By: Sarah Choong Ee Mei
On 9th October 2016, nine border policemen were killed by what Burmese government officials have admitted was an unidentifiable militant group near the Maungdaw District in Myanmar. Despite the lack of verification, the Rakhine State government officials have since pinned the blame on the Muslim minority group known as ‘the Rohingya‘ and have launched a counter-insurgency campaign in retaliation. The Human Rights Watch reported that at least 1,500 buildings, mainly belonging to Rohingya villages, within the Maungdaw District were destroyed in the wake of the crackdown.
The use of high-definition satellite imagery reveals two things. Firstly, the razing of the Rohingya villages was caused by widespread fire-related destruction; secondly, the pattern of incineration points to the involvement of the state as villages were systematically destroyed following attacks on government forces. For example, the Wa Peik village was burned just hours after Border Guard Post Number 1 was attacked and has since suffered two other waves of arson attacks, suggesting an element of state reprisal.
In sum, more than 100 people have been killed throughout the counter-insurgency and roughly 21,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh over the past two months looking for refuge. At the moment, cries of ethnic cleansing have all but fallen on deaf ears as the military continues to rape Rohingya women and conduct extrajudicial killings while an apathetic and callous government refuses to respond.
An Identity Crisis
According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Over one million Rohingya remain stateless under the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law; they do not fall under any of the government’s recognized ethnic groups despite claiming to have settled in the Rakhine State as early as the 18th century.
As a result, the Rohingya are denied access to education, employment in the civil service as well as experience limited freedom of movement. The recent military crackdown in the Maungdaw District is but a continuation of a series of systemic persecutions against the minority group who also suffered a similar fate during the 2012 Rakhine State Riots.
Since securing a landslide victory in the 2015 general elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused by the international community of failing to condemn violence against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi, once the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and regarded as Myanmar’s beacon for democratic values and hope is now under scrutiny for her indifference in safeguarding human rights in Myanmar. For instance, in a meeting earlier this year with a UN human rights investigator, Aung San Suu Kyi said that the very term ‘‘Rohingya’’ is controversial and should be avoided.
The Burmese government recently created the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to ‘‘propose concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine state’’. Although chaired by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, the advisory commission will not feature any Rohingya members and will only be able to offer recommendations to the government at most.
However, some argue that it may not be politically wise for Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the Rohingya outright, even if she wanted to. To begin, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is a nascent government that has just taken over the reins from 54 years of military junta rule. To court with the idea of protecting the Rohingya whom the general populace believes to be ‘Bengalis’ – namely illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh – could adversely affect the popularity and legitimacy of the NLD. Secondly, the hatred that the Buddhist-majority country holds against the Rohingya is both culturally and religiously entrenched, making this difficult for the NLD, who has only held one year in office to eradicate.
Hoping for a Better Future
Regardless of the political stakes at hand, it is nevertheless still very much desired that due action is taken to quell the violence that has escalated once again in the Rakhine State. Burmese citizens who voted the NLD in clearly wanted a change of government from decades of military rule, and with that, a desire for new state policies in dealing with both domestic and foreign affairs.
The same courage and resilience that saw Aung San Suu Kyi defy the military junta government despite 15 years of house arrest, needs to arise once more if she has any desire to help the Rohingya, or at least to end the long-standing ethnic conflict in Myanmar. Although limited in its power, perhaps the creation of the advisory committee leaves hope that the Burmese government is willing to adopt alternative measures to resolve the conflict other than its age-old use of violence.
In delivering her Nobel Lecture in the Oslo City Hall in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi said that receiving the Nobel Prize award gave her renewed hope because ‘to be forgotten is to die a little’. Perhaps the conflict may not end in the near future, but it is hoped that the Rohingya will not remain forgotten.
Sarah Choong is pursuing her MA International Relations in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. She is the recipient of the Top 5 Best Delegate Award at the ASEAN Youth Summit 2012 in Jakarta, Indonesia. She was also selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia to represent her country at the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Debate in Singapore, 2015. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Rahman, KM Atikur. “Ethno-Political Conflict: The Rohingya Vulnerability in Myanmar.” 2015.
Image credit: http://www.aljazeera.com/mritems/imagecache/mbdxxlarge/mritems/Images/2016/10/10/a9d87c1509a14a5ca81d446baf5909a6_18.jpg