The fact that Myanmar is pursuing a policy which amounts to ethnic cleansing can comprehensively be gauged by the consequences of their military operation in Rakhine State -- an exodus of nearly 300,000 people in only two weeks, travelling by foot and by boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
In decades past, similar operations have prompted over 400,000 people to make the same journey out of Rakhine, as a result of which approximately a third of the total Rohingya population are now refugees abroad.
The United Nations defines ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group” and the International Criminal Court’s statutes count ethnic cleansing among its list of crimes.
Intended or unintended?
Given the staggering pace and volume of the exodus, there can be little doubt that this is what is happening in Rakhine, indeed the top UN Human Rights official described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” but to establish official culpability, what really requires examining is whether its occurrence is an intended or unintended part of the government’s operation.
The rhetoric coming from Naypiydaw regarding the legal status of the Rohingya community and their repatriation would suggest the former, meaning it is in fact deliberately committing that particular crime against humanity.
Myanmar’s government bases its actions in Rakhine State upon two specific claims with which it seeks to explain why it is justified in uprooting an entire community of people.
The first of these is the claim that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh so essentially not Burmese, and therefore have no entitlement to citizenship or to state protection.
Leaving aside the flaws in that reasoning for the moment, it would follow that the government appears to be saying since the Rohingya possess no legal status in the country they are open to state persecution and to being murdered by the army.
This is diabolic and twisted, not to mention a violation of the entire universe of human rights legislation across the world. The argument that the Rohingya are not Burmese cannot, in any way, be used to justify their persecution. However, the argument itself seems to hold very little merit when seen in the light of history.
A brief history
The name “Rohingya,” which the government of Myanmar insists was recently made up, is in fact very old. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, working for the East India Company, listed the “Rooinga” as a native population of Arakan (Rakhine) as early as 1799, and even older records from the Bengal Sultanate confirm the existence of an Indo-Aryan, or Indic Muslim population living in Rakhine since the 1400s.
The Kingdom of Mrauk U in Rakhine, which was supported militarily by the Sultanate and was a vassal to it, hosted a population of Bengali Muslims whose legacy is the Santikan Mosque built in the 1430s. Their descendants are also among the people now being displaced.
Given the proximity of Rakine to Bengal, it is of course perfectly natural for an Indic population to have spilled over into Myanmar, and for people to have settled expansively in areas that were not separated by the hard borders that exist today.
Indic people and Indic culture have diffused beyond South Asia for centuries, particularly into South East Asia. Indeed, both Buddhism and the Burmese script are Indic in origin and so to claim a mutual exclusivity between South and South East Asia as regards race and religion, especially at the very place where the two regions meet, is an absurdity.
Both Bangladesh and India have large non-Indic populations within their territories along Myanmar’s borders.
Tellingly, Hindus of Indic origin, who identify as Burmese Hindus, have also fled Rakhine following the recent military operation, confirming the existence of a pre-Muslim or at least non-Muslim Indic population in the state, who have little to do with migration from the present country of Bangladesh and everything to do with geographic and historical realities.
A National Geographic report by Frank Viviano in 2015 states: “Most scholars concur that the racial demography of Rakhine was in fact overwhelmingly Indo-Aryan rather than Myanmar for the first 2,000 years of its recorded history. There is considerable evidence that the Rohingya trace their ancestry to this community.”
The term “Rohingya” itself can include both Hindus and Muslims of course, pointing, again, towards a migration that pre-dates Muslim presence in the region, though it has come to refer mainly to the Muslim population in recent usage due to the fact that the majority of them are Muslims.
A Muslim presence in the region is itself rather old, borne by the same waves which brought Islam to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Southern Thailand, with Muslim sea-faring traders between the 10th and 15th centuries.
The name Rohingya could, according to an Economist report from 2015, simply mean “inhabitants of Rohang,” an early Muslim name for Rakhine State. A Muslim presence in that state may also have developed concurrently with the one in Chittagong, meaning it might have been there since the ninth century.
And finally, or rather, ultimately, European colonisation, first with the Portuguese and then with the British, brought large numbers of Indian setters to Rakhine, as well as to other parts of Myanmar. An 18th Century British policy encouraged thousands of Bangla-speaking inhabitants from adjacent areas to migrate into the fertile valleys of Rakhine as agriculturalists.
It was done to fill the void left in the wake of the Bamar conquest of the region a century earlier, which led to a drastic depopulation as locals fled the onslaught into India or were taken away as slaves to other parts of Myanmar.
It is no small irony then, that a state left under-utilised because of Bamar excesses, was made to flourish by Bengali immigrants -- the descendants of whom are now being driven out by a Bamar-led army.
A combination of these historical factors created a large Indic Muslim population in Rakhine. Surveys conducted after the riots of 2012 found that if the over one million diaspora outside Myanmar were included, the Rohingya would constitute about 63% of the population of the state of Rakhine.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh is not a myth, and surely several thousands of people have been added to their numbers because of it, but it can hardly account for such a high percentage. There have even been studies to suggest that the people who came from Bangladesh, or East Pakistan at the time, were originally Rohingyas who were returning home after fleeing the Japanese during World War II.
The verdict is guilty
And so, in summary, whichever way one slices it, there is very little evidence to support the claim that Rakhine’s Indo-Aryan Muslim population is a recent and foreign phenomenon.
Truth is, the population has existed for centuries before the current states of Myanmar and Bangladesh came into being, a fact that previous governments of Myanmar seem to have known well enough since the Rohingya were only made stateless in 1982, a full 34 years after Myanmar became a country.
In fact, the move to strip the Rohingya of their citizenship was part of a policy that stripped other non-Tibeto-Burman populations, like the Chinese, Indian, and Anglo-Burmese communities, of their citizenship as well, establishing only eight constitutionally recognised national races, nearly all Buddhist and of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity.
It is no small irony then, that a state left under-utilised because of Bamar excesses, was made to flourish by Bengali immigrants – - the descendants of whom are now being driven out by a Bamar-led army
That the government of Myanmar is attempting to forcibly create an ethno-religious state is plain to see, and given the multi-racial legacy with which the country has been endowed, a policy of ethnic cleaning is a central necessity for such an agenda to succeed.
Seen in this light, any insistence that the Rohingya are all illegal immigrants, even though they were recognised as indigenous citizens until 1982 and were elected to high legislative office on native seats during both colonial times and in an independent Myanmar, can only be interpreted as deliberate, malicious fabrication.
The second premise upon which the military operation in Rakine is based, is terrorism. This claim, arguably, has more substance.
There is no denying that ARSA and other militant groups operational in Rakhine have engaged in unacceptable terrorist activity, and tensions between the Rohingya and the State of Myanmar are not new.
There is indeed an insurgency in Rakhine State and the government of Myanmar has both the right and the responsibility to address it. But the excesses it commits in doing so are quite possibly causing the insurgency to grow.
Violence between the Rohingya and other populations of Rakhine was first recorded during World War II when Rohingya militias, allied with the British, attacked pro-Japanese groups in the state who were largely non-Rohingya.
There were also land grabs and religiously inspired attacks on the Buddhist and Tibeto-Burman people of Rakhine and in the late 1940s, attempts were made by some Rohingya Muslims to take parts of Rakhine into East Pakistan, but the Pakistani leadership rejected their proposal.
This is all true, but it does not reflect the mainstream position of Rohingya in Burmese society, which, after independence, saw them become ministers, MPs, and policy-makers.
The Rohingya were recognised as an indigenous ethnic group until the military took over the country in 1962 and The National Democratic Front, a Rohingya-led political party even contested the national elections in 1990, despite the fact that, by then, the Rohingya had been stripped of their citizenship.
So the recent conflict in Rakhine cannot seamlessly be linked to the skirmishes that took place before Myanmar’s independence, even though attempts to make such a connection drive the divisive, and increasing dominant, narrative.
The current conflict has its seeds in the 1978 military operation which saw an exodus of nearly 200,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, the first of a series of large scale displacements, and in the systematic degradation of the Rohingya community.
While it may be fair to say that the military operations, which have been sporadically ongoing since 1962, were prompted by the separatist Mujahid Party’s anti-state activities in the late 1950s, the ensuing collective punishment of the entire Rohingya people, which has resulted in population controls, expulsions, murders, village burnings, and the denial of basic human rights, cannot be justified as a necessary or proportionate reaction to this, especially since the Mujahid Party was effectively neutralised after the 1960s.
But more importantly, it cannot explain the xenophobic and racist attitudes at the state-level that have come to characterise the issue.
In 1978, Myanmar signed a joint statement with Bangladesh recognising the Rohingya as lawful Myanmar residents and pledged to repatriate them. But only four years later it declared them non-citizens.
In 2009, a senior Myanmar diplomat referred to the Rohingya as “ugly ogres” who were “alien” to Myanmar and, in 2012 as well as now, Myanmar’s de facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi, doyen of democracy and Nobel Laureate, has not been able to validate the fact that the Rohingya are Burmese, in spite of being pressed to do so several times. None of this behaviour can be explained as a response to terrorism.
Nor are the troubles in Rakhine Myanmar’s only insurgency. The Bamar-dominated Myanmar army has been in near-constant conflict with other ethnicities across the country, and its use of overwhelming force on entire communities is well documented.
Several separatist movements are underway in Myanmar, among the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, and the ethnic Chinese at Kokang. There are different reasons for each of these, however the demands are often the same -- an independent homeland -- and the tactics employed by the army are also the same -- widespread terror, burned out villages, rape, murder, displacement, and explosion beyond the borders of Myanmar.
In each of these conflicts, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced out, into China or Thailand, or have been placed in what are effectively concentration camps.
Clearly, Myanmar is either uniquely suited for spontaneous terrorism of all kinds by all kinds of people, or its military is especially good at inspiring it.
The reality is, Myanmar is engaged in ethnic cleansing of Rakhine under the guise of a security operation. If this is not so, then aid agencies, UN officials, and journalists should be granted free access to Rohingya-populated areas, yet they are not.
The government has officially declared its rejection of the Rohingya as an entire people, and is now proceeding to drive them off the land.
Since 2012, tens of thousands of them have been forced to live in squalid camps without access to basic amenities or relief operations, and are being pushed into Bangladesh with such violence, that nearly 300,000 people have fled the area at lightning speed, with many hundreds dying horrible deaths along the way.
Tales of unspeakable, and characteristic, brutality at the hands of the army and local militias have also travelled with them.
Where is the world?
Bangladesh, after much reluctance, has opened its doors to this influx on entirely humanitarian grounds. It has found itself in a most difficult position, given that it rightly rejects Myanmar’s claims that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants and has not wanted to enable its attempt to drive them out by giving them shelter.
However, it cannot stand by silently as a people are systematically exterminated.
Bangladesh is also chronically overpopulated and unable to adequately provide for the refugees, forcing some of the already 400,000 Rohingya living in the country, many of whom have been kept in deplorable condition for over three decades, to engage in illicit activity for want of a legitimate source of income.
This has understandably caused tensions with the local population, who also resent having to share the area’s scarce resources with people whom they regard as outsiders.
Despite the country’s best intentions, there is still no way to determine what an additional 300,000 people will do to an already stressed situation.
Myanmar, meanwhile, has no such scarcity. It has a territory six times the size of Bangladesh with only one-third the population, and has a density of 75 people per square kilometre, compared to Bangladesh’s 1,100 per square kilometre.
It is also blessed with ample natural resources. For Myanmar to send nearly one million people into Bangladesh is an unconscionable act of extreme proportions, and the reasons why they are doing it are unquestionably criminal.
Despite international condemnation and pledges of support by particular Muslim countries, nothing has been done on a multilateral or diplomatic level to put pressure on Myanmar.
This is simply not good enough. The very architecture of the international system exists to check situations like this one, and a failure to do so will signal its total redundancy.
Myanmar has already shown its hand by threatening to use China’s veto to block any Security Council resolution that goes against it, and most unhelpfully, India’s recent applause for Myanmar’s military operation in Rakhine, with not a single mention of the acute humanitarian crisis it has caused, has given the country even more cover.
It is also a particularly ominous move. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that three million illegal Bangladeshis were living in India and that they would be sent back.
These figures are unsubstantiated and strongly refuted by Dhaka, but given the present Indian government’s communal slant, it is not inconceivable that millions of Indian Muslims from Assam and West Bengal could be stripped of their citizenship in the way that the Rohingya have been stripped of theirs, and driven into Bangladesh.
This will be catastrophic for the region as a whole, not to mention unacceptably illegal, therefore a strong global message needs to be sent to Myanmar before the immunity it currently seems to enjoy encourages its neighbours, and indeed other countries, to follow suit.
Myanmar’s army is committing crimes against humanity on several fronts. It must be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court and censured by the international community before it is too late.
A civilised world’s commitment to the rule of law and to basic human rights requires nothing less of its leaders.
Zeeshan Khan is a writer and journalist.