More has declared the Rohingya a persecuted

More than 420,000 Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have fled as
refugees to Bangladesh since August 2017.1 The
United Nations has declared the Rohingya a persecuted minority group and
described the atrocities by Myanmar’s authorities as ethnic cleansing.2

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country. Ninety percent of the
population is Buddhist. Some Rohingya groups and historians believe that the
Rohingya have been in Myanmar since as early as the twelfth century,3
but many more migrated to Burma beginning in the nineteenth century. The sudden
population increase and competition for resources led to frequent friction
between the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.4 At
the time, Myanmar was known as Burma. The name Myanmar did not come into
official use until 1989.

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Anti-Rohinngya rallies are now common in Myanmar.

Discrimination Before 1982

The modern pattern of
discrimination began in 1948 when independence from the British was achieved,
but first a bit of background. British rule began in 1824 and lasted for one
hundred twenty-four years. During this time many Rohingya entered the British
colony to work as migrant labor on the rice fields. Census records show that
from 1871 to 1911, the Muslim population tripled. By this time, the immigrant
population was twice the size of the local Muslim population. As the Muslim
Rohingya community absorbed new migrants its religious networks, their numbers
increased and they began to take on a separate cultural identity. The Rohingya
began to look, dress, and act differently from their Buddhist neighbors. The
growing population pushed into the south, displacing some Buddhist villages.
Friction between the two groups grew quickly.5

In World War 2, prior to the Japanese invasion, the British,
seeking to bolster support for their forces, promised the Muslims of northern
Arakan a Muslim National Area. This promise brought many Muslims into the
British armed forces, while the nationalists supported the Japanese. Just after
the war, the British gave desirable government posts to the Rohingyas, but no
National Muslim Area was forthcoming.6 Division between the Buddhists and
Muslims was obvious in World War 2. The country was then known as Burma and was
under British rule. Japanese troops quickly advanced on Rangoon. The British
government collapsed while the Buddhists sided with the Japanese. In response,
the British gave arms to the Muslims. The Burmese desired self-rule, not
Japanese rule, but the effect of the battlefield in Burma was to split the
native population in two. Most of the ethnic minorities sided with the British.
After the war, Britain returned, but Burma was granted independence in 1948. At
the same time, disagreements broke out among the more than one hundred ethnic
groups of Myanmar. The forced stability created by colonial rule was gone, and
unresolved conflicts broke to the surface. In 1946, a few Muslim political
leaders announced their intentions to form an independent Muslim state, and in
the following year met with Ali Jinnah, who would go on to found Pakistan.7

Simultaneously, a Burmese National Movement was also forming. One
of its key rallying points was opposition to Muslim migration. At the same
time, it supported a Buddhist religious revival. These developments would quickly
impact on the experience of the Rohingya in the Union of Burma. Following
independence in 1948, the Muslim population began losing citizenship status.8

A small part of the Rohingya joined a rebellion against the
post-independence government. Most Rohingya did not approve of the action. When
the rebels used religious justifications for their actions, religious leaders
condemned them. However, the rebels’ demands appealed to many Rohingya. They
wanted to be recognized as an indigenous Burmese people and reject Buddhist
claims that they were not. The rebels also demanded of the government to reintegrate
Muslims into the government and army, improve the economy and education in
Muslim majority areas, lift restrictions on Muslim travel, and permit Muslims
to return to their villages.9 The
rebellion failed.

In 1950, armed rebellion began again. Groups of Rohingya rebels
called Mujahids led attacks against
villagers in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung. The Mujahids punished
non-Muslim villages and those Muslim villages that refused them support. The
government in Burma demanded that Muslim Pakistan no longer provide weapons to
the Mujahids to which Pakistan agreed. The Muhajid leader was arrested in
Pakistan in 1954, and the rebellion diminished.10

At this time, the Rohingya were still technically recognized as
citizens although their brief power in the government had disappeared. Rohingya
citizenship status continued to fade until the Citizenship Law of 1982 made
them officially stateless overnight. Suddenly the Rohingya held the status of
illegal immigrants who were not allowed free movement inside Myanmar despite
the many centuries they had lived on the land.11

The Buildup of
Discrimination before 1982

Independence

1948 self-rule created an independent republic called the Union of Burma
governed by a president, prime minister and bicameral parliament. Elections
were held every four years up through 1960. U Thant, who became the
Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, was from the Union
of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, a young Burman woman, worked for U Thant at the
United Nations and later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.12

Military Rule

By 1962, the civilian government of the Union of Burma was still not
strong. Some ethnic groups began to push for greater autonomy. Into this power
vacuum of sorts stepped the military leadership who believed in a much stronger
central government. The coup d’état of 1962 led to a string of military
governments until political reforms began in 2011. From 1962 to 1974, a
Revolutionary Council nationalized many aspects of society incorporating
Soviet-like central planning. In 1974 the new constitution of the Socialist
Republic of the Union of Burma took effect. Demonstrations against the
government, particularly student protests, were brutally suppressed. From that
time until 1988, Burma joined the most impoverished countries on earth and was
ruled by a one-party system under the military hierarchy.

1974 was a violent year in Burma most likely instigating the new
constitution. In May, oil field workers at Chauk went on strike for higher
wages followed by a railroad strike at Insein protesting food shortages and
high prices in June. In all, about forty-four state enterprises experienced
strikes and riots. At least several dozen people were killed by police, but
this number is likely too low13.

The 1974 demonstrations over the funeral of United Nations Secretary-General
U Thant were most notable. U Thant died in New York on November 25th
of that year. When his body was flown back to Rangoon, President Ne Win ordered
that it be buried without official honors. On the day of the funeral, December
5, university students and Buddhist monks, angered by the lack of official
honors and while many thousands of Burmese mourners paid their respects, took U
Thant’s coffin and paraded through the streets before burying him at the site
of the demolished Rangoon University Student Union. Six days later, government
troops stormed the campus, where demonstrations were still active, and took U
Thant’s coffin for burial elsewhere. More riots followed, and martial law was
declared. Nine people were killed. Ne Win’s government passed a law in 1975
forbidding anti-state activities.14

Rohingya Expulsion of 1978

General Ne Win and
the Burma Socialist Programme Party had seized power in 1962. The military
government set about taking power from the Rohingya. Their social and political
organizations were forcibly disbanded. In 1977, a new national policy began
with the purpose of registering all citizens while at the same time identifying
all “foreigners.” After this process was completed, there would be taken a
national census. The Rohingyas were labeled as illegals, and many were arrested
and detained in the process. By May 1978, more than 200,000 fled Burma for
Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, however, the refugees declared they had been evicted
with widespread violations of rape and murder. The International Red Cross and
the United Nations came to the aid of the Bangladeshi government, and thirteen
refugee camps were established for the Rohingyas.15

This situation could
not last. Bangladesh quickly sought to repatriate the refugees back to Burma.
The United Nations joined the request and used the foreign aid desired by the
government of General Ne Win as a bargaining chip. As a result, Burma agreed to
the repatriation. The Rohingyas were distrustful and slow to move, but
Bangladesh began closing down the camps. Soon the refugees were back in Burma
but no safer.16 Their distrust of the
agreement was correct in that many Rohingya were nevertheless prevented from returning
to their home villages.17

More suppression of citizenship was in the works. In 1982, the
government passed the Burma Citizenship Act which granted citizenship to well
over one hundred ethnic minority groups. However, the legislation denied
citizenship to the Rohingya by omitting them from the list. Confiscation of
lands and property came next. By 1989, the government began settling Buddhists
in Muslim-majority areas in Arakan and Rakhine States. These settlements displaced
Muslim families. The action was accompanied by reports of soldiers raping
Rohingya women, destroying or confiscating property, conscripting forced labor,
and murdering men and women. Another refugee crisis was evident. The United
Nations General Assembly and UN Human Rights Commission issued condemnations of
the Burmese government for their actions and the accompanying violence.18

Anti-Muslim Laws

The Rohingya Muslims are classed by the government as “stateless”
because of their “nonindigenous ancestry.” “Nonindigenous” has been defined as
having no ancestors in Burma prior to 1824, and it is the position of the
government that all Rohingya were brought into Myanmar under British rule in
order to work for the British.19 This
is despite ethnolinguistic research to the contrary showing that Rohingyas were
living in Burma in the eighteenth century.20 Prejudice
and ethnic animosity make the people of Myanmar even today unwilling to change
the law. Other legal actions compound the misery inflicted by this law. For
example, the Emergency Immigration Act requires the possession of National
Registration Certificates by all citizens. The Rohingya are allowed only to
have Foreign Registration Cards. These can be very restrictive. Many employers
and schools reject them and deny jobs or admittance. Foreigners are also
restricted by the government with regard to marriage, number of children (only
two allowed), access to education and health care, the right to worship freely,
property ownership, and free movement about the country. An astounding eighty
percent of Rohingya today are illiterate. Although a somewhat civilian
government was elected in Myanmar in 2011, human rights have not returned to
this nation21.

Additional laws and policies used to control and push out the
Muslim population of Myanmar include:

Two-Child Policy. Reporting in 2014, the organization Fortify Rights found that
for at least the preceding nine years, Myanmar has imposed a two-child policy
on Rohingya in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships of northern Rakhine State.
Under international law, women are entitled to determine for themselves the size
of their families. Regional Order 1/2005 limited the number of children born to
Rohingya women “who have permission to marry.” The order expressly applied only
to the Rohingya. In practice, the limit prescribed to married couples by this
order was determined to be two children. Authorities use various humiliating
practices to enforce this order. Women are required to take pregnancy tests
before being permitted to marry. Family photos are confiscated in order to
verify members of households. Women who claim to be the mothers of infants must
prove this by breastfeeding in front of government witnesses. Young children
are questioned about their families separately from the adults. Although the
government has denied that this policy exists, documents have shown that it was
being enforced in 2013.22

Enforced Birth Control. In 2013, the Rakhine State government essentially blamed the
Rohingya for making their restricted territory “too crowded.” Rohingya
traditional culture allows men to have multiple wives, and the government made
its disapproval of the practice clear when it used the reason of this practice
for the orders to restrict Rohingya marriage and family size. The government
insists that the policy was made only for countering over-population and
resulting socio-economic problems.23 (Fortify
Rights, pp. 26-27)

Marriage Restrictions. As a result of what the government euphemistically calls “family
planning,” numerous attempts at abortion are inevitable, despite the fact that
abortions are illegal, unsafe, and not conducted by medical personnel. The
number of resulting deaths is unknown. Women suffering complications and
infections do not dare to seek help for fear of their pregnancy becoming known
to the government. In truth, they have little opportunity to find help. United
Nations sources have reported that there is only one physician per 83,000
people in the Rohingya-dominated townships of northern Rakhine State. Many
other women do not seek abortions despite the consequences. In 2014 it was
estimated that about 60,000 children of the Rohingya were unregistered, having
been born out of wedlock or exceeding the birth limit. These children are
“blacklisted” and have no legal or social status in Myanmar. They can never
become citizens, marry, and get an education or employment.24 (Fortify
Rights, pp. 28-29)

Expulsion of Aid Workers. Getting healthcare to the Rohingya has been a serious problem
since their expulsions began. In 2014, Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times about conditions in a
Rohingya camp in Myanmar. One hundred fifty thousand Rohingya were confined in
this camp, and yet the Myanmar government blocked aid workers from entering and
offering medical assistance. Conditions became much worse in 2014 when the
government expelled Doctors Without Borders. Other humanitarian organizations
were forced out when the government organized mobs to attack their offices.
Healthcare is perhaps the most urgent need of the Rohingya, and because they
are forced to live in such crowded unsanitary conditions, epidemics are just
waiting to happen.25

Fear and Prejudice of Islam. As readers will have noticed, religious prejudice is the
unspoken barrier to Rohingyan aid. In Myanmar, Islam has been demonized.
Anthropologist Elliott Prasse-Freeman has discovered that modern opportunists,
including some Buddhist monks, have repeatedly pointed to the Rohingya as
jihadists. The “global war on terror” is being used in Myanmar as a weapon
against the Rohingyar. Myanmar must defend its nation from Islamification. That
is the asserted intent of the Rohingya in persisting to stay and seek
citizenship. All Myanmar will be forcibly converted. This is the narrative that
is now being projected by the Nationalists.26

Restriction of Movement. Finally, there is the matter of travel restrictions. The
Rohingya in Rakhine State cannot travel within or between townships without
authorization. Gaining permission to travel           
outside the state for any reason is difficult in the extreme. There is a recent
trend to extend this restriction on all Muslim minorities in Myanmar, not just
the Rohinya. Fortify Rights has obtained copies of several orders regarding
permission for movement, and most are directed only to married couples. If a
couple wished to move to a new house at a different location, they would have
to fill out an application, present an original marriage certificate, and show
all of the registrations of persons in their household. Once arrived at their
destination, Rohingya must also report to the new local authorities. Fines and
prison time are the penalties for failure to abide by the rules. Rakhine State
and the central government refer to these rules as “population control”
measures.27

The eyes of the world, the United Nations, and of humanitarian
organizations are increasingly focused on Myanmar. The many human rights abuses
we now see have been occurring in front of a relatively inattentive world for
generations. The situation of the Rohinya is not new. The forces working
against them formed generations ago.

1 Lone, Wa, and Andrew R. C. Marshall.
“Rohingya Muslims trapped after Myanmar violence told to stay put.”
Reuters World News. September 19, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2018.
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-trapped/rohingya-muslims-trapped-after-myanmar-violence-told-to-stay-put-idUSKCN1BU293.

2 Abdelkader, Engy. “The history of the
persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya.” The Conversation. September 20, 2017.
Accessed September 8, 2017.
https://theconversation.com/the-history-of-the-persecution-of-myanmars-rohingya-84040.

3 Epure, Georgiana. “”The World’s Most
Persecuted Minority:” A History of Discrimination Against the Rohingya.”
Responsibility to Protect Student Journal. September 18, 2017. Accessed January
10, 2018. http://r2pstudentjournal.leeds.ac.uk/2017/09/18/the-worlds-most-persecuted-minority-a-history-of-discrimination-against-the-rohingya/.

4 Sugimoto, Orie. “How Discrimination Began
Against the Rohingya.” NHK World. November 1, 2017. Accessed January 9,
2018. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/editors/1/howdiscriminatebeganagainsttherohingya/index.html.

5 Harvard University. “The Rohingya.”
Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project. 2017. Accessed January 9,
2018. https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/rohingya.

6 Abdelkader,
ibid.

7 Harvard University, ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Human Rights Watch. “Historical
Background.” Burma/Bangladesh. Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No
Durable Solution. May 2000. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/burma/burm005-01.htm.

11 Sugimoto, ibid.

12 Burma Campaign UK. “A Biography of Aung
San Suu Kyi.” Human Rights, Democracy and Development in Burma. 2012.
Accessed January 11, 2018. http://burmacampaign.org.uk/about-burma/a-biography-of-aung-san-suu-kyi/.

13 GlobalSecurity.org. “The Socialist
Republic of the Union of Burma.” Military. August 10, 2011. Accessed
January 10, 2018. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/myanmar/ne-win-5.htm.

14 Ibid.

15 Human Rights Watch, ibid.

16 Human Rights Watch, ibid.

17
Harvard University, ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 GlobalSecurity.org, ibid.

20 Buchanan, Francis, M.D. “A Comparative Vocabulary
of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire.” SOAS Bulletin of
Burma Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2004, ISSN 1479-8484. 2003. Accessed
January 11, 2018. https://www.soas.ac.uk/sbbr/editions/file64276.pdf. The
original work was published in 1799.

21 Abdelkader, Engy. “The Rohingya Muslims
in Myanmar: Past, Present, and Future.” Oregon Review of International Law, Scholarsbank University of
Oregon. 2014. Accessed January 9, 2018.
https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/17966/Abdelkader.pdf;sequence=1.

22 Fortify Rights. “Policies of Persecution:
Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.”
FortifyRights.or. February 25, 2014. Accessed January 9, 2018. https://www.upwork.com/leaving?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.fortifyrights.org%2Fdownloads%2FPolicies_of_Persecution_Feb_25_Fortify_Rights.pdf.
24-25.

23 Ibid., 26-27.

24 Ibid., 28-29.

25 Kristof, Nicholas. “Myanmar’s Appalling Apartheid.” New
York Times, May 28, 2014. Accessed January 11, 2018.
https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/opinion/kristof-myanmars-appalling-apartheid.html.

26 Prasse-Freeman, Elliott. “The Rohingya
Crisis.” Academia.edu. December 2017. Accessed January 11, 2018.
https://www.academia.edu/35310344/The_Rohingya_crisis.

27 Fortify Rights, ibid.,
33-34.

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