Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar: A Case Study on Rohingya People

Farjana Afruj Khan Alin

30th December, 2018 10:04:04 printer

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar: A Case Study on Rohingya People

Farjana Afruj Khan Alin

Though Rohingyas, the ethnic Muslim community, have been living in the Rakhine State of Myanmar for time-immemorial, efforts to deprive them of citizenship began shortly after Myanmar’s independence.

The 1948 Union Citizenship Act defined Myanmar citizenship and identified specific ethnicities—the “indigenous races of Burma”—that were allowed to gain citizenship. The list did not include Rohingyas. After the military coup in 1962, the government began giving documentation to fewer and fewer Rohingya children, refusing to recognise fully new generations of the Rohingya population. Violence against the Rohingyas continues, with continued military involvement and the government denial to protection of Rohingyas.

Violations that continue to force Rohingya families to leave Myanmar, as well as the abuse they face while in flight. Deliberate actions and denial of every human right by the Myanmar authorities and soldiers starve, abduct and rob Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing continues. Direct violence against Rohingya women, men, and children occurred between late August and September, the security forces’ on-going actions appear to be designed toward the same goal: to make northern Rakhine State unliveable for the Rohingya population.

Ethnic Cleansing

In 1990, the term “ethnic cleansing” came into wide usage, to explicate and describe the situation suffered by particular ethnic groups during conflicts that erupted after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing has been defined as the attempt to get rid of (through deportation, displacement or even mass killing) members of an unwanted ethnic group in order to establish an ethnically homogenous geographic area.  The Final Report of the Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 defined ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas”.

The term ethnic cleansing has been reserved for some of the worst atrocities in history. The UN defines it as a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.

The international legal instrument which refers to defining the ethnic cleansing is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the Bosnian Genocide Case that draws a distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide. As a category, ethnic cleansing encompasses a continuum or spectrum of policies.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has linked ethnic cleansing more specifically to genocide, “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” stating that ethnic cleansing could constitute all three of those other offenses (all of which are under the court’s jurisdiction). In this way, despite controversy over its exact definition, ethnic cleansing is now clearly covered under international law, though efforts to prevent and punish acts of ethnic cleansing are still in development.

Rohingya Crisis

Since August 2017, hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered Bangladesh crossing the border of Myanmar where the state military has launched cleansing operation against the Rohingyas at Rakhine State in Myanmar.

As per the UN almost one million Rohingya men, women and children have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Reports claimed that the Tatmadaw along with local vigilantes have committed crime against humanity by conducting mass killings and rape of Rohingya women. The allegations label against armed forces that they burned down the villages of the Rohingyas and set signboard as Muslim free village. The situation cannot yet be assessed fully and independently as Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. Satellite imagery showing burned villages confirms the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

What makes Myanmar a textbook example is that the military has been launching attacks on the Rohingyas – a Muslim minority in a majority Buddhist country. Violent tactics have forced tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee their homes while many fled to Malaysia and Thailand, most ended up in Bangladesh.

The recent wave of violence is the latest in a pattern of discrimination that started over 50 years ago in 1962. Myanmar then called Burma was taken over by the military in a Coup led by General Ne Win.

They promoted fierce nationalism based on the country’s Buddhist identity and when they needed a common enemy to help unite the population. The Rohingyas were singled out as a threat. Tensions between the Burmese Buddhist population and the Rohingyas go back to the World War II, when each group supported opposing sides. The Rohingya sided with the British colonialists who ruled the country and the Buddhists mostly sided with the Japanese invaders, hoping they would help end the British rule.

After the war but even in modern Myanmar the Rohingya minority continued to be an easy target. Although their lineage can be traced back to 15th century Burma, the government has been forcing them out claiming that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It started in 1978 after a massive crackdown called Operation Dragon King forced about 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military reportedly used violence and rape to drive them out. About a hundred and seventy thousand Rohingya reportedly returned to Burma then in 1982.

The government passed the Citizenship Act recognising 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya with a population of about one million were not on the list and became a stateless people in 1991.

Myanmar’s military launched another campaign literally called Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation. This time about 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Tensions continued to build against the Rohingya in the 2000s. Violence broke out in 2012 when four Muslim men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman in Rakhine. Buddhist nationalist backed by security forces attacked Muslim neighbourhoods, burned homes displacing tens of thousands of Rohingyas. Human Rights Watch deemed it an ethnic cleansing campaign by this point.

The Rohingya were persecuted, disenfranchised and made stateless in 2016. A Rohingya militant group that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged and coordinated small-scale attacks on border police stations. An attack on August 25th 2017 left 12 police officers dead and sparked the current crisis against Rohingya civilians. A brutal retaliation by the state security forces has led to about 6,700 deaths and the mass exodus of about 687,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.

Since the August attack, 210 villages have been burned to the ground. The violent campaign has triggered the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in recent years but Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has barely acknowledged the attacks.

More than 50 per cent of the villages of Muslims are undamaged; they are as they were before the attacks took place. Suu Kyi said 50 per cent of the Muslim villages are still present in Rakhine State, it means about 50 per cent are gone, 50 per cent are burnt out. Recent reports claimed that the military has planted landmines along the Bangladesh border to prevent the Rohingyas from returning. Myanmar’s government has systematically driven the revenge’ out of the country over the last five decades. It has stripped their citizenship, terrorised them and destroyed their homes and now it wants to keep them from ever coming back.

During the past 14 months, Amnesty International has documented in detail serious human rights violations by the Myanmar authorities, perpetrated knowingly within widespread and systematic attacks on the Rohingya civilian population in the Rakhine State. These constitute crimes against humanity under international law.

Myanmar’s security forces are building on entrenched patterns of abuse to silently squeeze out of the country as many of the remaining Rohingyas as possible. Without more effective international action, this ethnic cleansing campaign will continue its disastrous march. In the context of the on-going attack against the Rohingya population, it also amounts to crimes against humanity, including apartheid.

Role of the World Community

Using the definition given in the national and international legal instruments, UN, EU and USA consider the aggressive displacement of Rohingya communities by the Myanmar government as ethnic cleansing. In mid-October 2017, the European Union Council of Foreign Ministers annulled ties and incorporated travel bans for the Myanmar military, as did the United States. Both also began reviewing the possibility of further formal sanctions. Meanwhile the Pope’s late-November visit to Myanmar to denounce the violence must have hit home to the Rohingya just how helpless the West had become.

Over the issue of Rohingya, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been mostly silent and has not taken a stand on the plight of the Rohingyas and on the growing numbers of asylum seekers in member countries, largely because of its members’ commitment to the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s only response to the crisis so far has been a bland statement – almost a month after the atrocities in Rakhine – expressing “concern” about the situation and failing to even mention the word “Rohingya”. Amnesty International has criticised the organisation alleging it has “failed” the refugees over the issue of Rohingyas.

India stated, “We stand by Myanmar, we strongly condemn the terrorist attack on August 24-25 and condole the death of policemen and soldiers”, even going by commercial interests. However, India has sent 7,000 metric-tonnes of relief materials to Bangladesh. China has been advocating resolution through bilateral efforts between Bangladesh and Myanmar and has offered to negotiate. Beijing and Moscow questioned UNSC’s jurisdiction to take any measure and contended that any interference would worsen the situation. Hence, world’s largest democracy, biggest communist state, and a powerful Eurasian country, all have lined up with Myanmar turning a blind eye to the “text book case of ethnic cleansing” as aptly stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Bangladesh is taking the burden of all 800,000 Rohingya refugees with its limited capacity, while the country does not provide refugee states of the Rohingya population rather “Forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMN)”.

The Rohingya have been designated one of the most persecuted groups by the UN and the Simon-Skjodt Centre for the Prevention of Genocide, a wing of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has warned that the Rohingyas are facing genocide. Yet there has been a lacklustre response by the International community, and from within Myanmar itself.

“Ethnic cleansing,” though not a formal legal term in international treaty that specifies a specific crime, in the broad sense it is defined as a crime against humanity under the statutes of both International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).


This writer is PhD candidate, University of Malaya, Department of LAW, Malaysia.