Who Are The Rohingya?

What to Know About the Crisis in Myanmar

by Alexandria Hentschel and Timothy Mattackal

One of the worst humanitarian crises of the century is occurring in the Rakhine province of Myanmar. During the last few months, over 600,000 members of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya population, a Sunni Muslim minority, have fled into neighboring Bangladesh to escape a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as refugees, without a home and unsure of what the future may hold.

The Rohingya have been described by Amnesty International as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” The ethnic group has faced decades of persecution and disenfranchisement due to their position as Muslims in a country that is majority Buddhist. Myanmar has never granted the Rohingya legitimate citizenship, making the people group — which numbers over 1 million — the largest group of stateless people in the world. 

Dr. Frank Jenista, a former foreign service officer and professor of international studies, sees no foreseeable end to the conflict that has been festering for many years. He remarked that there has been a long history of oppression, but the recent attacks by the Myanmar military — supplemented by radical Buddhist mobs — have seen an unprecedented level of brutality. Militant action by a small sect of the Rohingya who were advocating for an independent state in August began the ethnic cleansing.

“They were a tiny, tiny group, but it was a beautiful excuse for Myanmar to just go after them,” he said. “Before that, there were lower-level problems. There would be a Rohingya village attacked here or there — sometimes by the military, sometimes by mobs led by Buddhist priests. [The ethnic cleansing] began because the Rohingya got so fed up that they took up arms and killed a handful of Myanmar soldiers. That then was the trigger.”

The Rohingya people have fled en masse to neighboring Bangladesh, namely the Chittagong region, which is close to the border between the two nations. The Bangladeshi government has expressed a willingness to help the minority, but practically, they are unable to service the entire population. Jenista remarked that asylum in Bangladesh is an impractical and temporary solution.

“Bangladesh is one of the most-crowded places in the world, and all of the sudden they have 600,000 more mouths to feed,” he said.

For Xavier Halder, a junior special education major, the situation is one which strikes close to home. Halder is from Chittagong, and he has seen the influx of Rohingya refugees and overpopulation problems firsthand.

“From a Bangladeshi standpoint, from a country with so many people living in it — one of the most densely populated countries in the world — welcoming refugees in is ironic,” he said. “But culturally, Bangladesh is really open, really friendly and really welcoming. Bangladesh would consider the Rohingya as brothers or siblings, in a way — would view [accepting them] as helping out family.” 

Halder remarked that while the mass migration, which has taken place recently, has put the situation of the Rohingya people into the spotlight, their plight is one which has been ongoing for many years. 

“It’s known worldwide now, but it has always been a major issue. It was just publicized now,” he said.

Both Jenista and Halder said they believe that the driving force behind the persecution of the Rohingya people is that they are culturally closer to Bangladesh. The entire region used to be under the control of colonial British India, and when the dividing lines were drawn between the countries after independence, the cultural and ethnic dividing lines were not taken into account. 

“They don’t fit in with the culture of Myanmar,” Halder said. “That’s one reason why they’ve been persecuted for a long time. When the borders were made, they didn’t take into consideration the different cultural groups that were there — it was just politically separated.”

The international community is looking for solutions to the conflict, but most solutions are either impractical or impossible. 

Halder mentioned that the best solution he sees would be to give the Rohingya their own, independent country, or perhaps redraw the lines that were decided after colonial rule.

“Since they cannot fully associate themselves with Myanmar and truly, they cannot associate themselves with Bangladesh either, I would think … giving them the option of becoming their own state,” he said. “I think that if they’re given their land back and if they’re not persecuted there …they [would be] able to live a normal life.”

Jenista mentioned that the Myanmar government would never support this solution, however, and surrender a portion of their country. He mentioned resettlement options but sees little hope for the future of the conflict.

“I don’t see any good solution,” he said. “Islamic countries are speaking up on behalf of the Rohingyas, but to my knowledge none have offered to take them. Some have leaked over the border into India, but India’s not happy to have them. Nobody is willing to put forth the blood and the treasure that would be necessary to force an end to it. Until that happens, these poor people are stuck.”

Jenista also mentioned the possibility of future violence in the region, as the Christian minority in Myanmar is also persecuted. He expressed concern that a similar case of ethnic cleansing could occur should the military go unchecked.

One possible avenue for the Rohingya to escape this situation is third country refugee resettlement. Jason Lee, a former director of a refugee resettlement agency called World Relief, now works with Clarkston International Bible Chapel, a church that Cedarville has partnered with for missions work through Global Outreach in Clarkston, Georgia. He says that resettlement is one viable option.

“Refugee resettlement is one of the best options to help them,” he said. “There’s only so many that Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia can absorb and many have died trying to cross the waters to try to get there.” 

However, Lee warns that this is an unlikely solution in the current political climate.

“Their process of coming to the United States would be long and right now, extremely difficult,” he said. “In the first two months of this fiscal year we’ve only had about 1,300 refugee arrivals so unfortunately, although the president’s cap number is 45,000, at this point maybe less than 20,000 may actually arrive.”

This amount accounts for only three percent of the Rohingya who are currently living in Bangladesh as refugees, but Lee said he doubts the viability of other solutions which have been proposed. Bangladesh and Myanmar recently announced an agreement to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. However, Lee said he believes that there are important conditions which must be met before repatriation can be viewed as a viable solution.

“The question is, is the murder, torture and genocide going to continue if they go back?” he said.  “I don’t think repatriation is the answer at this point without some kind of assurance that folks are going to be cared for.”

Lee said the most effective change could take place through the United Nations Security Council. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has labeled the events in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also used the term after returning from a trip to Myanmar. Despite these developments, more is still needed to put pressure on the UNSC to act.

Lee proposed a few ways in which students can help to make this happen.

“[They should] be involved, let their members of congress know of their concern, but let UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s office and Tillerson’s office know as well that you want them to do more, whether they enforce this repatriation to know they’re going to be assured once they get back or resettle them as refugees,” he said

Halder also said individual awareness could make a difference in ending the crisis.

“Just having people who are concerned around the world raises red flags and makes the government aware of the situation so that they are more likely to react,” he said. “What we can do is just making sure we are able to be praying for them, and monetarily we can help them by providing the necessities that they need right now to survive.”

Alexandria Hentschel is a sophomore International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee, and honest debate.

Timothy Mattackal is a senior finance and accounting major. He enjoys travelling, reading, discussing relevant issues, and listening to Ed Sheeran.

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