Myanmar is currently in the throes of a massive humanitarian crisis. Thousands of ethnic Rohingya are fleeing persecution. Boarding overcrowded boats (and often enduring horrific conditions), they’re going to countries scarcely able to help them — or in some cases, frankly, not interested in helping them.
How did this happen?
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Many of their enemies refuse to acknowledge that the Rohingya are an ethnically distinct group. They claim instead that the Rohingya are Bengali and that their presence in Myanmar is the result of illegal immigration (more on that later). The Rohingya, for their part, claim to be pre-colonial residents of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Middle East Institute explains, with the earliest known appearance of the term Rohingya in 1799.
Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?
The Rohingya face violence and lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. They live in “apartheid-like conditions” due to, among other things, Myanmar’s refusal to recognize them as citizens. But this is nothing new. Between May 1991 and March 1992, more than 260,000 Rohingya fled the country over “human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military, including the confiscation of land, forced labor, rape, torture, and summary executions,” the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights wrote in a 2013 report.
OK, but if it’s been going on almost 25 years, why is everyone talking about it now?
While this problem isn’t new, it’s gotten demonstrably worse in recent years.
Myanmar’s 2010 transition from a military-led government to a somewhat more democratic system led to some of the worst violence against Muslims. The national government has tacitly permitted the rise of the 969 movement, a group of Buddhist monks who employ “moral justification for a wave of anti-Muslim bloodshed,” Reuters reports. Since 2012, roughly 140,000 Rohingya have fled northwestern Myanmar amid deadly fighting with the majority Buddhists.
Why is there so much animosity toward the Rohingya?
As is the case in many modern conflicts, Western colonialism is a major culprit behind the current unrest in Myanmar.
In 1826, Britain annexed what’s now the northwest part of the country, as well as the region that’s currently home to most of Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya Muslims. Due to the British colonial government’s lax immigration laws at the time, Bengali Muslims flooded into the region. And the British installation of South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of the new colonial territory displaced Burmese Buddhist peasants. It’s had an enduring legacy, as the Economist explains:
“Over the decades [the Rohingya], without legal or any other sort of protection, have been the victims of wanton discrimination and violence by both the virulently anti-Muslim Rakhines, a Buddhist ethnic group, and agents of the central government. One of the few things Rakhines and members of the ethnic Burmese majority have in common is a shared hatred of the ‘Bengalis,’ a label they both apply to Rohingya with contempt.”
Add to that a failed Rohingya secessionist uprising between 1948 and 1961, persistent fears of Islamic encroachment on Buddhists and a 1982 citizenship law “essentially legitimizing discrimination against the Rohingya,” according to the Middle East Institute.
Why don’t nearby countries take them in?
The obvious candidates to house displaced Rohingya have appeared unwilling or unable to provide permanent homes for them.
Malaysia and Indonesia have turned away Rohingya by the hundreds because the countries claim they are financially unable to accept them. “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here,” Malaysia’s deputy home minister remarked recently. The Thai navy has similarly rebuffed the refugees.
Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation, had informally harbored the Rohingya for years — only to order them out of border camps in recent days. That’s not surprising; it’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a fragile government and economy.
Why doesn’t the Myanmar government do something about this?
Good question. It’s one that the Dalai Lama, President Barack Obama, the U.S. State Department and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all asked. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called the violence against Rohingya a “slow genocide.” Billionaire George Soros has compared it to Nazism.
Put simply, positioning oneself against the Buddhist majority is considered a risky political move. Myanmar President Thein Sein’s office previously issued a statement referring to the rabidly anti-Rohingya 969 movement as “just a symbol of peace.” Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar, has been conspicuously quiet on the issue.
Amy Tennery is a home page editor on Reuters.com.