The Rohingya have been named “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations, following a wave of atrocities unseen since genocides in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
The Rohingya are an ethnic group, primarily Muslim (though a small number are Hindu) in majority-Buddhist Myanmar (formerly Burma). Although a small Muslim population has lived in what used to be Arakan State for centuries, the influx of Bengali Muslims during the British colonial rule tripled the country’s Muslim population.
Mass executions, rape and the burning of hundreds of villages by security forces have sparked a huge wave of Rohingya
people fleeing the violence to nearby Bangladesh
The Burmese people largely resented what they saw as an incursion of uninvited workers. After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the state authorities refused to recognize the Rohingya identity – a name adopted by a group of the descendants of both Arakan State Muslims and later migrants to Burma. The Rohingya were excluded from the Myanmar constitution and in 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that denied the Rohingya people citizenship.
To this day, the Rohingya are considered non-citizens and illegal immigrants. Not being recognized under the law, they lack basic rights such as access to social services or education, and their movement outside of Rakhine State is closely restricted. Myanmar has also imposed strict regulations that restrict the Rohingya from marrying and having children.
But the persecution of the Rohingya has never been limited to legal means only. Violent, large-scale crackdowns targeted toward the Rohingya – like Operation King Dragon in 1978, and Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991 – forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee Burma into Bangladesh.
Some Rohingya have put up violent resistance – in August 2017 a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army encampment, triggering the most recent, and arguably most vicious, wave of anti-Rohingya persecution. Mass executions, rape and the burning of hundreds of villages by security forces have sparked a huge wave of Rohingya people fleeing the violence to nearby Bangladesh. Before the 2017 crisis, an estimated 1 million Rohingya people were living in Myanmar. Since then, over 723,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh, and at least 10,000 have been killed.
The International Court of Justice Proceedings
In November, Gambia filed a lawsuit with the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, accusing the security forces of Myanmar of their cruel and vicious crackdown on the Rohingya. In December, the ICJ held its first hearings in the case that will determine whether Myanmar bears state responsibility for genocide.
The hearings transfixed the world, not least because Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar’s leader, was the key defender of her country’s actions.
The UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported atrocities that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law” and that could constitute a genocide
Her key line of defense was that her country’s security forces had simply acted in retaliation to coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents and that the alleged atrocities were not a planned effort to eliminate the Rohingya minority (a necessary condition for a crime to be classified as genocide). “If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s defense services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system in accordance with Myanmar’s constitution,” she told the court.
However, cynical arguments surfaced as well, causing much outrage among the international community and media. It has been claimed, for example, that the Rohingya set their own homes on fire in a bid to obtain sympathy and aid from international, and especially Islamic, community; that their incarceration in the camps surrounded by barbed wire is for their own “protection”; that the cases of widespread military sexual violence were unbelievable because Rohingya women are too “dirty” to rape.
Nonetheless, already in 2018, The UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported atrocities that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law” and that could constitute a genocide. The report highlighted, contrary to Suu Kyi’s claims, “the level of organization indicating a plan for destruction; and the extreme scale and brutality of the violence“. It said estimates of 10,000 deaths took place in the Rakhine campaign and cited harrowing witness accounts of mass killings, gang rapes of women and young girls and the wholesale destruction of villages by the military.
What next for the Rohingya?
The ICJ says the decision will be handed down on January 23, but however the court rules, the order can be appealed and it could take years to complete the case. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya are squeezed into overflowing camps in Bangladesh, where the living conditions are appalling, human trafficking is rife, and the Rohingya have even been killed by landslides and even rampaging elephants.
But despite these intolerable conditions, Myanmar looks worse to many refugees, who still fear violence and often have little to come back to – many villages have been bulldozed and new power stations, government buildings and military and border guard bases have been quickly erected on lands emptied by ethnic cleansing. As a consequence, according to the Myanmar immigration authorities’ figures, from May 2018 to May 2019, only 185 Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh, out of almost three-quarters of a million.
In August 2017 a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army encampment, triggering the most recent, and arguably most vicious, wave of anti-Rohingya persecution
The deplorable situation the Rohingya face constitutes a serious humanitarian challenge. Although the ICJ ruling will surely be a highly publicized event, it will be largely symbolic as the court does not have any enforcement powers. Therefore, regardless of what the court decision might be, practical and immediate solutions are necessary. The international community should step up to increase pressure on Myanmar to facilitate their safe repatriation, support local NGOs in humanitarian relief operations, and/ or take in the Rohingya as refugees.
Amani Shahan a political risk analyst currently advising on geopolitical risk in the Middle East to companies in the private sector. She has been ghostwriting articles for 3 years for publications discussing current events and global politics, giving her perspective as both a Muslim and political analyst. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.