By Ruth Cheriyan
Is Myanmar’s leadership paving its way for
a major civil conflict in the country?
The incident of violence on August 25th where
a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp,
killing about 12 people, has sparked military backlash on the entire Rohingya
community in Myanmar. The violence has continued since then, forcing families
to flee their homes and villages. If escaping from their own land wasn’t
enough, the agony experienced by the community increased when neighbouring
countries now threaten to deport them once they reach foreign soil.
The Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim
minority, currently from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, who practice a
Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. They trace their origins in the
country to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former
Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries when Rakhine was governed by the colonial rule as part of British
The belief of Rohingyas being just illegal
immigrants from Bangladesh, and not a true separate ethnicity, has justified
the denial of citizenship for the Rohingyas who lived in Rakhine before the
recent crisis. The predominantly Buddhist country has a long history of
communal mistrust, which was allowed to simmer, and was at times exploited,
under decades of military rule.
The estimated number of Rohingyas who have
fled Rakhine to Bangladesh are estimated to be 400,000. The recent violent
protest to stop a boat being loaded with 50 tonnes of aid at a dock in Rakhine
is a testament to rising communal animosity in the region where even the
delivery of vital supplies has brought people of the region out with sticks,
metal bars and petrol bombs.
The violence and the exodus of refugees
has brought international condemnation and raised questions about the
commitment of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to human rights. Aung San Suu
Kyi, the historic figurine of persistence and democratic conclusion, has
refused to speak on the Rohingya crisis except for a vague statement about
condemning the violence. She did not clarify the issue further or give a
solution to the impending tension in Rakhine. She has also refused to publicly
urge restraint from the military. The Myanmar army, on the other hand, denies
the accusations and instead insists its operations are a proportional response
to the raids by Rohingya militants in August, this year.
Although the military stepped down from
outright Junta rule in 2011, it kept control of security policy and key levers
of government. It is evident that the delicate power-sharing arrangement between
her and the military has put Aung San Suu Kyi in the crossfire.
The United Nations high commissioner for
human rights, has called the violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Suu Kyi did not attend the UN General Assembly held in New York this week. At
the General Assembly, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari likened the violence
in Myanmar to genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, while Turkish President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan cited the international community’s failure in Syria. The UN
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the Rohingya community as one
of the most “excluded, persecuted, and vulnerable communities in the world.”
It is necessary that Suu Kyi works towards
balancing the world’s opinion of Myanmar’s young democracy, as well as the
Islamaphobic anti-Rohingya mind-set in the country. Myanmar’s leadership needs
to show that the democracy they fought so hard for can work for all the people
of Myanmar, beyond ethnic, social and religious boundaries. True democracy
calls for equal representation, equal treatment and equal distribution of
It is imperative for Suu Kyi and other
governmental leaders to address the issue unambiguously and not delay further
as they are on a ticking bomb. A few independent Rohingya groups have already
started to retaliate and there have been reports of recruiters from terrorist
organisations in the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, trying to tap into the
injustice done to this community. This situation could therefore potentially turn
into another Sri Lankan civil conflict.
About the Author
Ruth Cheriyan currently works at MitKat as
a Research Analyst in the Information Services. She completed her Masters in
International Studies at Christ University, Bangalore and also holds a Bachelor’s
degree in Economics from St. Xavier’s, Ahmedabad.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog are of the author and do not represent those of MitKat. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.