The situation in Myanmar has escalated from oppression of the Rohingya people to the onset of a global humanitarian crisis and ethnic cleansing, with international officials calling for investigations for evidence of genocide. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who live in the far western Rakhine state in Myanmar. Years of repression include previous and ongoing deprivation of citizenship by the military state, mass killings, gang rapes of women and children by military officials, and the burning of Rohingya villages. Accounts of families being burned alive by the military have also circulated. The government has long incorrectly classified the Rohingya as “Bengali” immigrants in an effort to justify the denial of citizenship and increasing their vulnerability to attack.
The Rohingya have formed a militia to combat systematic government oppression; however, such efforts have only further escalated the state’s efforts against them. The militia is gaining traction, both from Rohingya who see it as the only alternative to government repression, and from Muslim countries who regard the Rohingya situation as a sort of “Palestine of Southeast Asia.” However, harrowing reports have emerged which include details of the militia attacking and killing Rohingya who they fear to be “informants” and preventing men and boys from leaving the state, which complicates the international community’s response. Furthermore, with civil unrest comes greater concern about the potential for terrorism. There have already been signs of interest in the region from the Islamic State. There have been arrests of multiple men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, and planning to bomb prominent sites across Jakarta, including the Myanmar embassy.
Hundreds of thousands Rohingya have fled Myanmar, with over a million displaced in the region. At border crossings, they face violence from Myanmar’s border guards and, if they pass, they must navigate miles of treacherous trails and flood-swollen streams. Dozens of women and children have been found dead, washed up on river banks. Many Rohingya, if they make it to a refugee camp, face severe dehydration and hunger, yet refugee camps lack enough food and medical help to provide much relief.
Myanmar has rejected allegations of widespread atrocities, asserting that its security forces were simply responding to attacks by Rohingya militants on police posts. The government claims Rohingya militants have torched their own homes in a bid for international sympathy. And the military maintains its current operations in Rakhine state are designed at rooting out “extremist terrorists.” Earlier this year, the UN set up a special commission to investigate another military operation that caused 85,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, but Myanmar’s government has barred the United Nations team from the country. Authorities have blocked access to affected areas, including humanitarian deliveries. Regardless, the commission has said that estimates of 10,000 deaths in the Rakhine campaign were conservative, and cited eyewitness accounts of mass killings, gang rapes of women and young girls, and the wholesale destruction of villages by the military.
The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has previously condemned the army’s actions as ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide. In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime leader of Burmese struggle against the military government, nearly a dozen of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates stressed global action to save the Rohingya. The letter, signed by Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, among others, says, “Some international experts have warned of the potential for genocide. It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies: Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.” The Security Council must act, but it is up to its member states to determine how.