Is ethnic cleansing happening in Myanmar? There are some key themes that can usually be used to define ethnic cleansing. Some of these include ideas like military control, state media propaganda, violence happening against a growing minority group, etc…
There is a sort of ‘Mad Libs’ style fill in the blank equation that can be applied to these situations, including the names and traits of the parties involved, but major details are usually very similar. While the patterns are the same in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, there are a few of this ‘ fill in the blank’ nouns that make the situation unique, especially in our current society. First, the ethnic majority committing or complicit with the violence is Buddhist — a typically non-violent group. Second, the minority under attack are Muslims — considered by many (especially in the west) to be a violent group. Third, the leader of Myanmar who is doing nothing to stop the violence is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning figure known for fighting corruption and injustice — Aung San Suu Kyi.
Escalation in Myanmar
Over the past half-decade or so, racial tensions have escalated in Myanmar between the Buddhist majority population and the Muslim minority population. The Rohingya Muslims, about 1 million in population and around 40% of the population of Rakhine, have increasingly become isolated from the Buddhist majority as well as the government. Increasing violence committed by nationalists and the Tatmadaw — the Burmese military — have led to an exodus of more than 70,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh.
Human rights organizations including the UN have been vocally critical of the situation, but have not been given any real permission to assess the situation. A small group including ex-UN Chief Kofi Annan has been allowed limited access to the region, but their official report is not expected until the end of the year. The only other survey of the region, conducted through the Tatmadaw-controlled police force, found no evidence of ethnic cleansing. That said, half of the Rohingya women interviewed for an early UN report stated that they were sexually assaulted by Tatmadaw or police, and close to half said that they had family or friends killed.
In addition to the increasing violence, Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982. This is supposedly justified by their inability to prove long-standing familial ties to the region, although many can trace roots back many generations. Because they are denied citizenship, Rohingya Muslims constitute roughly 1 out of every 7 stateless people in the world. In addition, ~120,000 Rohingya live as internally displaced people in refugee camps. Since 2012, the government has completely halted registration of Rohingya birth, which has led to countless children being born without birth certificates or legal citizenship rights.
Racial Tensions in Rakhine
Racial tensions in Rakhine boiled over in the 2012 State riots, which were largely headed by Buddhist monks. These riots led to large-scale displacement of the Rohingya and other Muslim groups, as well as casualties on both sides. Following these were another series of riots in 2013 on a larger scale throughout the country, in which thousands of cases of communal rioting took place against Muslim people and property. One notable example was the attack by a Buddhist mob on a Muslim school, where 32 teenage students and 4 teachers were slaughtered with machetes, stones, and chains. Many of the Buddhist citizenry in the country view the Rohingya as Bangladeshi and do not support their cause. This has increased with state-sponsored media criticizing proponents of the Rohingya in the last few years.
Violence against the Rohingya has especially increased since October when attacks on police camps along the Bangladeshi border were committed by people claiming to represent the Rohingya. Since these attacks, the Tatmadaw has increased their use of force against the Rohingya. The police camp attacks have been compared to the September 11th attacks in America. The state media, which has played a major role in garnering public support, falls under the control of Aung San Suu Kyi, the recently elected State Counsellor of Myanmar. Suu Kyi is famous for rebelling against the authoritarian reach of the Tatmadaw in the past and was held by the Tatmadaw in Myanmar for many years, earning her a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts towards providing citizens with power. It is easy to understand the criticism of Suu Kyi for going along with what may be considered ‘crimes against humanity’.
The Myanmar Government
Her power over the media is an especially egregious break from what has been her image since she was young. Suu Kyi has also attacked critics of the government for not fairly understanding the situation. That said, it is hard for critics to understand the situation when they aren’t allowed to do fair investigations into the region. Suu Kyi’s complicity aside, the main power in this situation is the Tatmadaw.
The government of Myanmar is divided into two parts: the civilian government (Aung San Suu Kyi) and the military. The Tatmadaw is granted, according to the Constitution that they themselves passed in 2008, full sovereignty over their own actions. They are also in control of the departments of Defense and Home, which include local government and police forces. The Tatmadaw has been criticized for decades for unfair use of force and power, including embargoes from major powers such as the US. The Tatmadaw were also able to unilaterally install the Vice President of the civilian government, Myint Swe, who gained notoriety after his brutal role in the massacre of protesters known as the Saffron Revolution. Many foreign governments have acknowledged the Tatmadaw as the driving power in Myanmar.
While only some thousands of deaths are officially known, a small number when compared to many other situations, the lack of any sort of recourse for the Rohingya has led to international outcry. Reports of mass killing by helicopter, destruction of food, and burning of entire villages are still unable to be fully investigated due to the Tatmadaw refusing entrance by journalists or aid groups.
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