The Rohingya in Burma – A problem Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to overcome?

17 November 2016


The Rohingya people of Rakhine State in Burma have been described as the most persecuted people on Earth, with the Muslim minority being consistently denied basic human rights in spite of the ongoing democratic reform in Burma. An attack on police outposts in the Maungdaw township of the state which resulted in the deaths of nine police officers last month has renewed violent military offences with allegations of misconduct coming in thick and fast. The heightening of this conflict presents questions on both whether its resolution is truly something the NLD civilian government (headed by State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi) is equipped to achieve, and additionally if they even have any appetite to address this issue.

There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine state, with extremely limited mobility and no prospects of achieving Burmese citizenship. The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law effectively denied the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring citizenship, as Burmese law does not recognize their ethnic minority status (in spite of the Rohingya’s historic presence in Rakhine state). Indeed, the Rohingya experience of alienation and statelessness in Burma certainly helps them merit the title of ‘the most persecuted minority in the world.’ In February 2015 the then Military junta backed President revoked all the Temporary Registration Cards (‘white cards’) from the Rohingya, taking away their only identity document. To make matters worse the ‘white cards’ are the very documents the minority required in order to cast a vote. Therefore in last year’s election not only was no Muslim candidate in general on any ballots, but more than one million of the Rohingya minority who had been rendered stateless found themselves ineligible to vote. This ethnic minority was therefore denied any role or representation in what would be a historic day of potential new beginnings for the rest of Burma.

Whilst in opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party did remarkably little to advocate for the Rohingyas. The Nobel laureate State Councillor in particular has come into much criticism for failing to speak up for the Rohingya population. Her silence after the 2012 riots in Rakhine state that forcibly displaced 125,000 Rohingya, with many violently losing their lives at the hands of Buddhist and Arakanese nationalists, angered many other human rights activists. Many argued that Suu Kyi was prioritising her political ambitions and referred to her denial of ethnic cleansing as ‘chilling’. However, it cannot be refuted that Buddhists make up 90% of Burma and compassion toward plight of the Rohingya amongst this majority is scarce. This of course means that coming out in firm support of the group could have cost the NLD significant electoral support. Consequently, it was hoped by many that Aung San Suu Kyi was simply being tactful before she and her party came into power.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Reuters
Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Reuters

Unfortunately, her government’s actions and stance toward the minority group in the time since they democratically won power has somewhat shattered this hope. On numerous occasions it instead seems the regime has the intent to sidestep the issue rather than face it head on. When addressing the Rohingya citizen registration issues, for example, suggestions that they could register without listing ethnicity or religion angered many Rohingyas who consider these details pivotal parts of their citizenship and identity. Little progress has been made in affording the Rohingya citizenship and the government continues to try to address issues pertaining to the minority group. The State Councillor even went as far to urge the UN to no longer use the term ‘Rohingya’ as it was too ‘controversial’ whilst on a visit to the U.S last September.

The regime’s reaction to the spike in violence since the middle of last October does however indicate a more robust and antagonistic approach moving forward. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on police outposts the government forces declared Maungdaw an ‘operation zone’, restricting access to the area by journalists and human rights monitors. This has severely hindered the collection of impartial fact finding and raises worrying concerns of a repeat of the riots that killed many Rohingya’s in 2012. Those journalists who have managed to cover some of the alleged violations in spite of these restrictions have felt the repercussions, with one journalist for the Myanmar Times losing her job for a story on the military sexually abusing Rohingya women. This naturally also raises issues regarding the validity of freedom of speech in Burma.

Since the increase in hostilities last October, Burma’s security forces have been accused of involvement in extra judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, destroying people’s homes and sexual violence. The latter of these allegations has been supported by the testimonies of Rohingya women to Reuters, with eight of them describing in detail how soldiers raided their homes, looted their property and raped them at gun point. One of the woman interviewed stated: “They took me inside the house. They tore my clothes and they took my head scarf off.” With the added issue of restricted access, it is difficult for human rights groups and aid organisations to get a full picture of the scale of the conflict, but the very fact these groups are being denied access raises serious cause for concern. On top of this, the Presidential spokesman’s accusations that the affected residents are fabricating the allegations as part of a conspiracy led by insurgents whose tactics he likened to IS, again suggests apathy and resistance to act. The recent and historic persecution of the Rohingya should be reason enough to take these allegations more seriously, and the demonization of these victims is equally worrying.

All of the limited actions that the NLD regime has thus far taken, as well as the state authorities actions it has condoned further indicates there is next to no appetite to stand up for the Rohingya or curtail their persecution. In August, hopes were raised at the announcement of a formation of an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. However, much optimism has been dashed with the composition of the commission failing to include even one Rohingya and being filled with those closely aligned to the government and nationalists traditionally hostile to the Rohingya. Anxieties over the impartiality and value of the commission are understandable, given the irony of Rohingyas being alienated from an enquiry that is supposed to improve their situation. Suu Kyi’s government has additionally done next to nothing to reign in the antagonistic approach of the Rakhine State authorities. In an interview soon after the resurgence in violence the executive secretary of the Rakhine State government said: “We must protect our national interests and these Muslims are not part of that. We don’t care what you foreigners think. We must protect our land and our people, humanitarian concerns are a secondary priority.” With such hostility from a high ranking state official illustrates the steep reconciliation task Suu Kyi is faced with, and the absence of a prominent government counter narrative to this further diminishes optimism that those in power will deliver reform.

The affected Rakhine State in red.
The affected Rakhine State in red.

Instead this evident ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative is simply becoming further entrenched. A recent policy in Rakhine state of arming and training non-Muslim residents in the north of Rakhine to counter ‘Islamic extremism’ is a ripe example of this. The new ‘regional police’ are exclusively citizens, inhibiting Rohingyas from participating and will have the likely effect of empowering some who still view the Muslim minority group as imposters in their country. This arming of civilians has already stoked fears of another bloody conflict similar to that which occurred in 2012. Indeed, such a reoccurrence does not seem inconceivable, given that democratic reform has thus far done little to improve the Rohingya situation or even temper volatile attitudes toward them.

As things stand, there is little to be optimistic about with regards to the treatment of the Rohingya. Burma may have democratically elected a government intent on reform, but it is evidently not interested in addressing the plight of the Rohingya minority.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

To read more about HART’s work in Burma please click here.


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