In 2011, Myanmar held its first round of decades after fifty years of military rule. Thein Sein, a former military official, took the election claiming 90% of the popular vote. Needless to say, the election was shrouded in controversy.
Despite the controversy, Sein has since been regarded as an innovator and reformer, easing restrictions on freedoms of media, travel, assembly, and speech. As the international community applauded and encouraged the reformation of the government in Myanmar, life for the Rohingya’s in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state found their livelihoods becoming more constricted as the rest of Myanmar began to enjoy marginal freedoms.
The Rohingya are a part of a 4% Muslim minority in majority Buddhist Myanmar. 80% of Myanmar’s million or so Rohingyas live in northern Rakhine, near the state capital of Sittwe and the surrounding villages. The Rohingyas share the western state with the Rakhine Buddhists who have strong lineage in the region and share the official government stance that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, with whom the state shares a border. The government refers to the Rohingya ‘Bengalis’ and even calling them Rohingya in Myanmar is taboo. The Rohingyas status as illegal immigrants was popularized after Ne Win’s military junta enacted the 1982 Citizenship Law which outlined 135 recognized ethnic groups that are native to Myanmar pre-1823. This list did not include the Rohingya. The 1823 cut-off was a result of the British colonial government in India encouraging migration from what is now Bangladesh into Myanmar. Even though Rohingya did migrate from Bangladesh at that time, reports from the British East India Company place Rohingya in Arakan (now Rakhine) at least 25 years before 1823. The denial of citizenship to the Rohingya in 1982 was part of a deliberate effort by Ne Win to cleanse the country of religious minorities, Muslims being the main target.
Since the rise of the military government the Rohingya have systematically been stripped of rights. At the end of a ten day fact-finding mission carried out last month, Yanghee Lee, Myanmar’s UN Envoy, described the situation as ‘deplorable’ and while she congratulated the country in the steps it has made since military rule, she feared “…signs of possible backtracking, which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar's efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights”.
The Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists had been historical adversaries, but over the last two years tit for tat religious violence has worsened the already deep rift between the two ethnicities. In June and October of 2012 riots raged through Rakhine as a result of the rape of a Rakhine woman by a gang of Muslim men, and the subsequent deaths of ten Muslim men at the hands of Raphine Buddhist extremists. Combined Muslims and Buddhists suffered a death toll in the hundreds and displacement in the hundreds of thousands. The government overwhelmingly punished the Rohingya for the outbreak of violence. The Rohingya in Sittwe were largely confined to ramshackle refugee camps on the outskirts of the city. The camps are lined with walls and barbed wire, with the access points being heavily guarded by police and Rakhine security force. As well as those placed in the refugee camps, the Rohingya villagers saw their rights diminish into nothingness. Violence continued throughout 2012 and 2013, culminating in the January 2014 attack on Du Char Yar Tan village, which left 40 Rohingya dead. The deaths were carried out by extremist Rakhine after Rohingya attacked police officers in the village who had come to cover up the murder of three Muslims previously thought to be detained. The government’s official stance on Du Char Yar Tan is that no violence had taken place there, despite reports from witnesses and NGO staff of treating wounded and police taking the bodies of the dead into the mountains for disposal. Violence against Rohingya by the Rakhine has largely been facilitated or covered up by state officials. A month before the 2014 attack, Buddhist extremist group ‘969’ had visited Buddhist shrines in Rakhine, conducting anti-Muslim sermons.
For the most part the Rohingya are denied access to travel, which in turn has severely limited their ability to pursue an education or receive medical attention. After the riots in 2012 Muslims were no long allowed to attend the public University in Sittwe and those already in attendance were expelled. Access to education is even worse for those seeking primary education. According to al Jazeera, 60% of Rohingya age 5-17 have never even been to school. It is even more difficult to attend middle and high schools that are usually far from Rohingya villages. The only state run school in the Sittwe area that Rohingya are allowed to attend is in the village of Thet Kay Pyin. The school is desperately overcrowded (90 children per classroom), lacks educational material, and the three buildings that make up the campus (serving 2,000 elementary through high school students) lack any form of structural integrity. Students sit along wooden benches or on the floor. If the classroom fills up before students arrive, they have to go home. They have no desks or text books and the teacher has only a blackboard to teach from. The school day is divided into morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate the large student population. Because of restrictions on their movement, Rohingya find it difficult if not impossible to find an alternative to the overcrowded school. Educators in Rakhine are overwhelmed partly due to restrictions on fields of study the Rohingya were allowed to participate it (medicine, teaching, engineering, etc.) when they were still allowed to attend the University in Sittwe. As a result, the majority of teachers are Buddhists who avoid teaching in Muslim populated areas.
Another part of Myanmar’s backdoor ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the Rohingya are government restrictions on NGO’s and foreign aid workers. Because of violence in the region and attacks on foreign aid workers, many NGO’s have pulled out. Others have been forbidden from Rakhine for political reasons. After the 2014 attacks on Du Char Yar Tan, Medecines Sans Fronteires (MSF) independently reported treating injured Rohingya after the government had denied the assault. They were expelled from Rakhine. Doctors Without Borders (DWB) also verified that they had treated injured Rohingya in the January attacks and in February 2014 were expelled from Myanmar as well. Doctors Without Borders was the largest supplier of emergency and medical care for the Rohingya people, who, again due to travel restrictions, cannot reach regional hospitals. After DWB was expelled from Myanmar for unfairly supporting ‘Bengalis’, 750,000 people lost access to medical services, Rohingya and Rakhine alike. Fortunately for the Rakhine Buddhists their access to medicine is provided by the state and can be treated in state hospitals by Buddhist doctors who would likely not treat Rohingya patients. Their refugee facilities are remarkably better than those afforded to the Rohingya, with access to school, running water, and electricity, as well as food and medical supplies. In one Rakhine Buddhist refugee camp, each family received a house to live in that was elevated to avoid the frequent flooding. Meanwhile in the Rohingya camps medical supplies dwindle and since DWB was expelled almost 150 Rohingya have died due to poor conditions in their refugee camps and villages. Deaths have included infants and pregnant women who may have survived given even rudimentary medical care. Myanmar says to have sent emergency services to Rakhine after DWB was no longer allowed to operate there, but they lack the supplies and expertise to be able to treat patients in that setting, something that Doctors Without Borders were professionals at.
Restrictions of movement, education, and medical services have all been blatant actions taken out by the government of Myanmar to expel the Rohingya by making life for them so hopeless that the only option would be to relocate. Since June 2012 over 86,000 Rohingya have fled, making dangerous journeys by land and sea hoping to find a country that will take them in. By leaving they run the risk of dying at sea, which hundreds have, becoming the victims of human trafficking, or being arrested by foreign governments and being sent back to Myanmar. Staying in Myanmar they run the risk of starvation, death at the hands of Raphine extremists or becoming sick and withering away, all while the government willingly stands by. The Rohingya people have been beaten down to the point where some claim they find no worth in ambition. All opportunity in their home is denied. They are not allowed education, representation, or immunization. They cannot practice their religion. The government even controls who they marry and how many children the Rohingya can have (2), nor are they allowed to live with women who they are not married to, family excluded. In their first census since 1983, the government has excluded Rohingya from the list of ethnicities, which is adapted from the 1982 Citizenship Law, due to outrage by the Rakhine community. Rohingya explained that when they were asked their ethnicity, if they answered Rohingya, they were dismissed. The fear is that around one million people will be left off of the census data.
Foreign leaders have spoken out against Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya, but have been reserved in their criticism. The international community is afraid that harsh criticism of Myanmar’s government may be a step back in integrating them into the contemporary international order. Myanmar’s democracy is still in its infancy and the Thein Sein is a former military official who received backing from the military while running for office. It’s unclear what the risk is of Myanmar slipping back into military rule, but is a pseudo-democratic Myanmar worth the damning of an entire ethnicity? One million and change call themselves Rohingya and live in Rakhine. And they live in fear of Buddhists.