Felix Lee explores in-depth the Rohingya refugee crisis shocking the world
The pictures we see on television are harrowing. Malnourished and sick children in the arms of mothers who can barely survive themselves; hundreds desperately waiting in line to receive a little bit of food, water or other essential supplies. Hundreds of thousands on a dangerous trek from their homes in Myanmar towards gigantic, overflowing and ill-equipped refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. The ongoing Rohingya crisis has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world at the moment. But what is actually going on in Myanmar, a country primarily known to us for its ethnic conflicts, civil wars and military dictatorships?
Only a couple of years ago Myanmar made the headlines with a positive story, for a change — one of democratisation and a peaceful transfer of power. After decades of autocratic rule by the country’s military following a putsch in 1962, a new constitution was introduced in 2008 with elections duly held. A military party, the Union Solidarity and Development, won the election amid widespread international criticism of electoral fraud. The following years however saw cautious progress, including the reestablishment of the National League for Democracy (NLD) — a democratic socialist party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition and proponent of reform. After winning an election in 1990 Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, while her contributions to peaceful change gave her worldwide recognition and resulted in her winning the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
Fast forward to 2012 after Suu Kyi’s release and the NLD’s return to democratic participation, and the party has won huge victories in by-elections. Two years ago Suu Kyi and the NLD achieved a landslide in the general election, winning clear majorities in both chambers of parliament. Suu Kyi, legally not able to become president, nonetheless was made de facto head of government as State Counsellor of Myanmar. So, what then has changed since the democratic election of the first non-military government since 1962? I put this question to Dr Andrew Fagan, Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex and an expert on the issue. He has been engaged in the reform process in Myanmar since 2011 when he first travelled to Yangon to provide human rights training for a broad constituency of political opposition, civil society and NGO groups. He has returned several times since, having written numerous published pieces on developments there:
“In some respects, a great deal has changed”, Dr Fagan tells me. “Thousands of political prisoners have been released from prison, there have been broadly free and fair local and national elections, there is now a [quasi-]civilian government and head of state and the Government has reiterated its commitment to long term reform and continuing democratisation.” But he explains huge challenges remain: “The military retains a great deal of de jure and de facto control over civilian affairs. There is widespread distrust of the Government amongst many ethnic minorities. There is a growing support for overtly xenophobic Buddhist nationalism amongst many Buddhist communities, much of the population remain very poor and see little if any progress being made since the election of Suu Kyi and the NLD.”
Hundreds of thousands on a dangerous trek from their homes in Myanmar towards gigantic, overflowing and ill-equipped refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. The ongoing Rohingya crisis has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world at the moment.
It is against this backdrop that the current Rohingya crisis developed: the Rohingya are an ethnic minority of mostly Muslims from Rakhine State in western Myanmar. In spite of their long history in this region, the Rohingyas have been on the receiving end of discrimination and persecution for decades. In a country full of ethnic tensions and conflicts, the 1.1 million Rohingya lack protection due to a legal framework that neither recognises them as one of the 135 official ethnic nationalities nor grants them citizenship. The state discriminates against Rohingyas, they remain stateless, and Buddhist nationalists seek to exclude them from society and public life. Even before this year’s escalation, the situation for the Rohingya was getting increasingly difficult.
In 2016, the US Department of State came to the conclusion that the Rohingya community were the target of state-led abuses, involving “torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services.” About two months before, the Myanmar military – still a powerful player in the country’s government – effectively started a concerted and seemingly well-coordinated attack aimed at forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya out of the country. A harrowing UN report details the extreme and sickening human rights violations committed by Myanmar security forces and local Buddhist groups: the destruction of entire villages, the burning and killing of crops and livestock, the arbitrary arrests of young Rohingyas, the targeting of local dignitaries and leaders, and violence on a massive scale, including killings, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence. All of this is an obvious attempt to not only expel the Rohingyas from Myanmar but also guarantee they can never come back even if they wished.
The justification which the Myanmar Government and military have offered for their brutal crackdown is based on the accusation of armed and violent aggression against the state by militant elements among the Rohingya. These groups do exist, according to Dr Fagan, however “their ability to inflict any sustained damage against the Myanmar military is negligible and the recent response by the army is utterly disproportionate, and raises the reasonable concern that a wider political attempt to ethnically cleanse Myanmar of the Rohingya is what is really happening.”
Nevertheless, the current humanitarian crisis has come as a bit of a shock to the West. After the election of the NDL in 2015 views of Myanmar and its future prospects improved drastically. Following her heroic fight for peace and democracy, Suu Kyi turned into somewhat of a global hero, receiving numerous prizes and honours over recent decades. Her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 was followed by – among many other accolades – the highly prestigious US Congressional Gold Medal and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
In 2016, the US Department of State came to the conclusion that the Rohingya community were the target of state-led abuses, involving “torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services.”
During the ongoing conflict, however, Suu Kyi has remained mainly passive and cautious by never criticising the military for the atrocities it is committing. This has led to widespread condemnation by many of her erstwhile supporters in the free world – a view, Dr Fagan suggests, typical for an overly simplistic interpretation of the issues at stake: “The NLD has been elected by the majority of the population, most of whom have no sympathy for the claims of the Rohingya to being recognised as such. There is little electoral opposition to the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. If she sought to recognise them publicly she would face massive electoral opposition. Recognising the Rohingya would also require radical constitutional, legal and cultural change in a country where ethnic identity is extremely important.” Support for the persecuted Rohingyas, he says, could also destabilize the still fragile arrangement between the military and the civilian Government: “The military thrives on internal instability as preventing the dissolution of the Union of Myanmar is its principal duty. Should ethnic conflict in other parts of the country worsen, combined with the on-going crisis in Rakhine state, it is entirely possible that the military would seek to dissolve civilian government on the grounds that it has proven incapable of protecting the country against internal forces.”
This unfortunate mix of factors has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Currently, more than half a million Rohingyas are estimated to live in Bangladeshi refugee camps, many more are internally displaced in Myanmar. The world has now taken notice of what is going on in the country. Among those who traveled to the region to get a better idea of the challenges facing the international community in solving the crisis is Will Quince, Member of Parliament for Colchester.
Quince, together with his colleagues Anne Main and Paul Scully, visited Rohingya camps near the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. He described their visit which took them right into the center of this humanitarian catastrophe as “the most horrific experience”. The personal stories of so many victims of brutal persecution fleeing their homes would surely make a lasting impact on anyone seeing them either live or on television, and Quince has repeatedly spoken in Parliament about the issue. He described “we saw thousands of people—mainly women and children — thick mud, makeshift tents and shacks as far as the eye could see, terrible sanitary conditions, awful latrines, and makeshift schools. The scenes were horrific.” He also made his support known for the British Government’s attempts to help solve the crisis.
At Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month, the Prime Minister set out what the UK Government had already done in response: “We have been providing support through our international development and aid, and we have provided money to the Red Cross in Burma and bilateral donations to support the refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh. We have raised the matter three times at the UN Security Council. The international community has delivered a clear message that the Burmese authorities must stop the violence, allow the safe return of refugees and allow full humanitarian access. We have also suspended any practical defence engagement that we had with Burma because of our concerns.” It is clear that after neglecting this conflict-ridden country and its problems for far too long, many in the West and in this country have now finally realised the enormity of the problem and the ongoing tensions.
And while Quince’s pride in the UK Government’s response is justified – few countries have been as generous in their financial contributions – more has to be done. Out of the $300 million which the international community has so far pledged, $63 million – more than 20% – has come from the UK Government, underlining the leading role this country has played in tackling the crisis. This however is still not enough in order to provide all those affected with food, water, basic hygiene products and facilities, cooking utensils and shelter, as well as medical help for the sick and injured including over 50,000 pregnant women. Additionally, more political pressure – potentially even sanctions – is needed to ensure that the Myanmar military end their campaign against the Rohingya. Given its own historical involvement – Burma, as Myanmar was formerly known, after all was a British colony until 1948 – the UK needs to step up even more and play a strong and hopefully decisive role in bringing this humanitarian tragedy to an end. If ever there was a case for substantial UK aid to distant parts of the world, surely this is the time. Leaving those Rohingya whose houses have been destroyed, fields burnt and sons killed to themselves most certainly isn’t an option.
Rebel reached out to MP for Colchester Will Quince for an interview on the subject, however he has so far been unavailable to comment.