Hundreds and thousands of people trapped in crude camps forced out of Myanmar, a country where they are denied basic human rights and not even recognized as citizens by the government. This is the current situation of the Rohingya people living in Bangladesh as refugees. In August 2017, a small Buddhist militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked Myanmar police posts and an army base, killing dozens. According to the New York Times, the military quickly retaliated, torching villages and destroying the homes of civilians. A mass exodus condemned by foreign countries as “ethnic cleansing” ensued, with 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh.
Yet, the Myanmar government is now wanting the Rohingya to return, preparing rows of barracks as housing. Officials claim the government’s “goodwill” in welcoming the Rohingya Muslims back into the state. Supporting them is India, who recently built 250 houses in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and handed them over to the government last Thursday as part of a larger $25 million development plan to help the Rohingya return. These houses, which are in the villages of Shwe Zar, Kyein Chaung Taung and Nant Thar Taung, displays India’s increased development in the region in recent years. India views the Rohingya refugee crisis from both a humanitarian and security perspective. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, India shares Myanmar’s concern of extremist violence in Rakhine state and discussed the need for “safe, speedy, and sustainable” return of the refugees to the Rakhine state during the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Myanmar in May 2018. India has also been providing aid to the Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps.
However, activists are sceptical about the impact of development projects without addressing human rights issues in the region as well. The Rohingya Muslims have long endured persecution in the Rakhine state of Myanmar from the Buddhist majority. When many of the Rohingya used to live in the Rakhine state, they were discriminated against, and many tried to escape to other countries using makeshift boats. According to the New York Times, examples of human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya include mass rape, murders, and forced evacuation of their homes into concentration camps. The government turned a blind eye to these violations, even refusing to use the term “Rohingya” in political settings.
Responses from the international community to these infringements on human life and dignity include the United Nations Human Rights Council’s public condemnation of the Myanmar government’s apathetic attitude. Individual countries have also called out Myanmar for its behaviour, including the U.S.. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders are trying to raise awareness and help the Rohingya remaining in the Rakhine state through medical treatment, food, and other basic needs. Groups have also focused aid directly into the Bangladeshi camps. BRAC, Action Against Hunger, and other organizations are providing food and water as well as physical and mental health services.
Despite eyewitness accounts and international condemnation, the government continues to deny the ongoing genocide of the Muslim minority, even to the extent of blocking human rights groups from aiding them. Because Buddhism is at the core of many Myanmar citizens’ identity, political and religious leaders have claimed that Muslims are a “threat” to Myanmar’s traditional society and identity. By appealing to traditionalist language and symbols, these distorted claims have been nurtured by the propagation of propaganda through speeches made by monks, leaflets, and newspaper stories, further justifying violence used against the Rohingya minority. The accumulation of economic, social, and political isolation has angered some Rohingya to militantly organize themselves, and the Buddhist majority have exaggerated these acts of rebellion to prove their points about the dangers of the Rohingya to Myanmar peace.
India’s recent action in helping build repatriation centres in the Rakhine state seems to exhibit a concrete effort in responding to the crisis. With better infrastructure in the region, the Rohingya Muslims may be able to rebuild their lives in Myanmar. The Myanmar government also seems hopeful about repatriation processes and have further given Indian authorities a list of 21 additional projects to invest in, including schools and marketplaces. However, India’s development in Rakhine poses a danger of validating the government’s biased narrative regarding the crisis. The New York Times reports that the Myanmar government claims that the Rohingya Muslims burned down their own homes to garner global sympathy and left the country of their own agency. This official narrative from the government reveals a continued denial to assume responsibility for Rohingya persecution by the military. Without acknowledgement of the truth, the government will not be able to curate a safe and welcoming environment for the Rohingya’s eventual return.
Much of the international response focuses on the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees, which are immediate. However, these visceral needs are symptoms of a larger, underlying problem. A major cause of the Rohingya crisis that is not being explicitly addressed by any of the current responses is the clash between religious identities within the country. From as early as the 11th century, Myanmar rulers promoted Buddhism within the nation. As this religion is deeply rooted in the Myanmar identity, anyone or anything diverging from that path is discriminated. Due to the historical precedent of violently promoting Buddhism ideals in the country, the identity of the majority of the Myanmar population is closely tied with the Buddhist religion. With these appeals to Buddhism, Myanmar religious and governmental leaders have been able to garner support for these abuses against the Rohingya Muslims, violating their collective rights.
A state is comprised of many different people, making identity a unifying factor for social cohesion. For minority groups such as the Rohingya, identity defines who they are, and religion is a crucial part of that identity. Similarly, the Buddhist majority residing in Myanmar depends on religion to unify the country. There is, therefore, a clear conflict between the national Buddhist identity in Myanmar and the minority Muslim identity of the Rohingya. In a state, the first and foremost goal is survival. In order to ensure the survival of a state, there needs to be stability and unity. Because the Rohingya have a drastically different religion from the majority of people in Myanmar, they can be perceived as a threat to stability within the state. Therefore, solutions that address the underlying stability of Myanmar need to be established.
Required responses to this issue are twofold. Firstly, the Myanmar government must acknowledge the brutality of their military over many years. This would open up communication between the government and the Rohingya minority, allowing for amends to be made and reconciliation to occur. Although the Myanmar government claims that it desires repatriation for the Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, dismissing Rohingya voices ultimately cannot resolve the deeper tension of the crisis; openness and honesty are needed.
Secondly, the broader international community must continue insisting for the Myanmar government to take responsibility. States, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations should be willing to increase the levels of pressure on the government. If public accusations seem to have no effect, sanctions may be the next step. Direct, tangible intervention in the Rohingya crisis is required from the international community, not just toward the refugees in Bangladesh but toward the broader political leaders involved in the situation. If reconciliation efforts begin between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government, outside organizations should continue to be involved by monitoring over the process to ensure peace without limiting sovereignty or liberties of the government. When the actors involved begin to agree on a common goal of peace and harmony and work toward that goal, the Rohingya will be able to not only safely return but to also be integrated into Myanmar as accepted members of society.
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