WMC Women Under Siege

Rohingya have long been ‘in danger of being discontinued’

Since October 2016, Burma, which is nearly 90 percent Buddhist—has seen a sharp increase in the suffering of its beleaguered ethnic minority known as the Rohingya. In Rakhine state, in the west of the country, this predominantly Muslim group has been the target of sustained military campaigns that have killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands more.  

More than 600,000 Rohingya have already fled Burma, according to the United Nations, often toward the country’s northern border with Bangladesh. While the government has used media blackouts and travel bans to suppress coverage as much as possible, information pieced together by the UN and on-the-ground reporters paints a gruesome picture of a scorched-earth campaign and a genocide in the making. A few weeks ago, the UN referred to the crisis as the “world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency.” This is on top of February statements expressing concern that the military had committed “crimes against humanity” for torturing, raping, and mass murdering scores of Rohingya.  

Yet while this most recent extreme campaign to exterminate the Rohingya has shocked the world, it is an effort built upon a long history of oppression.  

Rohingya refugees jump from a wooden boat as it begins to tip over after travelling from Burma to Bangladesh in September. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

A people without a state

Ostensibly, the current unrest in Rakhine state is a heavy-handed response to recent events—most notably small attacks and border skirmishes between Rohingya separatists and government security forces. Despite international criticism, the campaign remains consistent with Burma’s long-standing pattern of conflict with ethnic and religious minorities. Ultranationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha (backed by a man nicknamed the “face of Buddhist terror” by Time magazine, Ashin Wirathu) have ridden a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the last few years to massive public support.  

Yet the military’s campaign against the Rohingya has far deeper roots than this year’s border skirmishes, dating back as far back as the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948.  

As political borders for the newly liberated nations of India, Pakistan, and Burma were hastily redrawn, demands from some of Rakhine’s Muslims for inclusion within the borders of Bangladesh (then the eastern wing of Pakistan) sowed seeds of suspicion against them in what was to become Burma. Their demand to be a part of Pakistan would have effectively sliced the territory off from Burma, giving the impression that they were working to undermind the new nation. The Rohingya were not unique in raising such demands—a variety of Burmese ethnic groups sought increasing autonomy, paving the way for a military dictatorship for almost 50 years between 1962 and 2011. (And despite a series of reforms implemented by President Thein Sein while he was in office from 2011-2016, Burma is not exactly a democracy just yet.)  

Government policy and public attitudes have been particularly harsh toward the Rohingya compared to other groups. Critics allege the Muslim minority is composed entirely of undocumented immigrants recently arrived from Bangladesh. The vast majority of Rohingya, however, are neither separatists nor nationalists, maintaining that they’ve been part of Burma for generations. Indeed, while their name might be contestedit only came into use in the 1950s, according to some academic sources—Rohingya authors often highlight the fact that the Muslim presence in Rakhine stretches back hundreds of years. 

The Rohingya’s incorporation into political life has oscillated over the course of Burma’s independent history. Since 1948, they have periodically been granted the right to vote in previous elections. In 1982, however, they were stripped of their citizenship, and no Rohingya was allowed to vote in the country’s most recent 2015 election. This, coupled with Bangladesh’s refusal to recognize them as citizens, makes the Rohingya one of the largest stateless populations in the world.  

Recent events have underlined the intractability of their problem. When Burma began its transition to democracy in 2011, previous animosity between the Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine’s Buddhist population were rekindled by hardline groups attempting to play alliances off one another.    

In 2012, at least 192 people were killed in clashes between the two communities and 140,000 people—mostly Rohingya—were displaced, according to Reuters. In October 2016, conflict was ignited yet again following the killing of three border guards in Rakhine state by alleged Rohingya militants. Now more than half a million people are trundling across borders, seeking refuge in neighboring states. 

An old and ongoing war on women

By many accounts, women and children are the hardest hit right now. Rohingya women have recounted atrocities at the hands of the armed forces, including rape and torture, as well as execution of husbands and fathers. In the unmarked sliver of land between Burma and its neighbor Bangladesh, more than 400 Rohingya infants have also been born, many without their fathers, according to The Guardian. One Rohingya woman, Masum Bhadur, told the paper about losing her dead child: “He had a fever and wouldn’t stop shaking.” The United Nations Children's Fund reports that children may account for 60 percent of all arrivals to neighboring Bangladesh, while women and children dominate the groups emptying into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar, a port town.  

But there’s also a much longer history of targeted discrimination and oppression of Rohingya women within the country. Burma’s stringent “Protection of Race and Religion” laws—passed under a military-dominated government in 2015—document the range of restrictions undermining the fundamental reproductive, economic, and political rights of the persecuted minority—hitting women hard.  

In 2005, the government enacted a two-child family planning policy exclusively for Rohingya women, a regulation that builds upon older restrictions that require a lengthy government approval process for Rohingya to even get married. Any Rohingya who violates this law is subject to an imprisonment term of up to 10 years and/or a fine, causing many women to seek out unsafe abortions. In July 2015, Burma passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, forcing Buddhist women who aim to marry outside their faith to disclose this to the state, effectively enabling the government to stop marriages it deems unpalatable to public order, such as Muslim-Buddhist intermarriage.  

The most recent violence marks a tragic turn for the hopes pinned on the country’s democratic transition—and the advancement of women. Although barred from participating in the country’s historic 2015 elections, the first in half a century, the Rohingya had high hopes for the victory of current State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. A national icon since she assumed leadership of Burma’s pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, many assumed that Suu Kyi would become a strong champion for human—and women’s—rights.  

However, since assuming power, Suu Kyi has kept her distance from the Rohingya, offering muted concern at best and chilling unconcern at worst.  

Suu Kyi’s reticence to speak out on the issue owes partly to political calculations. Even if Suu Kyi did voice concern for the Rohingya, her own grip on power remains tenuous since the military retains control over key government institutions and 25 percent of parliamentary seats. And with much of her electorate currently in thrall of hardline Buddhist nationalism, there is little political reward in taking up the plight of a minority Muslim group—especially one that cannot vote in any upcoming elections.  

Indeed, this is why it’s so significant that women are hit the hardest by Suu Kyi’s failure to act: There is no champion for the Rohingya women cast aside by the state. “The brutality in which Rohingya women and girls have been subjected to sexual assaults in [Burma] show the soldiers’ contempt and hatred against their community,” says Chris Lewa from The Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights NGO based in Bangkok.  

Over the past few months, the situation has become bleaker, as the UN has reported that more than 80,000 Rohingya children are “wasting” away in Burma under a humanitarian crisis. The international body documented instances of children having no access to food for more than 24 hours, and stories of gang rape perpetrated by members of Burma’s military. With many Rohingya men killed or displaced by military operations, the women left behind have borne the brunt of a targeted ethnic-cleansing campaign, some activists say.  

“I try to be optimistic,” wrote Keane Shum, an official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya. “I explain that the United Nations continues to advocate for the Rohingya inside Burma and across the region.”  

Even so, Shum continued, the Rohingya “know better than I do, better than anyone, what it is like to be a citizen of nowhere, in danger of being discontinued.”



More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, Violence against women
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