Attempting to Understand the Rohingya Crisis

by Ogonna Kanu

When you hear a group of persons repeatedly described as the most persecuted minorities in the world, it piques your curiosity and makes you wonder why. My research on the Rohingya prompted me to write about them because I was moved by their predicament. This article attempts to throw more light on the current state of the Rohingyas and the origins of their plight.

The Rohingya are a minority muslim ethnic group predominantly found in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Very few of them are practicing Buddhists. They generally speak the Rohingya dialect but may also speak English, Bangla, Burmese and Chittagonian. They traditionally dress in the Indo-Burmese way of dressing; and music and song play an important part in their culture.

The genesis of the Rohingya crisis dates back to the 1940s when Myanmar (formerly Burma) got its independence from the British who held sway from 1824 till then. Motivated by the policies of the British, many Rohingya migrated to Myanmar in search of greener pastures. Often recruited in the rice fields, their population grew. The Muslim population was reported to have tripled in the 1870s because of such migrant activities. The British promised the Rohingya their own separate land if they supported them. It was a promise they didn’t intend to keep. While the Rohingya sided with the British during World War II, the Myanmar nationalists were on the Japanese side. At the end of the war, their reward was prestigious government positions, but no land.

With the fall of colonialism in 1948, the Rohingya continued to demand for an autonomous state but their association with the British had bred resentment towards them. The Nationalist government and the mainly Buddhist population regarded them as foreigners who had enjoyed the perks of colonial rule and would hear nothing of such demands. In 1950, the army quashed a Rohingya revolt demanding for an autonomous state. Since then, a series of attacks have forced them to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia. A greater percentage of the Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh. The 700,000 who recently fled in 2017 joined others who had earlier fled. They found homes in the Kuputalong Camp (in Cox’s Bazar district)in Bangladesh. With their ‘relocation’, Kuputalong became the biggest refugee camp in the world, housing over 880,000 Rohingya refugees. 

In 1982, the Citizenship Act of Myanmar was enacted. The Act considers as citizens only those whose ancestors belonged to a national group or race present in Myanmar before the British rule of the 1820s. However, a census conducted by the British prior to 1820 when they occupied the Rakhine territory confirms the presence of an indigeneous ethnic group ‘Rooinga’. Some claims assert that the Rohingyas had lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar as far back as the 12th century. Myanmar has not considered any of these claims and has consistently denied the Rohingyas citizenship. They are instead viewed as illegal immigrants or at best ‘resident foreigners’. Bangladesh, where a lot of the Rohingyas have had to flee to, do not consider them as citizens either. As such, the Rohingyas are stateless and are deprived of the protection of any government. Rohingya children born outside Myanmar (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia etc) are not considered citizens of these countries. For those that choose to stay behind in Myanmar, they suffer a deprivation of benefits and are subject to restrictions. They do not enjoy quality healthcare, education or employment. In a bid to reduce their population, there are government restrictions on the number of children they should have. They are allowed to have only 2 children. They are required to seek permission to marry. This process involves presenting the photo of the bride without a headscarf and a clean-shaven faced groom. Both practices do not agree with Muslim customs. They also need permission to move or travel out.

While the news of fleeing Rohingya refugees may have caught world attention briefly in 2017, it was the television scenes of the March 2021 fires destroying countless refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar that jolted the world’s conscience back to the Rohingya crisis. Before then, Cox’s Bazar was largely known to only the humanitarian community.  They had for years been grappling with the weight of this catastrophe begging for urgent attention. There are claims that the refugees had started making their way to Bangladesh as far back as the 1940s. Some documented reports show that they had started to arrive in Bangladesh for succor in 1977 when Myanmar launched ‘Operation Dragon King’ which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship status and led to mass arrests and persecution of the group. There is also pictorial evidence showing refugees settling in Dumdumia Camp in Cox’s Bazar in 1992. In 2017, reprisal attacks from the Myanmar army and indignant Buddhist indigenes of the Rakhine state forced an estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees to seek refuge in the town. Earlier on, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts  with knives and home-made bombs, killing 12 members of the security forces in the process. The Myanmar army and the locals unleashed vengeance on Rohingya homes and property. Rape, sexual slavery, torture, kidnappings and killing of civilians were reported. Unverified reports claim that over 1,000 Rohingyas lost their lives in the 2017 fracas. Others who barely managed to survive joined in the mass exodus to Cox’s Bazar.

In 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement. Rohingya refugees were not eager to return to Myanmar. They were skeptical of receiving a warm welcome from people they once regarded as neighbors. Rohingya leaders were not convinced of the sincerity of the process; and demanded for safety upon their return to the Rakhine state and the reinstatement of citizenship be addressed, before any consideration would be given to repatriation. On the other hand, the  unfounded fear held by Myanmar that the Rohingyas could turn rebellious and solicit support from neighboring Islamic countries to overrun the Buddhist country was still rife. With the Myanmar government refusing to let down its guard, there was no surprise that the repatriation agreement had very little, if at all any, success. The January 2021 coup in Myanmar slowed down the resuscitation of repatriation talks. Both governments have only begun talking again in February this year. 

Presently, fires are not the only obstacles the Rohingyas who have managed to flee Myanmar are faced with. Bangladesh struggles with inadequate resources to cater to the needs of the refugees. The camps are overpopulated and poor sanitary conditions abound. The risk of an outbreak of disease is always high and poor medical facilities exacerbate the danger. Available water supply is often contaminated and encourages the spread of water-borne diseases. Floods also contribute to the rendering of refugees homeless again.  Most of the population is illiterate. Children do not have access to basic education as teachers are barred from using both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar curricula; and children are not allowed to enroll in schools outside the camp. Camp occupants are barred from working outside the camp. In 2019, the Bangladeshi government sped up the construction of shelters on the remote island of Basan Char. Since then, approximately 20,000 Rohingya refugees have been moved without their consent to the Island where they are not allowed to leave and are restricted from communicating with the UN and other organizations. Cases of refugees rescued at sea and being shipped off to the Island instead of being re-united with their families in Cox’s Bazar have been on the increase. The outcry and concerns about the safety of the Island and accessibility from humanitarians have gone unheeded by the government. Amidst criticism of Bangladesh’s handling of the crisis, it is only honest and fair to admit that there was a time when Bangladesh was the only country that accepted the refugees when others had turned their backs on them.

Repatriation seems to be a step in the right direction. However, If underlying issues are sorted out and the Rohingyas finally agree to come home, there may not be much left to come home to. Villages have reportedly been razed down and cleared to accommodate the construction of police barracks, buildings and refugee camps. Clearly, they will not be returning to the security of having homes and lands to call their own. The 2021 military takeover of the Myanmar government puts the Rohingya in a precarious situation. The army has always been involved in the state-endorsed persecution of the group. With the military at the helm of affairs, the group has legitimate reasons to fear that repatriation agreements may be disregarded in favor of military promulgations.  Prejudices and biases do not suddenly die away because of government pronouncements.  Assuming that the Myanmar government magnanimously enacts a law to protect the rights of the Rohingyas, there has to be effective measures in place to ensure that citizens obey the law. Dialogue between the Rohingyas, their Buddhist neighbors and the Myanmar government may help to allay some fears and build some trust amongst all parties.  Will the government consider treading cautiously and tackling bravely the concerns of the Rohingyas in order to win their trust?

Clearly, options for the Rohingyas today are limited.  They can either choose to embrace the uncertainty and hardship of refugee life or stay at ‘home’ in their comfort zone and remain oppressed. I sincerely wish that the story will not be the same in a year or two from now.