The world today faces a reemergence of violent conflict, giving rise to historically high levels of forced displacement and humanitarian need. The World Bank acknowledges forced displacement as a global development crisis, where “95% of refugees and internally-displaced people live in developing countries” (World Bank).
In Myanmar/Burma, the military has launched a large-scale ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim population, causing more than 650,000 Rohingya to fled to neighboring Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries to escape mass killings, sexual violence, arson, and other abuses by the security forces (Jorge Silva). Meanwhile, another million continue to live unrecognized as citizens and heavily restricted in Myanmar/Burma, with 120,000 residing in internal displacement camps (Pugh, Cresa).
For nearly 50 years, the population of Rakhine State in Myanmar/Burma has struggled under repressive military rule, and ethno-religious tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have persisted for generations (Matthew Smith). Many Rakhine feel threatened by the Muslim population and oppressed by the central government. They have been intent on forcing the Rohingya out of what they regard as their exclusive ancestral homeland. These tensions have fueled significant waves of violence and well-coordinated arson attacks in Rohingya state since 2012, targeting the Rohingya population and other Muslim minorities. State security forces have simultaneously participated in violence against Rohingya and failed to protect their communities from attack (Aung Than Win). 2017 marked Myanmar’s/Burma’s first full year under a democratically elected civilian government led by the National League for Democracy, along with leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Jorge Silva). However, this democratic transition has not brought improvement to the conditions faced by the Rohingya. The military still remains the primary power-holder in the country, allowing them to displace and abuse civilians (Albert&Chatzky).
The situation in Rakhine State has deteriorated, and the attacks there have created one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee outflows. This situation emphasizes the increasing importance of meeting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” On the contrary, the government of Myanmar gives a special position to Buddhist faith, and has indeed abused religion for political reasons. Local authorities have prevented Muslims from conducting prayer services at religious facilities and the government has continued to subject religious ceremonies to security regulations and other forms of control (United States Department of State). Indeed, all public religious celebrations require prior written permission (United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy).
The ethnic violence and discrimination faced by the Rohingya has drawn many reactions from a variety of stakeholders. The Islamic world is very concerned and has not only condemned the “ethnic cleansing campaign” but also sent aid to the Rohingyas (Abrar). The international community as well as regional actors have acknowledged the systematic persecution of the Rohingya, stating that “the government of Burma/Myanmar must uphold its responsibility to protect all populations, regardless of their ethnicity”(C.R. Abrar). Moreover, the UN Human Rights Council has been refused access to the state by the Myanmar/Burma government (Human Rights Watch). Furthermore, after visiting the region, the UN High Commissioner addressed serious humanitarian issues relating to poverty, exclusion, and citizenship, and urged Buddhist and Muslim communities to work together, claiming, “by learning to live together in peace, you can lay the groundwork for prosperity and development”(Refugees International). The Burmese government’s weak efforts to stop this humanitarian crisis have also kept them in the UN’s “list of shame”, mainly due to sexual abuses by the military (Bauchner, Shayna). Similarly, in February 2016, the U.S. Secretary of State redesignated Myanmar as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) and the Rohingya in Rakhine state have been categorized by the UN as the most persecuted minority in the the world (HR Council).
Considering how widely condemned the situation in Myanmar is, it is important to discuss not only the issue but potential solutions and approaches. On February 2019, the UNHCR launched a new action plan for Rohingya refugees. They seek to raise 920 million USD to fund the extreme needs for more than 900,000 refugees from Myanmar and over 300,000 Bangladeshis in host communities (UNHCR). Bangladesh became an important actor when it opened its borders to the displaced Rohingyas and allowed UN agencies and NGOs to provide humanitarian aid, saving many lives (UN News). Forced displacement must therefore be addressed with collective action. A stronger collaboration with humanitarian, development, and security partners is critical to foster stability, peace, and justice for Rohingya refugees (SDG 16).
“Conflict starts with misunderstanding” (Benedict Rogers). This observation is particularly relevant today in Myanmar/Burma where years of propaganda against Muslims have created a widespread distrust between communities. It is important for Buddhist monks and Muslim clerics to build trust-based relationships to counter religious intolerance. This would facilitate a dialogue and begin breaking down misunderstandings at a community level. These kinds of efforts by local and global religious leaders are crucial for addressing religious- and ethnic-driven conflicts.
However, the crisis can ultimately only be resolved if the Myanmar government, who has the primary responsibilities of protecting the Rohingya, respecting their rights, ending violence, and cooperating with international actors to provide humanitarian assistance. The Myanmar government has already faced immense international pressure to follow through on these directives, but has complied very little. The pressure must continue and strengthen, and international humanitarian assistance must continue to help those still being affected.
Abrar C.R. NTS Policy Brief. Multilevel approaches to human security and conflict management: The Rohingya case. (May 2013). Retrieved from http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/rsis/nts/HTML-Newsletter/Policy-Brief/pdf/PO1303.pdf
Albert, Eleonor. Chatzky, Andrew. The Rohingya Crisis. Council on Foreign Relations. (December 2018). Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis
Aung Than Win. Policies of Persecution. Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Fortify Rights. (February 2014). https://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Policies_of_Persecution_Feb_25_Fortify_Rights.pdf
Bauchner, Shayna. Myanmar on “Shame List” in UN Report on Countries that Have Committed Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. (april 2018)
Human Rights Council. Human Rights Council opens special session on the situation of human rights of the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State in Myanmar. (december 2017) https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22491&LangID=E
Human Rights Watch. UN Security Council: Refer Myanmar to ICC
(May 2018) Retreived from www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/08/un-security-council-refer-myanmar-icc
Pugh, Cresa. I visited the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and here is what I saw. (June 2018) theconversation.com/i-visited-the-rohingya-camps-in-myanmar-and-here-is-what-i-saw-94202
Refugees International. A Continuing Humanitarian Tragedy: Ongoing Abuses and Oprression against the Rohingya in Myanmar (July 2017). Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/506c8ea1e4b01d9450dd53f5/t/5965498b20099e497f9a66fb/1499810189285/Policy+Brief+1.1.pdf
Rogers, Benedict. Religious Intolerance, Ethnic Cleansing and Crimes Against Humanity in Burma. (February 15, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/blog/religious-intolerance-ethnic-cleansing-and-crimes-against-humanity-in-burma
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UNHCR. United Nations Seeks US920 Million for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis in 2019. (February 15, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.ca/news/un-seeks-us920-mil-rohingya-crisis-2019/
United States Department of State. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Burma 2015 International Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/256305.pdf
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