Report: Written by Ella Franceys.
In the wake of several violent clashes this month in Rakhine state, it seems more poignant than ever to address the historical discrimination faced by the Rohingya Muslims.
Since 2008, Myanmar (otherwise known as Burma), has undergone a pivotal period of political transformation. The world anticipated peace, diplomacy and transparent politics in the South Asian nation. However the endless conflict between ethnicities rooted in archaic prejudice and discrimination makes this a quixotic pipedream. In particular, the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to structural violence amounting from a century of hate fuelled ethno-propaganda from an autocratic Burmese government.
Currently 140,000 Rohingya Muslims live in abject and squalid conditions in Internal Displaced Persons Camps. Thousands more have been killed in attacks depicted by the media as spontaneous clashes initiated by the Islamic minority. However, in reality, reports from inside Rakhine repeatedly describe aggressive state brutality against a community with no capacity to defend themselves.
The current spate of violence began in 2012, where 2000+ homes were torched and hundreds killed. Inside reports describe alarming physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon the Islamic community, by ‘security forces (who) orchestrate killings, rape and mass arrest’. Disturbingly, the state have been known to invite Rakhine residents to partake in the terror by providing transport and refreshments to those willing to assault their Islamic neighbours. How has a government been able to viciously target a community without national condemnation? This is where the problem manifests into a greater question of poverty and identity.
Geographically isolated and politically siloed, the state of Rakhine is one of the poorest regions in Myanmar. Communities suffer famines and poor water supply, alongside political and economic suppression. This poverty has exacerbated tensions between different ethnic groups, as the Rohingya are repeatedly blamed for the region’s problems. This ‘fear of the other’ rhetoric has enabled Rakhine residents to comprehend their suffering, justifying their hardship by accusing the Rohingya of being responsible for their misfortune.
This scapegoating was created and exaggerated by the Myanmar government, who vehemently pursue a rhetoric of migration, accusing the Rohingya of seeking illegal asylum from Bangladesh. Rooted in the punitive 1982 Citizenship Law, they have been denied identity cards, renouncing their right to movement, political activism, wages, or purchase power.
Entrenched bigotry has become a normative characteristic of legislation since, reifying Burmese nationalism and oppressing ethnic traditions of minorities. State media also claims the Rohingya receive an unfair proportion of both international aid and support from global terror groups, which has stirred up rancour and suspicion from other impoverished communities.
With this desperate atmosphere of terror and resentment, the government has been able to commit to a mission of ethnic cleansing, with support of a fearful, confused population desperate for any solace from their poverty. With 1.3 million people denied any human rights, it is clear that the Rohingya are facing genocide, with first their freedoms diminished, and now their lives.
Contemporary discourse in the development sector has been tentative in using lexis which may depict the extreme violence as mass extermination. The appellation of genocide onto a situation forces a more urgent, emergency response from development bodies, many who remain cautious to intervene in this conflict because of the convoluted involvement of the state, who they remain cautious to annoy.
Our NGO insider identified this as a major problem, telling us of the difficulties of implicating humanitarian aid due to the government’s disdain of aid reaching the Rohingya. Development is slow and arduous, with arbitrary detentions and stop searches inflicted on international aid programmes, with donations known to be intercepted by corrupt officials. Organisations who use terms such as genocide are less likely to be admitted, as the government tries to keep the scale of the extermination programme clandestine. NGO’s must tread cautiously and not rock the boat, or face expulsion from the state.
The desire for absolute power has driven central government to assume despotic control over its residents. By utilizing identity based politics, the state has cemented divisions, using propaganda and fear of the other to sustain dominance and to undermine ethnic agency and the capacity for communities to assert independence. The Rakhine people instead transmute their despair onto the Rohingyas, inflicting violence upon them, accepting the state’s decision in forcing Muslims into sub-human IDP camps.
The International Crisis Watch has named the Rohingya ‘the most persecuted group in the world’. This conflict is rooted in decades of inflammatory government policy calculated to systematically exterminate the Islamic minority. It cannot be considered a symmetric, equally fought conflict, or a mutual discord of any sorts.
It is time for key development players like the UN to incorporate the lexis of genocide and ethnic cleansing into international debate, to highlight the troubling circumstances faced by the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Without admitting to the severity of the crisis, the government’s actions will remain unchallenged, and we will face an imminent destruction of a centuries old community.
We can only begin to support the Rohingya people by acknowledging the annihilation they face every day. Only by resorting to a lexis of genocide and ethnic cleansing will we begin to realise the severity of the situation, and catalyse words into action.