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Aid agencies flee following Rohingya – Myanmar clashes

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was elected to government in November 2015, there was a wave of relief across Myanmar, and the world, that, after decades of repression, things would change for the better. For many citizens of Myanmar there has been positive change, if most of it occurring prior to those elections. But for Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, their situation has become very much worse.

Last Friday militants from the Arakan Rohyngya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked a series of Myanmar border posts in the west of the country, killing more than 100, mostly border police. In response, international aid agencies, which had been assisting tens of thousands of displaced Rohyngyas, are now pulling out all non-essential personnel.

ARSA commander Abu Ammar Jununi said the attacks were in response to Myanmar military harassment and blockades of Rohyngya villages. There has been growing militant activity on the border between Bangladesh and Rakhine State since, in 2012, deadly rioting and clashes between the Rohingya Muslim minority of around 1.3 million and the state’s Rakhine Buddhist majority of 3.2 million, the latter aided by the military. About a million Rohyngas have already fled Myanmar.

The Rohingya have long been persecuted by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and, as long ago as 1982, arbitrarily lost their status as Myanmar citizens. Since then Rakhine State’s Rohyngas have been increasingly marginalized, denied access to basic services and beaten, raped and killed.

There was some belief that, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi effectively leading the country that she would intervene to end the discrimination. However, Suu Kyi has continued Myanmar’s official policy of denying the Rohynga citizenship, claiming the self-identifying Rohynga are immigrants from Bangladesh and forbidding the use of the name ‘Rohynga’.

Many outside Myanmar who had pinned high hopes on Suu Kyi’s leadership have been deeply disappointed. They forget, however, that Sue Kyi has to balance overwhelming ethnic Burman racism towards Rohyngas and the Myanmar military’s anti-Rohynga policy against what is a still fragile and slowly evolving democracy.

Myanmar may have had democratic elections and put in place a civilian government, but its military still has veto power over the government. The country’s constitution requires that the military retains a quarter of parliamentary seats and, more importantly, that its military-dominated National Defence and Security Council can remove the elected government at any time for any reason.

As well as having to balance these reactionary forces that still play out in Myanmar’s domestic politics, many have forgotten or perhaps never knew that Suu Kyi is nothing if not her father Aung San’s daughter and, as such, is an ethnic Burman nationalist. When Suu Kyi has said that the name ‘Rohynga’ cannot be uttered in Myanmar, she has sounded as though speaking from personal conviction.

The claim that the Rohynga are actually Bangladeshis is used to exclude them from Myanmar citizenship and, hence, rights within the country. Some people identifying as Rohingya did cross into Myanmar during the Pakistan Civil War of 1971 which saw Bangladesh secede from Pakistan as an independent state.

However, the vast majority of Rohyngas are descendants of people who have lived in the area for at least 600 years, more than 300 years before incorporation of the region into the pre-colonial Burmese empire. Others are descendants of laborers brought to then colonial Burma by the imperial British.

Under international law, Myanmar is their home. Having lost citizenship, they are now a stateless – and persecuted – people.

Alienated from the Myanmar state, radical Rohyngas have been gravitating towards radical Islamism since the mid-1990s. Around 1994, and again in 2000, a small number of radical Rohingyas met with other Southeast Asian Muslims under the auspices of what became known as Jemaah Islamiyah.

Some Rohyngas were taken to sympathetic Muslim states and given military training. The rise of ARSA and its subsequent attacks against the Myanmar were, therefore, predictable. Perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken so long for more radicalized Rohyngas to fight back.

The problem now is that with ARSA’s attacks, it has lent legitimacy to the Myanmar narrative of the Rohyngas not being ‘Burmese’, leaving aside that the country still has several other unresolved ethnic insurgencies. Because of its radical Islamist associations, ARSA also risks being listed as a terrorist organization.

With Bangladesh closing its border to fleeing Rohyngas and the military and ethnic Burmese in Rakhine State stepping up their attacks against Rohingya civilians, the situation for the Rohyngas looks as though it will become worse before – and if – it gets better.

This situation would, then, reasonably be one where the UN Security Council would step in. The problem is that China, which has veto power in the UNSC, is the country that remains closest to Myanmar and its government.

Myanmar’s Rohyngas have been described as the most persecuted people in the world. Certainly, over time, that has consistently been the case. It appears as though it may also remain so into the foreseeable future.