Rohingya Muslims: Ethnic Cleansing of the World’s Most Persecuted Minority -By Labaran Yusuf

Filed under: Global Issues |


Attacked with impunity, stripped of the vote and driven from their homes, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority of about 1.3 million in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (formerly Burma), are considered as the most persecuted minority in the world.

The Rohingya, according to many historians and Rohingya groups, probably arrived in what was then the independent kingdom of Arakan (now Rakhine) as long ago as the 8th century. They were seafarers and traders from the middle-east and were joined in the 17th century by tens of thousands of Bengali Muslims captured by the raiding Arakanese. “Rohingya” simply means “inhabitant of Rohang”, the early Muslim name for Arakan. The kingdom of Arakan was later conquered by the Burmese army in 1785.

With the British conquest of Arakan in 1825, Arakan and Burma were administered as part of British India. Thousands of labourers from Bangladesh and India migrated to what is now known as Myanmar, and such migration was considered as internal, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW). However, this migration of labourers was viewed negatively by the majority of the native population.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the Burmese government refused to recognise the Rohingya as Burmese citizens. The government viewed the migration that took place during the British rule as “illegal”, and this led many Buddhists to consider the Rohingya offensively as “Bengali”, a recent invention created for political reasons. After the military coup in 1962, things only worsened for the Rohingya, coupled with the fact that they were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue and obtain.

The new citizenship law passed in 1982 effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless, and the government did not recognise them as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country. As a result of the law, their rights of the Rohingya to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services were restricted under successive Burmese military dictators, till date.

Confined to the western coastal state of Arakan (Rakhine), bordering the Bay of Bengal to the west, Bangladesh to the northwest, Burma’s Chin state to the north, and Magwe, Bago, and Irrawaddy Divisions to the east, the Rohingya live in Nazi-like ghetto camps lacking in basic services and opportunities. Arakan is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and the Burmese government denies them freedom of movement without a government permit.

For almost half a century, the Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in droves to escape persecution, with many fleeing to the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations often being reported as becoming victims of gang rapes, torture, arson, infanticide, extrajudicial killings and murder by Myanmar security forces. The UN has described the mass exoduses of the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing”. The crackdowns on them by the security forces in 2012, 2015 and late 2016 were among the most horrifying, with thousands of women, children and the elderly being killed and hundreds of thousands crossing over to Bangladesh, in journeys in which many of the lucky ones drowned in the tortuous passage.

Several international organisations have lashed out at the Myanmar leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who came to power in a historic 2015 election, for denying and defending the army’s crimes against humanity. She has been accused of being complicit in and inciting violence against the Rohingya – who she herself terms as “Bengalis”. Ms Suu kyi, as many have described, is just another war criminal with a Noble Peace award, like others in the mould of Henry Kissinger, Theodore Roosevelt, Shimon Peres, among others, who have been conferred with the prestigious award for political reasons.

The recent crackdown of the past weeks, sparked by attacks on border posts, army bases and police posts in Rakhine state by the newly formed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly known as the Faith Movement, made up of Rohingya villagers armed with homemade weapons who have declared they are obligated to “defend, salvage and protect the Rohingya community”, have led to more persecution of the Rohingya. Over the past few days, more than 290,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh, according to the United Nations and over 1,000 people have been killed in the ensuing violence.

Bangladesh, which hosts many Rohingya refugees, also refuses to recognise them as citizens. The country has often tried to prevent Rohingya refugees from crossing its border and had planned, in the past, to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island that is prone to flooding (it completely floods during the annual monsoon season), which has also been called “unhabitable” by rights groups.

“The Rohingya are probably the most friendless people in the world. They just have no one advocating for them at all,” Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in 2009.

The international community has to intervene to stop an impending Southeast Asian Srebrenica massacre (the annihilation of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims who were meant to be under UN protection), which is still a dark stain on Europe’s human rights record. The Burmese government has to immediately stop its crackdowns in Rakhine and allow UN observers to access and monitor the situation on the ground. Bangladesh has to do more for the refugees escaping violence and persecution. As for the West, the coverage of a humanitarian crisis shouldn’t be with a one-sided passion; the Rohingya crisis has to be addressed equally like other humanitarian crisis, such as that of the Yazidis in Iraq.

Labaran Yusuf, a freelance researcher, wrote from Jos, Plateau State.