine state, the current situation cannot be fully assessed.

            The United Nations describes the terrifying events as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, a term that is used to define the world’s most hideous atrocities. In history, it first surfaced in the context of the 1990’s conflict in the former Yugoslavia, but the roots of this notion or who started using it is still a topic of debate.

            However, “ethnic cleansing” has not been recognized as an independent crime under international law. But, the term has been used in resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly and has been acknowledged and indictments of the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), although it wasn’t mentioned by the prosecution. Because the crime wasn’t truly addressed through an international act, the definition and exact actions that shall be qualified as ethnic cleansing. A Commission of Experts was ordered to analyze the situation in the territory of the former Yugoslavia and present a report that describes the violations of international humanitarian law.

            In its final report S/1994/674, the Commission described the coercive practices of ethnic cleansing 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 examples that can be taken into account are as follows: murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem, among others.

            Also, the same Commission of Experts mentioned that these practices can “constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention. “And so, because of the predominantly religious character of the attacks against a Muslim minority in a majority Buddhist country, the recent wave of violation in Myanmar has been phrased as an abominable case of ethnic cleansing by the international community.

            It’s estimated that more than half a million have fled the country risking death at every corner with the hope of finding security and shelter for them and their families. They run away to escape the unlimited rage of the military from a country that sees them only as impure foreign people, a dirty stain in their history. Many fled to Malaysia and Thailand, but most of them ended up on Bangladesh. Recent reports claim that the military has placed landmines at the border with Bangladesh in order to prevent the Rohingya from returning.

            Myanmar’s de facto leader and former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Ky, has barely addressed the attacks after years of failing to defend the Rohingya or make any attempts to reduce the Islamophobia. Therefore, in five decades, the Myanmar government left the Rohingya stateless, terrorized them, destroyed their homes by bulldozing entire villages, removing traces of buildings, wells or vegetation and now they are determined to stop them from coming back.

            Even though the International community has openly condemned Myanmar government’s actions, it completely failed to protect the innocent people of the Rohingya and no sanctions were placed over the country. One thing is certain though, as the need for aid is steadily growing in refugee camps and in other spontaneous settlements, tens of thousands of children are suffering from severe malnutrition while their parents watch them helpless. It is outrageous and unbelievable that something like this can still occur in the 21st Century. Another blood stain was placed on humanity.

Edited By: Rachit Mehrotra

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