Of all the ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in the world, wrote the Economist last year, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, may well be the most persecuted people on the planet. Today nearly two million Rohingya live in western Myanmar and in Bangladesh. Inside Myanmar they have no formal status, and they face the constant threat of violence from paramilitary groups egged on by nationalist Buddhist monks while security forces look the other way. Since 2012, when the latest wave of anti-Rohingya violence broke out, attackers have burned entire Rohingya neighborhoods, butchering the populace with knives, sticks, and machetes. They beat Rohingya children to death with rifle butts and, quite possibly, their bare hands. Since then, half the population of Myanmar’s Rohingya has been displaced. Some have tried to escape to other Southeast Asian nations on rickety boats often operated by human traffickers. If the migrants do not die of dehydration or heatstroke, they are frequently picked up by pirates or the Thai navy—which may not be much better than getting nabbed by pirates. Exhaustive reporting by Reuters seems to suggest that Thailand’s navy is closely involved in shuttling Rohingya refugees into slave labor in Thailand’s seafood, fishing, and other industries. Rohingya women who do not have enough to pay traffickers are forced into marriages or prostitution.
Even if the Rohingya make it out of Myanmar, past the pirates, modern-day slavers, and Thai navy ships, there are few places for them to go. In nearby nations like Malaysia or Indonesia there is some sympathy for their co-religionists, but they are not willing to give the Rohingya permanent refuge. The Rohingya living in Malaysia operate in the shadows, working in the informal economy, unable to send their children to public schools, with no prospects of resettlement anywhere else.
No prominent nation outside of Southeast Asia is willing to do much for the minority group either. The Rohingya have no close ethnic or linguistic ties with a regional or global power: the Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in western China, for instance, have ethnic and linguistic ties to Turkey. Bangladesh, from which some Rohingya originally migrated, is itself desperately poor and not interested in having the Rohingya settle there. Indeed, Bangladeshi security forces have often forcibly repatriated Rohingya, or kept them in squalid camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. No Western nations have opened their doors for the Rohingya the way they have, for instance, for the Tibetans who make it out of China.
For those Rohingya living in Myanmar the future is horrifically grim. They are packed into camps that are little more than internment centers, with residents given minimal food and shelter. Aid organizations face significant hurdles operating in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. Myanmar has expelled aid groups from parts of the state, and journalists have been repeatedly turned back from traveling there. (Reporting on an alleged massacre in western Myanmar in 2014, two New York Times reporters were detained.)
Abuses against the Rohingya have received some attention from the international media, but Myanmar’s western region is remote, making it harder for the best-financed media organizations to report on many abuses against the ethnic group. In part because Myanmar media is dominated by Buddhist, ethnic Burmese editors and writers, the Rohingya issue is routinely ignored or minimized as a minor problem.
Many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, having migrated there during the British Raj. In his new book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide—one of the few accessible primers on this battered group—the Oxford and U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute fellow Azeem Ibrahim tells of how the Rohingya have never had an easy time in Myanmar. Beginning in 1962, when a junta seized power, up until the transition to civilian rule in the early 2010s, the Burmese government effectively stripped most Rohingya of their rights. In 1982, the military government removed the Rohingya from the list of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar. The Buddhist Rakhine people generally held a deep distrust of the Rohingya as interlopers, a distrust heightened during World War II, when many Rohingya fought with the British and many Rakhine fought alongside Japan.
Rakhine nationalists had always chafed at the junta’s rule (the Rakhines once had their own, powerful kingdom separate from the ethnic Burmans), but in 1978, according to Human Rights Watch, many Rakhines made common cause with the Myanmar army. They forced roughly 200,000 Rohingya to flee, mostly into camps in Bangladesh. Again, in 1991, units of the Myanmar army attacked the Rohingya, driving some 250,000 out of their homes, with many fleeing into Bangladesh once more.
Then, in the early 2010s, the junta gave way to civilian rule, for myriad reasons (see “How Big a Success Is the Democratic Revolution in Burma?,” March/April/May 2016). From the beginning of the transition, it was clear that if the army loosened its grip, violent, nationalist groups would step into the political vacuum. Myanmar’s primary democratic party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), would do little to stop these forces. From interviewing many NLD members, I found that the party and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, were primarily concerned with building up their own power, reducing the role of the military, and winning over Buddhist voters in the first free national elections in twenty-five years.
In the weeks before last November’s election, Suu Kyi herself told reporters not to “overexaggerate” the threat facing the Rohingya, and other prominent longtime democrats openly inveighed against the Rohingya, using racist taunts. When the highly anticipated national elections were finally held, there were no Rohingya—indeed, no Muslim candidates from any ethnic group—on the NLD slate.
Ibrahim offers one of the fullest descriptions available of the current Rohingya crisis, retelling the narrative of the emerging genocide with force (if not always the clearest prose). He may not be arguing that the Rohingya are the most persecuted people on earth, but his research substantiates recent claims (including a detailed report by Yale Law School’s clinic on international human rights) that the Rohingya are targets of genocide.
A genocide, according to the internationally accepted definition, is a campaign of violence conducted against one defined group, with the intention of eradicating them in whole or in part. Ibrahim shows that, starting in 2011 and 2012, the Rohingya in western Myanmar were not simply attacked by gangs or roving bands of thugs infuriated by reports (many untrue) of Rohingya raping Buddhist women or of fistfights between Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine shopkeepers. Instead, the Rohingya faced what appears to be an organized campaign to target their homes, property, and lives. There may have been an additional incentive; as Myanmar began to open up to foreign investment in the 1990s, it became clear that Rakhine State was quite rich in minerals.
The exact genesis of the violence in western Myanmar in 2012 remains unclear. It may have started with Rohingya men raping and murdering a Rakhine girl, and then Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes murdering Rohingya bus travelers. Local police and army units stood around while the vigilantes pulled people off the bus and killed them, according to accounts of the attack by survivors.
After the rape and then the unrest in four townships in western Myanmar, Rakhine politicians and monks spent months vilifying the Rohingya and calling for violence against the minority group. In October 2012, four months after the bus incident, violence erupted throughout Rakhine State, with a clear pattern of attacks. Groups of Buddhists were armed with swords, machetes, guns, Molotov cocktails, and even earth-moving equipment to raze Rohingyas’ homes and businesses; they had stockpiled weapons for months. The attacks appeared strikingly similar across Rakhine State, clearly designed to change the ethnic composition of the region.
Some of the attackers had clear links to paramilitary organizations that had been affiliated with the former junta. The anti-Muslim violence spread to other parts of the country: Muslims of all ethnic groups were bombed, beaten, and shot in Yangon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities.
Ibrahim’s reporting also corroborates the work of numerous human rights groups who have worked in western Myanmar. The transitional civilian government, led by the former general Thein Sein, did little to stop the burning, looting, and killing. The government did not bother to acknowledge the possibility that the attacks on Rohingya, preceded by open calls for ethnic cleansing, were part of a coordinated wave of violence. President Thein Sein’s office merely said that the violence was “riots [that had broken out] unexpectedly,” and then later declared that the only way to resolve unrest in Rakhine State was to deport all the “illegal” Rohingya living there—basically, most of the Rohingya population.
The most damning reports on the pogroms came from a Human Rights Watch report:
In the deadliest incident, on October 23, 2012, at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a massacre in Yan Thai village in Mrauk-U Township. Despite advance warning of the attack, only a small number of riot police, local police, and army soldiers were on duty to provide security. Instead of preventing the attack . . . or escorting the villagers to safety, they assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves.
As Rohingya fled their homes, the military and police maintained cordons around the camps in western Myanmar that were created, and quickly turned the camps into “open-air prisons,” in the words of Human Rights Watch. The security forces also created an armed ring around a de facto ghetto into which Rohingya were pushed. Once Rohingya men and women had fled into these ghettos, their land was often seized. The government sometimes refused to allow UN representatives to visit trapped Rohingya, and security forces routinely confiscate food and other aid provided by international groups for Rohingya in camps.
In some ways, Myanmar’s increasing economic and political openness actually has made the situation worse for the Rohingya. Not only the United States but also most leading democracies, including regional powers like Japan and Australia, have opted for close relations with a freer Myanmar. As I discussed in an essay in the Washington Monthly earlier this year, the Obama administration has cited rapprochement with Myanmar as one of its greatest foreign policy successes, and now touts U.S.-Myanmar relations as a model for rapprochement with Cuba.
The rich democracies, now invested diplomatically and economically in a Myanmar success story, are unwilling to spend too much time seriously investigating crimes being committed in Myanmar’s isolated west. They said little when, eight months before last November’s election, Thein Sein and the interim government essentially stripped the franchise from any Rohingya who still had voting rights. (The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has repeatedly raised the issue of Rohingya disenfranchisement, but gotten nowhere.)
To be fair, some rights advocates in Congress have tried to raise the profile of abuses against Rohingya, holding hearings on the plight of the ethnic minority. When Obama himself visited Myanmar in 2014, he called on the country to face “the danger of continued [inter-communal] violence” but did not slow down rapprochement. The Obama administration has not come so far in boosting diplomatic and economic engagement with Myanmar’s government to do more than rhetorically tut-tut at it, even as many of Myanmar’s leaders continue to insist that all Rohingya are in the country illegally.
Many leading democracies, including Japan, have larger stakes in Myanmar than the United States and are even less likely to take up the Rohingyas’ cause. Japan’s government, for instance, sees Myanmar as a strategic bulwark against China’s rising power in Asia. The region’s main multinational organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, operates by consensus, and has a weak, small secretariat in Jakarta that is ill-prepared to handle crises. Bangladesh continues to struggle with its own population challenges and chaotic politics.
Other foreign countries that, at a different time in history, might have helped the Rohingya will also do nothing. Wealthy Persian Gulf states, whose leaders see themselves as custodians of the rights of Muslims worldwide, are preoccupied with the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. India, which at times in its history has positioned itself as a champion of rights in Asia, is enjoying warm relations with Bangladesh, and is unlikely to take any steps that would alienate the Bangladeshi government.
The NLD’s sweeping victory in the November 2015 elections, hailed around the world—and by many in Myanmar—as a major gain for democracy, will not help the Rohingya either. Not only before the elections but also after the vote, Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders have shown as little interest in the situation of the Rohingya as Thein Sein’s government did. (Suu Kyi has expressed a deep desire to promote peace with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, but she has focused on relations with the ethnic groups that have their own armed insurgencies.) What’s worse, in last year’s November elections, the provincial party known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric won control of Rakhine State’s legislature.
The NLD’s victory further reduces the possibility that foreign governments will pressure Myanmar’s leaders, and the new president selected by the NLD, the Suu Kyi loyalist Htin Kyaw, has demonstrated total fealty to the democracy icon but evinced little interest in the conflict in Myanmar’s west.
Most chillingly, the new government of Myanmar has asked that the United States “not call the Rohingya people by that name because it does not recognize them as citizens,” said Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, reported the New York Times. He hastened to add that “Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had not ordered the Americans to stop using the word or threatened consequences if they did.”
Even if foreign countries, and Myanmar’s own leaders, suddenly decided to protect the Rohingya, it might be too late. The ethnic composition of western Myanmar has already been radically changed, many Rohingya families have been destroyed, and many Rohingya are too scared and economically devastated to ever return to their home villages. Next spring, when the dry season comes in Southeast Asia again, large numbers of Rohingya probably will head to ports in western Myanmar and try their luck again with makeshift boats, pirates, and the prospect of being enslaved in Thailand. As Time magazine reported in an extensive study of western Myanmar last fall, the Rohingya face the “point where complete extermination is a possibility. . . . [T]he final stages of genocide.”