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The Rohingya Crisis: An Echo of the Rwandan Genocide

Many global leaders have been pointing fingers at the Burmese government as the Rohingya refugee crisis continues to spark outrage, but what action, if any, has actually been taken by the international community to resolve this crisis?

The world said never again after the infamous Rwandan genocide of 1994 that killed 800,000 people in the span of just a hundred days. The United Nations, as well as individual states, apologized for their failure to take action. But here we are again, in the wake of another humanitarian crisis that bears a striking resemblance to the genocide: the Rohingya crisis.

The Rohingya, often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority,” are an ethnic Muslim group that mainly resides in Myanmar, where a majority of the one million Rohingya live in Rakhine State. They differ from the Buddhist majority ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. Despite many Rohingya tracing their roots in Myanmar back centuries, they are largely considered illegal immigrants, and it is on this basis that the Burmese government does not acknowledge them as one of the nation’s 135 ethnicities, effectively rendering them stateless.  

The Burmese government has institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on many aspects of everyday life including marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. The Rohingya must seek permission to marry, which may require them to present photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-shaven face, practices that conflict with Muslim customs. To move to a new home or travel outside their town, the Rohingya must also gain government approval.

Religious differences, however, are not the only reason why the Rohingya are being persecuted. Rakhine state, home to the majority of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, is rich in minerals; therefore, many have argued that the government has a vested interest in “emptying” the area. The Burmese government recently designated 3 million acres for the development of the area’s resources, but Rakhine state’s citizens have called these schemes “land grabs” for which they receive little to no compensation from the government.

The plight of the Rohingya recently attracted worldwide attention after police posts and army bases were attacked by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group. The military responded by imposing a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, fueled by support from the Buddhist Burmese. They destroyed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, allegedly opening fire on fleeing civilians and planting landmines near borders used by Rohingya to escape to Bangladesh. Government troops have also been accused of extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and other severe human rights abuses. Due to the ceaseless violence in Myanmar, many Southeast Asian nations found themselves in the middle of a refugee crisis in which approximately half of the Rohingya population in Myanmar fled the country; however, it was largely overshadowed by the European refugee crisis that dominated global headlines until very recently when the Rohingya refugee crisis reached a terrible peak.

The state-sponsored discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya have been a decades-long issue, but the scale of the latest violence and allegations that Burmese forces are mining their borders have led to speculation that the military is trying to remove the Rohingya from their country for good. Amidst the conflict, Aung San Suu Kyi, the current leader of Myanmar, has come under heavy scrutiny regarding her inaction. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she was initially praised for her leading democratic efforts in the country and hailed a Myanmar’s “human-rights icon.” But under her administration, the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims has intensified. She has continuously refused to acknowledge or criticize the deadly campaign against the Rohingya; although she lost a great deal of international support for taking a soft stance and endorsing falsehoods, her words won favor with her local constituents. As a result, some have even called for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked.

Amidst increasing public uproar, quite a few members of the international community have stepped up to criticize the Burmese government. The UN human rights chief called the military’s brutal campaign “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and President Emmanuel Macron of France has gone so far to call it a “genocide.” However, many prominent international actors have also remained relatively quiet. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that  Myanmar is a member of, has kept its silence in accordance with its principle of non-interference in national matters even as the implications of the Rohingya refugee crisis continue to expand beyond the country’s borders. Myanmar’s neighbors have also been reluctant to welcome Rohingya refugees into their countries, leaving the already stateless people with no place to go.

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PC: The Swedish Rohingya Association

Lucrative business interests in Myanmar have resulted in a weak response by Muslim-majority countries who are already buckling under their own refugee crisis. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, competes with Russia to be China’s top crude supplier, but it relies on the Burmese government to protect the security of a crucial pipeline that runs through Myanmar. This recently opened pipeline starts in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya have been forced to leave, and carries oil from Arab countries to China. This pipeline has been named by experts as one critical reason why Saudi Arabia, a Muslim-majority country with a history of readily welcoming Rohingya Muslims, is being reluctant this time. China and Russia have also remained quiet because of close business and diplomatic ties to the Burmese government, and they’ve vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to resolve the crisis.

As tensions only continue to escalate in Myanmar, many have pointed out the similarities between the Rohingya crisis and the Rwandan Genocide.

  • Atrocities being committed are similar to Rwanda
    • UN efforts vetoed earlier this May by China and Russia in Security Council (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-un/china-russia-block-u-n-council-concern-about-myanmar-violence-idUSKBN16O2J6)
    • US actively backed efforts to pull the few UN Peacekeeping troops out of Rwanda after 10 Belgian soldiers were brutally murdered by Hutu extremists
    • The UN Security Council will decline to respond to the situation with the seriousness it deserves. If a situation is defined by the Council as a “genocide,” then the UN becomes legally bound to intervene, with peace-keeping missions and so on. That is why Western countries will be reluctant initiate such a move, and China, who is building one branch of its New Silk Road infrastructure right through Rakhine State to access the port of Sittwe, will likely veto any such proposal.
  • Peacekeeping troops can actually make a difference!
    • Before peacekeeping troops in Rwanda were pulled out due to pressure from the US, soldiers had strong deterrent effect
      • Rescued Tutsi, opened doors to Tutsi, established defensive positions in city
      • Hutu extremists were generally reluctant to massacre large groups of Tutsi if foreigners (armed or unarmed) were present
        • Didn’t take many UN soldiers to dissuade the Hutu from attacking if they were determined
      • This was why the UNAMIR withdrawal had such a harsh impact on the Rwandan genocide -> Hutu militia now had free reign in country
  • One major difference between the two is in timing!
    • Rwandan genocide only provoked an international response (more than 5,000 peacekeeping troops) that arrived in full months after the genocide had actually ended
    • Although still very late, this has garnered much more public attention during its peak -> still have opportunity to prevent this mass persecution
      • protests in Muslim countries, international condemnation
  • But situation demands stronger response than merely condemning actions of Myanmar gov -> we’ve already had enough of that
    • Atrocities in Bosnia didn’t end without NATO involvement
    • In Washington, Donald Trump’s administration broke its silence on the crisis on Monday, but White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not mention the Rohingya by name and appeared to blame the violence on both sides.
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PC: United Nations
  • Best would be for this response to continue to gain traction -> international condemnation leading to actual action? Like sanctions, negotiations, peacekeeping forces

One can only hope that it will be enough to pressure the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution to this crisis so that the fatal mistakes made during the Rwandan genocide are not repeated.

– Kristin Kim (’20)

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