The conflict in Myanmar

‘Ethnic cleansing’ and humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine State

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Throughout the course of history, far too many have faced the injustice of being displaced on religious or ethnic grounds. Jews were expelled from European territories under the Nazi regime, Native Americans were persecuted during the colonisation of the Americas and Muslims were pushed out of Spain during the Inquisition, and history seems to be repeating…

Today, Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority that lives in the northern region of Rakhine State in Myanmar, are victims of a violent displacement, forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. Since August 2017, more than 600,000 people, mostly children, have been forced to flee the country, according to a UN report.

Fear of ‘tomorrow’

Thousands of Rohingya people have being fleeing to a desolate beach at the mouth of the Naf river, which divides Buddhist Myanmar from Muslim Bangladesh. They have no food or water, apart from what is provided by humanitarian aid organisations, and they have no shelter from the sun or rain. Some are there as long as a month before they can afford to pay fishermen to take them to neighbouring Bangladesh on a risky journey that could cost them their lives. But the fear of tomorrow drives them forward.

In September 2017, one of the boats carrying 80 Rohingya people, including 50 children, broke in two just metres away from the shore. Many lost their lives after days travelling through thick forests to get on to the vessel. Rashida, a Rohingya Muslim who was on the boat, lost her mother, her eight-year-old sister and her seven-month-old son in just seconds. The force of the water dragged them under and only her father and two of her sisters were rescued.

Rashida and her family are among a group of more than 600,000 stateless Rohingyas who have been driven out of the country by brutal military action. Even the UN has called Myanmar’s counteroffensive a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’, accusing soldiers of arson, killings and rape.

Dilara, another Rohingya woman, told UN agencies that her husband had been shot and she had escaped from her village with her son and her in-laws. ‘We walked for three days, hiding when we had to. The mountain was wet and slippery and I kept falling,’ she explained. Dilara did get to Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh with her son and her in-laws.


'Described as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya people have been forcefully and violently driven away from Myanmar for decades.'


Rajuma didn’t have the same luck. While hiding in the river, clutching on to her baby while her village was in flames, she was clubbed in the face by soldiers and her screaming son was hurled into the fire. She was then gang-raped by soldiers. Rajuma escaped the horrors of that night naked, bleeding and completely alone. In just hours, she had lost her son, her mother, her two sisters and her brother.

Speaking to the The Independent, Rajuma said that ‘people were holding the soldiers’ feet, begging for their lives, but they didn’t stop, they just kicked them off and killed them, they chopped people, they shot people, they raped us, they left us senseless.’

Other survivors said they saw soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40mm grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them.

The root of the conflict

Described as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya people have been forcefully and violently driven away from Myanmar for decades and the persecution has been reignited in the past few years.

The conflict has its centre in the northern state of Rakhine, which borders with Bangladesh, and it arises chiefly from social differentiation and ongoing conflict between Rohingya Muslims and local Rakhine Buddhists.

In the 19th century, Myanmar fell under British power after three Anglo-Burmese Wars. During World War II, Rohingya Muslims allied with the British to fight against local Rakhine Buddhists, who were allied with the Japanese. In return, they were promised a Muslim state. When Myanmar was granted independence in 1948, all promises made by the British vanished, and the newly formed government of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar denied citizenship to the Rohingya people and subjected them to discrimination.

From 1947 to 1961, local Rohingya mujahideen or guerrilla formations fought government forces to gain autonomy for the Rakhine State, or secede, in order to be annexed by Bangladesh, however they did not succeed. In 1962, a coup d’état left the country under a military dictatorship that would last almost 50 years and, although similar movements emerged in the region, they culminated in a massive military response from the government.

In 2011, Myanmar’s military dictatorship was dissolved, a general election called, and a civilian government installed. The conflict in the Rakhine State seemed to have quietened down until a new insurgent group, known as Harakah al-Yaqin, carried out an attack on the government security forces on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in October 2016. Almost a year later, on 25 August 2017, 150 unidentified insurgents launched coordinated attacks on police posts and an army base in the Rakhine State. As a result of the attack, 12 security personnel and 59 insurgents were killed. Since then, the conflict has escalated.

In October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report detailing Myanmar’s military process to displace Rohingya people. Prior to the attacks on the 25 August 2017, the military had already started pursuing a strategy which entailed:

  • arresting and/or arbitrarily detaining Rohingya males aged between 15 and 40
  • arresting and/or arbitrarily detaining Rohingya political, cultural and religious figures
  • ensuring that access to food and other means of conducting daily activities and life be taken away from Rohingya villagers
  • driving out Rohingya villagers en masse through repeated acts of humiliation and violence (i.e. incitement of sectarian hatred, violence or killing)
  • instilling deep and widespread fear and trauma (physical, emotional and psychological) in Rohingya people through acts of brutality (namely, by killing, disappearance, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence)

International aid

The conflict is leading to a growing humanitarian crisis in border camps between Myanmar and Bangladesh where water, food and medical supplies are scarce. Refugees are living in camps and makeshift settlements are at a breaking point. Other settlements are springing along the border to cope with the growing number of displaced Rohingya people. In September the UN announced that the authorities of Myanmar had stopped aid agencies from accessing the camps to supply food, water and medicine to civilians in the Rakhine State.

Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) at the Palais des Nations in Geneva last September said that ‘those who have made it to Bangladesh are in poor condition. Most have walked for days from their villages, hiding in jungles, crossing mountains and rivers with what they could salvage from their homes. They are hungry, weak and sick.’

Refugees barely have any access to basics. As a result, Rohingya Muslim women are being driven to prostitution to buy supplies in Bangladesh's overcrowded refugee camps. In Kutupalong, the biggest camp, the sex industry is thriving with the influx of thousands of women.

Lisa Akero, gender protection specialist at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says: ‘If aid agencies can't manage to provide people with their basic needs, the risk of trafficking grows; if we can't establish a sustainable mechanism here and aid tires out, we could see trafficking levels rise.’