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The Rohingyas: Ethno-Religious Persecution in Southeast Asia

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Not the Uighurs, the Rohingyas. Another one of Asia’s forgotten ethnoreligious groups, living perilously under state persecution. The Rohingya Muslims inhabit Myanmar and number somewhere between 1.5 to 2 million members. Just 600,000 Rohingyas still inhabit Myanmar, with over a million now living as refugees across Bangladesh, India and beyond. The human rights crisis that has been raging on for over 5 years, and perhaps much longer, lies within a few central issues.

The first of these is the ethnoreligious identity that has come to isolate them wherever they go. Ethnoreligious categorisation is a key aspect of the Southeast Asian (SEA) socio-political makeup, with the Malaysian constitution even specifying that a Malay person must profess the Muslim faith. This spawns our second issue; that the perpetuation of ethnoreligious violence is exacerbated by fractured governance. Looking through the lens of government response to, and treatment of, minority ethnoreligious groups, this article seeks to analyse the impact on the communities’ human rights over the past 5 years.

The first part of this article will, therefore, examine the actions of the Myanmar government, analysing where the current refugee crisis has arisen from, and where it has left the Rohingyas. Under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law, the community has been denied citizenship, while their socio-economic reality has been compared, by Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, to apartheid. Myanmar is almost 90% Buddhist, but further than this, the Muslim minority group is also ethnically separate from the majority of the population. This has materialised in curbs on freedom of movement, access to healthcare, education and civil service jobs and beyond.

The most recent, and perhaps most catastrophic, event came in 2017 following a military coup. Ethno-religious differences, exacerbated by British and Japanese colonialism, have meant the Burmese and Rohingya ‘nations’ of Myanmar have developed as separate entities. Political digression and the establishment of the Military Junta has lit the spark, turning discrimination and persecution into outright crisis. The Rohingyas were quickly identified by the Junta, and its popular mass of support, as enemies of the Myanmar state. In the chaos of transitional power and authoritarian government persecution rapidly developed into suspected genocide, with clear efforts to ethnically cleanse Myanmar of the Rohingyas. The installation of such a popular backed, yet Military dominated, governments has had grave impacts on the deterioration of the rights of the Rohingyas. The state has been linked to the direct death of over 25,000 Rohingyas, and the displacement of more than 700,000 people. Reports have since emerged detailing the scorching of villages to the ground accompanied by rape and massacre.

Following this, more than three-quarters of a million Rohingyas fled for their lives westward, where their plight has only continued. Bangladesh is now home to over 1.3 million Rohingyas, 626,500 of which live inside just one camp named the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site. The government of Bangladesh has expressed the need to shelter and provide for the refugees, but has as of yet stalled in providing a long term solution.The essentials of food, water and shelter are currently being met, but the situation rests upon a knife-edge, with manifold threats facing the community. Covid-19 has reared its head in the east-Bangladeshi camps, threatening much of the temperamental stability that the limited government response has provided for.

The refugee camps are also not yet safe from ongoing violence and political struggle. Just a week ago, on 22nd October 2021, 7 were killed in an Islamic Seminary by a terrorist group believed to also be responsible for the death of the refugee communities’ leader Mohibullah. The death of one of the group’s fiercest advocates and greatest leaders at the hands of terrorists has created a ‘climate of fear’, with many critics drawing on the failure of Bangladeshi security forces to protect the already at-risk camps.

The response from the Bangladeshi government was initially positive, but after almost 5 years of ongoing refugee crises, the South Asian country is looking for an end to the chaos. A World Bank grant of $350million has been arranged with Bangladesh to support shelter and aid projects for what is the world’s largest forced exodus. Regardless, it appears Bangladesh is unlikely to offer long-term help. The first program organised by Bangladesh was the development of vaccination and health centers in the camps, but this has been launched as a short-term measure.

Long-term plans, which are of great importance to the survival of the Rohingya people, are less positive. The relocation of 20,000 refugees to the island of Bhasan Char, which has been described as ‘an island jail in the middle of the sea’ reflects the impatience and exasperation that refugees are now being met with in Bangladesh. While ethno-religious conflicts lie at the root of the wider issue, it is government failure that is currently depriving Rohingyas from their basic human rights. Finally, the Bangladeshi government has also sought to negotiate with Myanmar for the repatriation of the over 1 million people that now live in refugee camps. Such a move would place the Rohingya people once again in grave danger, under threat of ethnoreligious persecution, if not exposed to outright ethnic cleansing.

The predicament for those who escaped as far as India has been even worse. North-eastern India is predominantly Hindu and following years of Modi-led Hindu-nationalist policy, the situation for Muslims has only declined. The Indian Supreme Court has, as a result, ruled that the Rohingya Muslims are a threat to national security, meaning those who have not been deported have faced violence and discrimination.

The Rohingya community has been existentially threatened by the government action of three nations: most crucially its own, Myanmar. Calls for self-determination inside the Myanmar state of Rakhine have fallen upon deaf ears. The Military Junta in control still very much stresses the alienness of the Rohingyas, reflecting once again the ethnoreligious identitarian politics that shape the region. The Rohingya people are one of the largest refugee groups in the world and sit trapped between three governments that have failed to protect them.

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