Rohingya: The Most Persecuted People In The World – Analysis


Starting from the end of 2016 until today, the Rohingya people have been facing repression, ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities initiated by the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) resulting in one of the world’s largest refugee crises.

The terror against this Muslim nation is so comprehensive and brutal that many prominent world organizations, including the UN, consider it genocide. More than a million Rohingya are currently housed in refugee camps outside Myanmar. The largest exodus occurred in 2017, when more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. This was just a continuation of the influx of refugees that had started arriving several decades ago.

The persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s. In 1978, the Myanmar Army launched Operation Dragon King (Naga Min) in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Since then, the Rohingya people have been regularly persecuted by the government and Buddhist nationalists. Most of the refugees crossed overland to Bangladesh, while others went by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. From 2016-2017 mass terror by the Myanmar authorities was renewed, including murders, robberies, rapes and arson, and thus a new exodus of Rohingya was initiated. Although Myanmar’s security forces claimed they were waging a campaign to restore stability in the western part of the country, the United Nations said the Myanmar military had shown “genocidal intent”.

Rohingya people

The Rohingya people are a majority Muslim (Sunni) people living mostly in Rakhine State. A smaller part is made up of Hindus. Before 2017, the Rohingya people in that country made up about a third of the population: 1,4 million. It differs from the dominant Buddhist groups in Myanmar ethnically, linguistically and religiously. An estimated 3,5 million Rohingya are scattered around the world.

The Rohingya trace their origins to Southeast Asia since the 15th century, when thousands of Muslims arrived in the former kingdom of Arakan. The rest arrived during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Rakhine was administered by the British colonial administration as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar in 1989, have denied the Rohingya’s historic claims and refused to recognize them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.

Authorities consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in Myanmar for centuries. They are prevented from obtaining citizenship, the right to vote, limited freedom of movement, education and employment opportunities, access to health care, etc. They are also denied the right to use the name Rohingya.

In the 2014 census, they were forced to identify themselves as Bengalis, and the terms Arakanese and Burmese Muslims were also used. In recent years, the Myanmar government has forced the Rohingya to start carrying national verification cards that effectively identify them as foreigners and do not grant them citizenship. Rakhine is otherwise the least developed Myanmar state, with a poverty rate of 78%, compared to the national average of 37.5%. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated divisions between Buddhists and Muslims. These tensions are exacerbated by religious differences.

Persecution of the Rohingya in 2016

On October 9, 2016, gunmen attacked several border police posts in Rakhine and left nine police officers dead and robbed them. The attack took place mainly in Maungdaw district. A rebel group of Rohingya militants claimed responsibility.

After the incidents at the border posts, the Myanmar army began a major retaliatory operation against villages in the northern part of Rakhine State. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and many arrested. The number of casualties increased as the operation continued. Arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, robberies and other brutalities were committed against civilians. Hundreds of Muslims were killed by December 2016, with many fleeing Myanmar as refugees to take refuge in nearby areas of Bangladesh.

In late November, Human Rights Watch released satellite images showing about 1,250 burned Rohingya houses in five villages. The media and human rights groups have often reported on intense human rights violations by the Myanmar military. The Rohingya pogrom has been condemned by the UN (which cited possible “crimes against humanity”), Amnesty International, the US State Department, the government of neighboring Bangladesh, the government of Malaysia and many others.

Initiation of genocide in 2017

New clashes in Rakhine erupted in August 2017 after a militant group known as the Arakanese Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and military posts. The government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, and the military launched a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of villages and forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of terror, between August 25 and September 24, 2017.

Myanmar security forces also opened fire on fleeing civilians and planted landmines near border crossings with Bangladesh. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the violence as ethnic cleansing and the humanitarian situation as catastrophic.

In September 2018, a UN fact-finding commission released a report claiming that the Myanmar government had demonstrated “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. Since early 2018, Myanmar authorities have cleared abandoned Rohingya villages and farms to build houses, security bases and infrastructure. The government has said it is in preparation for the repatriation of refugees, but human rights activists have expressed concern that the moves could be intended to house another population in Rohingya homes.

The terror continues unceasingly

Myanmar’s leader and state counselor (de facto head of government) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for her inaction and silence on the persecution of the Rohingya. It did little or nothing to prevent military terror. Persecutions continued throughout 2018.

Suu Kyi’s government refused to organize an independent international investigation. The UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, described the situation as “apartheid” with the detained Rohingya separated from the rest of society without freedom of movement. Some analysts have described the Rohingya as trapped in a “genocide zone” because many are prevented from fleeing the country due to minefields. The Myanmar army frequently opened fire with mortar shells and machine guns on the Rohingya fleeing down the river towards Bangladesh, and the dead bodies of many refugees were washed ashore by the Naaf River.

In August 2018, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that Myanmar’s military generals should be tried for genocide. In January 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to prevent genocidal violence against the Rohingya minority and to preserve evidence of past attacks. In February 2021, a military coup took place in Myanmar and a military junta retook power after a decade of experimenting with democracy. A civil war broke out in the country. Nevertheless, the terror continues to this day in the middle of 2023, and many pieces of evidence have been systematically destroyed.

Numerous problems of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Most of the refugees find refuge in Bangladesh, more than a million of them. There are about 100,000 refugees in Malaysia, about 40,000 in India, and a smaller number in Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia. International organizations and numerous countries, especially the USA, Canada, Norway and Japan, provide humanitarian aid in order to fulfill basic humanitarian needs.

Bangladesh has to spend 8 billion dollars a year to care for the exiles. The country can hardly afford the additional burden. Bangladesh is among the 10 most densely populated countries in the world, and 24 million Bangladeshis live below the poverty line. With more than a million refugees living in a small but strategically important area along the Bay of Bengal, the level of security near the refugee camps is rapidly deteriorating, with wider implications for regional stability. Numerous criminal activities spring up around refugee centers.

The notorious “Golden Triangle” of illegal drug trafficking (a remote mountainous region of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) is more active than ever, with clashes between Bangladeshis and Rohingya, as well as factional killings among the exiles themselves. The life of refugees is becoming more and more difficult day by day. While international efforts are focused on providing basic humanitarian needs, there are no signs that a long-term solution will be reached anytime soon.

Conflict between refugees and nature

In addition to other problems, encounters with wild elephants are also a problem for the Rohingya. The Ukhiya-Ghumdhum Corridor, about 4,35 km long and 1,13 km wide, is part of the migration route used by herds of wild Asian elephants. There are at least 19 refugee camps in that corridor as of 2017. Although the encounter between humans and elephants initially led to the tragic loss of some lives, elephants and refugees have maintained an uneasy but peaceful coexistence in recent years.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least 12 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis were killed in elephant attacks in the six months from August 2017 to January 2018. Locals claim as many as 22 people died in the same period. After conducting research on elephant attacks, UNHCR and IUCN took action to raise awareness of the problem among refugees.

Since then, there have been about 500 encounters between humans and elephants in the area, but none have resulted in loss of life. In addition, climate change such as monsoons and floods cause problems for refugees.

Refugees – a point of contention in Bangladeshi politics

As time passes, Bangladeshis begin to see the impact of millions of refugees on their lives, especially in the southern part of the country where there are more than a million refugees. Public sentiment towards the Rohingya ranges from sympathy to hatred, which increases the possibility of conflicts.

In domestic politics, the Rohingya are becoming a point of contention among Bangladesh’s political parties. The current government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Awami League) did not realize the depth of the crisis because of the hope of receiving international recognition for accepting refugees. That hope is fading, but the possibility remains that the Rohingya could be used as a trump card for the upcoming national parliamentary elections in January 2024, as they have been in the past.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other parties, view the crisis through electoral logic. They see the Rohingya as useful for strengthening their religious base. Unlike the political parties, Bangladeshis generally share the view of their military, namely that the prolonged stay of refugees poses a serious threat to national security, and repatriation is the ultimate solution.

Bangladesh-Myanmar border – a new crisis hotspot?

Most dangerous is the rise of various Rohingya armed groups such as the Arakanese Army and the Arakanese Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) along the Naaf River, with often conflicting goals. These armed groups are engaged in an armed conflict with the Tatmadaw, which continues to carry out attacks that often spill over into Bangladesh. Such incidents have killed and injured some Bangladeshis, resulting in strained relations between the two countries.

The tensions could escalate into a larger conflict especially when looking at the historical continuity of border disputes between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The two armies have a history of occasional border skirmishes over their disputed maritime border in the Bay of Bengal. Each country considers the other an existential threat. This is precisely why Dhaka perceives Naypyidaw’s violation of its territorial integrity as a scare tactic. Last year there were more border incidents.

For example in September, the Myanmar Air Force violated Bangladeshi airspace, killing one and wounding six other Bangladeshis. The subsequent escalation on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border suggests that the area could become a new crisis hotspot in the Far East. As the refugee crisis drags on, the possibility of a major conflict between the two states increases, a conflict that could involve major powers.

The status of the Rohingya in the context of geopolitics

Protesters periodically gather in cities in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh to condemn the killing and persecution of the Rohingya. Unfortunately, governments in Southeast Asia, with the exception of Bangladesh, have not gone out of their way to help refugees.

The ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) do not have a coordinated response to the deepening crisis. ASEAN countries lack legal frameworks to protect refugees. ASEAN has decided to remain silent on the refugee crisis under the pretext of non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. The regional Asian powers, China, India and Japan, have some degree of influence over Myanmar, but prioritize their own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests.

For both Beijing and New Delhi, the ports and infrastructure projects in Rakhine state are extremely important, and they believe that their interests will be best served by cooperating with the official Naypyidaw, not with the Rohingya or Dhaka.

In addition, both the Chinese and the Indians, regardless of their competing interests, are additionally arming the Tatmadaw. In particular, India has provided Myanmar with a free submarine and is the third largest supplier to Myanmar’s military. China is not only Myanmar’s key economic partner, but also provides diplomatic protection from international pressure through its veto in the UN Security Council. Japan is following the path of China and India in similarly prioritizing its business interests. It is interesting that even the Japanese, who are declaratively advocating for democracy and human rights, often give priority to profit in the field, which is a feature of many Western countries.

Proposals for a solution to the refugee crisis in Bangladesh

The question is how to solve the problem of Rohingya refugees in the long term? The first option is the integration of the Rohingya into Bangladeshi society. It is not unknown that international humanitarian organizations want exactly this outcome.

Supporters of this option believe that as time passes, the refugees will be assimilated. This solution seems attractive to humanitarian organizations because it would require them to invest less money than creating the conditions for return to the home country. However, such a solution is not realistic. In the five decades that the Rohingya have been living in Bangladesh, there is no record of their integration into Bangladeshi society. The government of Bangladesh does not even recognize the Rohingya as refugees, calling them displaced persons from Myanmar.

Bangladesh consists of a homogenous Bengali nation with less than 2% ethnic minorities. The assimilation of millions of foreigners into a homogeneous society is simply unthinkable because it would encourage unrest. Additionally, given the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and threats by some Indian politicians to expel the Muslim minority to Bangladesh, Dhaka fears that the resettlement of the Rohingya would set a precedent for India to follow Myanmar’s example.

The proposal to permanently settle the Rohingya in Bangladesh is not even spatially feasible. Bangladesh is the 8th largest country in the world in terms of population (170 million) and faces serious challenges in meeting their basic needs. Even if the government wants to integrate refugees, it is simply not possible due to limited resources, especially the lack of space. Those 170 million inhabitants live in an area approximately 2 and a half times that of Croatia, as the total area of Bangladesh is 147,630 square kilometers. As many as 1,265 Bangladeshis live in one square kilometer. Bangladesh is surrounded by land on three sides (west, north, east), so the coastal area of the Bay of Bengal in the south represents an irreplaceable strategic value. Permanent settlement of the Rohingya could cause instability in the coastal area, which would contradict Dhaka’s policy of maintaining stability in the south at all costs.

Another option is the relocation of the Rohingya to third countries. The USA, Canada and other countries received some refugees, but their number was small. However, this idea risks escalating the problem. When the total number of refugees exceeds one million, sending a few thousand to third countries would not solve anything. However, this could demotivate the Rohingyas to return to their homeland due to the temptation of a better life in developed countries. If this idea spreads to Rakhine State, more Rohingya will cross the border hoping to have a chance to go to the EU, USA or Canada.

The bottom line is that no country is ready to receive a few thousand refugees, let alone millions. The third option is to create conditions for the refugees to return to their homeland of Myanmar and Rakhine. This is what the Rohingya themselves also want, given their connection to their ancestral clod. But this is an extremely difficult task, especially since the Myanmar military still has the main say in the country. Myanmar’s reluctance to repatriate the Rohingya is the result of the Myanmar authorities disputing the genocide, but also the inertness of the international community, which is not ready to make the Tatmadaw answer for its crimes. Without a change of government in Myanmar, it is difficult to expect the possibility of a sustainable return.

Rohingya issue – ignored by global power centers

In the current situation, returning the Rohingya to their homeland would require Bangladesh to have the option of forcing Myanmar to do so, which is unlikely. The best solution would be strong pressure from the international community on Naypyidaw.

However, the underlying problem is that regional powers such as China, Japan and India see Myanmar’s military junta as serving their geostrategic interests well. Regional powers are reluctant to condemn Myanmar’s military junta regime in order to side with the Rohingya. The USA, Canada, the EU and Japan gave humanitarian aid, but not more than that. The Biden administration, which is declaratively committed to human rights and democracy, could become involved in solving the Myanmar crisis both in terms of the persecution of the Rohingya and in terms of the military dictatorship.

However, considering other geopolitical crises, especially Ukraine, it is hard to believe that the Americans will do this. Myanmar is not (high) on the agenda of American policymakers. Although the terrible suffering of millions of Rohingya continues and deepens year after year, the current interests of the great powers (Ukraine, South China Sea, Taiwan, international trade) outweigh the Rohingya cause.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

One thought on “Rohingya: The Most Persecuted People In The World – Analysis

  • July 17, 2023 at 1:48 am

    An excellent article. Thank you for this in depth and compassionate look at the Rohingya today.


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