The historic democratic transition in Myanmar has finally borne fruit for the beleaguered Rohingya people of Rakhine State. The Myanmar government recently announced an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to be led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to investigate the recent violence and human rights situation in this southwestern region of the country.
What does this mean for Myanmar and, more importantly, for the Rohingya?
Following the 2015 parliamentary victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, the appointment of this Commission shows the new government beginning to make efforts towards addressing serious concerns from international observers for human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly against the Muslim Rohingya people.
While there has been much reporting about the communal violence in recent years between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine in Rakhine State, there is too often an omission in these reports of the long history of state and state-supported persecution of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
Conflict between varying ethnic minorities and the dominant ethnic Burmese center has plagued the state since its founding, often called the world’s longest running civil war. At independence from British rule in 1948, Myanmar, then known as Burma, became a patchwork state of 135 different ethnic groups, many of whom lived in the inaccessible jungles and mountains of the periphery.
Just prior to independence, the Burmese founding father General Aung San sought a more inclusive vision for Myanmar, seeking autonomy for a number of ethnic minorities and including representatives from a number of different ethnic and religious minorities on the executive committee of his interim government. This long-term vision, however, died following Aung San’s assassination in 1947. Since then, the relationship between the Burmese and Buddhist dominated government and these peripheral communities has too often been marked by conflict and oppression, especially after the military junta under General Ne Win took power in 1962. Ne Win used the on-going conflict with ethnic minorities, especially the Shan and Kayah who sought greater autonomy, and potential dissolution of the state as justification for his take over. In 1989, the leader of the military government, General Saw Maung, acknowledged that the death toll from 40 years of ethnic strife could be as high as one million.
Though a number of groups suffered under the brutal military government, it is difficult to imagine any faring worse than the nearly 1 million Rohingya, whose identity the government has consistently refused to even acknowledge. As both non-Buddhist and non-Burmese, they were erroneously labeled “illegal Bengali immigrants,” despite evidence existing that the Rohingya lived in the region dating back to the 18th century. The government deployed two military campaigns to Arakan State, now known as Rakhine, the first in 1978 and the second in 1991, to drive these “foreign elements” across the border into Bangladesh. Tactics used during these campaigns included seizure of land, destruction of mosques, mass arrests, and widespread rape.
Following these military operations and continued oppression and violence at the hands of the local border security force known as the Nasaka, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the Naaf River into Bangladesh, where they have lived for years as stateless refugees in camps. Others escaped by boat, attempting to flee to other countries in the region, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many perished at sea, with the UNHCR stating that over 1100 died in 2014 alone, with a further 1000 unaccounted for. Refugees that were lucky enough to reach foreign shores have been dragged back out to sea by the countries’ navies, shot at, sold to human traffickers, or kept indefinitely in grim detention centers, described by reports as “concentration camps”. A number of states, such as Bangladesh, have even refused international aid meant for these refugees.
Their desperate attempts to escape were a result of the brutal existence they led within Myanmar due to state oppression. The Rohingya are denied citizenship, officially since the 1982 Citizenship Law that does not recognize them as one of the 135 indigenous ethnicities of Myanmar, and the right to vote, having been blocked from voting in the recent elections. With denial of their citizenship, they are denied their most basic human rights. Rohingya must receive government permission, often procured through bribes they cannot afford, to travel, get married, have children, or repair their houses of worship. There has even been in place a two-child limit on Rohingya families.
Beginning in June 2012, the Rohingya have been the targets of mob violence at the hands of the neighboring Buddhist Rakhine people. These outbreaks have often discussed by the Myanmar government as communal violence between two equally guilty sides. According to official estimates, 192 Rohingya were killed, though Rohingya organizations say the true number of deaths is over a thousand. The mobs also burned entire villages and forced over 125,000 Rohingya from their homes. Local security forces refused to stop the violence, disarmed the Rohingya of sticks and other rudimentary weapons used to defend themselves, and even, on occasion, assisted the mobs in attacking Rohingya villages and killing their inhabitants. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report referred to this violence as state-supported “ethnic cleansing”. Following this, the Myanmar government prevented aid from being delivered to displacement camps and barred NGOs, such as Doctors without Borders, from Rakhine State.
Despite the hope surrounding the democratization efforts within the country, the end of military rule has thus far meant little to the Rohingya. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, since being freed from house arrest, has remained curiously quiet about the subject, drawing much criticism. She has refused to comment on the violence in Rakhine State in interviews and even refused to say the word “Rohingya”. In June 2016, the government even went so far as to ban officials from using the word “Rohingya”, instructed them to instead say “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State”.
The creation of an Advisory Commission, with the inclusion of local representatives from Rakhine, is a signal that the position of the government may be changing. There is a legitimate fear that this is simply a method for the new government to deflect international criticism over human rights violations in Rakhine State and any recommendations from the Commission will simply be more paper added to a growing pile of unread reports.
But it is an opportunity, especially with the strong international profile of Kofi Annan as its head and the accompanying attention that this appointment carries, for positive change in the lives of many Rohingya who continue to suffer both within Myanmar and as refugees abroad. The Myanmar government should allow the Commission full access to the region and its people in order to fully assess and appreciate the problems on the ground and fulfill its purpose.
The Advisory Commission needs to put the recent violence in Rakhine in the context of the long history of systemic state persecution of the Rohingya. In the short term, Commission should recommend that the Myanmar government remove the many restrictions placed on the Rohingya to allow them freedom of movement and access to humanitarian and medical assistance. For the long term, the Commission must work towards removing the institutional barriers that bar the Rohingya from gaining recognition and full citizenship from the government. Only when all minorities within Myanmar are recognized and treated as equal citizens can this new democracy be truly legitimate.
In his work on the Commission to understand what is happening in Rakhine State, Kofi Annan needs to remember his own words from his 2001 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, “In this new century, we must start from the understanding that peace belongs not only to states or peoples, but to each and every member of those communities. The sovereignty of States must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights.”
These words should ring no less true for the Rohingya.
Harrison Akins is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville