Q. The UN calls it “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis”, but who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing Myanmar?
The conflict itself is, partially, about identity. Diverse Muslim communities have lived in Rakhine State for centuries, including the ancestors of those who today identify as Rohingya. That particular label has not been consistently applied until the mid-20th century, which is why many in Myanmar erroneously reject Rohingya identity as recently invented. Their indigeneity was not questioned after independence, but they have been gradually excluded from the military’s citizenship regime, and they are now fleeing because of a massive, organised campaign of violence, led by those military forces. The violence has also affected non-Rohingya communities, and evidence suggests that the methods used are consistent with military attacks on other ethnic groups. Whilst it is acknowledged that attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) precipitated the current campaign, the response has been wildly disproportionate and the regime has effectively tarred the entire population with the same “terrorist” label, treating all Muslims as supporters of the insurgents.
Q. The international media began to take real notice around 2012, but do the roots of this crisis lie deeper in Myanmar’s history?
This is the third mass expulsion of Rohingya by concerted military operations; the previous two took place in 1978 and 1992. The roots also go back to the 1940s, where Muslim and Buddhist communities on different sides of the conflict in World War II organised pogroms against one another in Rakhine State. The result was that previously integrated communities became significantly more segregated, with Buddhists fleeing northern Muslim-dominant areas to be more concentrated in the south, and vice versa. Today, many elsewhere in Myanmar believe the current conflict started in 2012; Rakhine accounts date it back to World War II or even earlier.
Q. The crisis has often been presented as a clash between Muslims and Buddhists, with the 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha often mentioned. Who are these groups?
969 was a loosely organised movement that came onto the scene in 2012, largely through advocating a “Buy Buddhist” campaign, which connected with a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. Senior monks became concerned that these actions were bringing Buddhism into disrepute, and this led to the founding of Ma Ba Tha in 2013. Ma Ba Tha is often portrayed as an anti-Muslim group (and they certainly supported the controversial 2014 “race and religion” protection laws), but focusing on that aspect misses the context in which many Burmese encounter the group, which is its charitable, educational and community development activities: “Sunday Schools”, donation ceremonies for monks, fundraising activities, and even micro-finance schemes. It is important to have a more nuanced understanding of the situation, as my current DPIR research project is designed to do. This is not to deny or minimize the problematic anti-Muslim components, but to develop a better understanding of why the movement has strong appeal to Buddhists.
Q. Much media coverage has framed the violence as being driven by “ethnic hatreds”, implying it is a regional issue. What role has the Myanmar government played in this crisis?
Whilst there have been rapid shifts in government in recent years, many bureaucratic structures have remained consistent, and we have seen a range of discriminatory policies aimed at the Rohingya over time. The semi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein was very slow to respond to the initial violence in 2012, which fuelled riots in places outside of Rakhine State. In 2015, with heightened nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiment, the NLD government chose to purge its candidate list of all Muslims, and no one from the party leadership has spoken out in ways that adequately acknowledge and firmly denounce the violence. Instead, when accused of being complicit in the violence, they have responded defensively, denying the scope of the military’s campaign, impeding attempts to report on the situation, undermining survivor accounts, and claiming that they are defending the country against a terrorist threat.
Q. What could the international community do to resolve the situation?
If the Rohingya are ever to return with security and dignity to the areas they consider to be their homeland, trust and mutual protections (for them and the ethnic Rakhine) will have to be ensured. Some groups (such as ethnic women’s organisations) have expressed solidarity with the Rohingya, recognising mutual experiences of suffering. Similarly, just as the Rohingya have been collectively (and unfairly) painted as terrorists, so too have people in other conflict areas in Myanmar. Highlighting the way the military has acted throughout Myanmar provides a way of pushing back and generating a much-needed foundation for solidarity and hope for this region in particular.
An extended version of this interview first appeared on the Oxford Research Group’s Sustainable Security blog. Learn more about Matthew Walton's ESRC funded project Understanding “Buddhist Nationalism” in Myanmar: Religion, Gender, Identity, and Conflict in a Political Transition.
Matthew Walton is Associate Member, DPIR and Senior Research Fellow, St Antony's College