The Rakhine state, situated on the Western coast of Myanmar, was the setting for a violent campaign against the Rohingya Muslims over the summer of 2017. In what was called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ by the High Commissioner of Human Rights, over 500,000 people belonging to the persecuted Rohingya race were forced to flee their torched villages.
The Rohingya people have not been accepted as citizens of what was formally known as Burma despite evidence of historical ties to the region dating back to the 8th century. Under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law, the Rohingya people are not only regarded as resident Bengali immigrants by default- with restricted freedoms of movement, state education and civil service jobs- but it is also nearly impossible for them to provide the proof needed to acquire a nationality.
This narrative of Rohingya statelessness has been reinforced through various measures. For instance, in July 2012 the Burmese government did not include the Rohingya minority in its census. The use of the term ‘Rohingya’ in formal addresses has also been restricted.
There has been growing hatred towards the Rohingya in Myanmar. Stories of violence and rape perpetrated by this group in the Rakhine have fueled support for punitive action against them amongst the general population, the majority of whom are Buddhist.
The most recent outbreak of violence was sparked by an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group against over 24 security sites that ended up killing 12 people. In retaliation, the Burmese army and militia groups conducted ‘clearance operations’. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh told tales of mass slaughter and arson.
Many questions for the UN have arisen in light of these events. Firstly, how effective has it been in resolving conflict and protecting minorities in these circumstances? On the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan outlined a five-point plan for preventing genocide, based on the Genocide Convention of 1948. Yet the UN has been unable to prevent the violence in this case. Recent reports alleged that the UN Officials in Myanmar did not address the issues that led to the violent attacks against the Rohingya, whilst the UN also reported restricted entry for journalists and aid workers trying to enter the areas affected by the violence. A major reason for the UN’s failings could be the lack of pressure from some of its biggest member nations.
A second questions surrounds the future of the Rohingya. Bangladesh and Turkey have promised to support the refugees, and UN agencies have also delivered aid in the growing camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. But a long-term settlement solution for the Rohingya must be found. As the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator stated: ‘The root causes of this crisis are in Myanmar and the solutions need to be found in Myanmar’.