With a growing population of over 53 million, Myanmar is the 26th largest nation in the world. Recently, that number dropped by thousands and continues to fall each day. Located south of China, Myanmar (also known as Burma) holds claim to a diverse group of ethnicities, but not all of whom are welcomed openly. In an act of ethnic cleansing, the Burmese militia is persecuting a minority group of Muslims known as the Rohingya. In the past three weeks alone, over 400,000 Rohingya have been forced out of Myanmar, with the death count rising above 1,000.
The Rohingya descended from the Arakan, who lived in what is now the Rakhine state of west Burma long before the Bamar took control. For centuries, the Rohingya have been persecuted, thought of as illegal immigrants by the larger Bamar group. While some fled due to violence, many stayed in the land of their ancestors. Currently, Burma’s government does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, denying them many public services, such as free movement and access to health care.
The current conflict escalated late August when the Myanmar Army announced that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked border police posts and killed 12 officials. However, ARSA argues that they were defending the Rohingya against government officials who were raping and killing civilians, with 59 Rohingya dead from this attack.
Over the past few weeks, the Myanmar Army has started a crackdown in the Rakhine region, burning down villages, looting homes, and executing civilians without any official legal process. Despite ARSA’s call for a ceasefire, the military continues to press on with their actions. Many countries, including the U.S., have issued statements condemning the Burmese government, particularly for their leader’s lack of action in stopping the violence,
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been known for her dedication to democratic ideals. Although she could not legally become the President of Myanmar because of her foreign husband, Suu Kyi won the 2015 election in an overwhelming victory. As a result, she was appointed to a new position called the State Counsellor. Still, most of the power remains in the militia, and Suu Kyi could lose office for opposing their campaign.
In her most recent speech, Suu Kyi claimed that the government is working to maintain peace, but she failed to acknowledge the atrocities of the military on civilians.
“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” Suu Kyi said. “We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state.”
While her words seem to be reassuring, she holds onto the belief that the military is only targeting members of ARSA despite evidence from the United Nations showing the plight of the refugees. Suu Kyi has turned a blind eye to the mass exodus and refuses to admit to the public education and health issues in Rakhine.
Internationally, support for the Rohingya is widespread. Neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and India have taken in refugees, and the United Nations General Assembly called for an end to the violence. In spite of this, Myanmar’s government has support domestically and abroad. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, who holds good relations with Myanmar, stated that China will help defend Burma’s national security.
Inside the country, Burmese citizens have applauded the government’s actions, viewing the situation as protection against a foreign enemy. Similar to historical instances of ethnic cleansing, a wave of nationalism is sweeping across Myanmar with ordinary citizens joining the military in scorching the Rohingya’s land.
The future of the Rohingya remains unclear. Perhaps international pressure on Myanmar will allow the refugees to return to their homeland, or maybe they will be forced to settle in new lands. Regardless, the tragedy in Myanmar is not to be taken lightly.