The current Rohingya exodus from Myanmar has drawn attention to the struggles of ethnic minorities and the international consequences that can arise from mass insecurity. The Rohingya people are one of the world’s largest stateless populations. Studies estimate the total population to be approximately 1.1 million, most of whom live in Rakhine State. Structural exclusion from mainstream society, ethnic tensions and physical violence have pushed almost half the Rohingya population into Bangladesh. During the first three weeks of September, an estimated 430,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar and are now living in squalid camps where they lack basic services and remain at severe risk of disease, violence and radicalisation.
Ethnic tensions have persisted in Rakhine for decades. Myanmar’s government asserts that Rakhine Buddhists are the true indigenous inhabitants of the region, and does not recognise Rohingya people as a national race, resulting in denial of citizenship (since 1982) and subsequent statelessness. Associated violence escalated significantly in late August following attacks on 30 police outposts. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks in retribution for government brutality against the Rohingya population.
ARSA is only thought to comprise of an estimated 150 foreign fighters and 500 villagers. Despite such small cadres, the ensuing ‘clearance operations’, allegedly targeting militants, have led to the destruction of 1000 villages and subsequent allegations of ethnic cleansing by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raas al-Hussein has also classified the treatment of Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing.
A UN fact-finding mission charged with investigating ‘very likely’ crimes against humanity was denied entry to Rakhine while attempting to follow up on a report (from February 2017) which determined Myanmar’s security forces were pursuing ‘a calculated policy of terror’. Incidents detailed in the report included an eight-month-old baby having its throat slit while five soldiers assaulted his mother, and soldiers beating a woman in labour, then stomping on the newborn baby until it died. Despite this catastrophic humanitarian situation, the UN has limited capacity to intervene primarily due to China’s support for Myanmar’s campaign, which has prevented UN Security Council action.
In a speech addressing the situation, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated there had been no armed clashes or clearance operations since 5 September, while Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN denied allegations of ethnic cleansing and insisted militants were their only targets. However, Amnesty International says a massive scorched earth campaign remains ongoing, with satellite imagery from 22 September showing fires still burning in Rohingya villages across Rakhine, while thousands of refugees continue to pour into Bangladesh.
Brutal and indiscriminate violence is undoubtedly counterproductive to resolution efforts. Furthermore, people are more vulnerable to radicalisation when confronted by persecution. As such, although the government may have smoked out militants, the mass destruction of property and violence against civilians is producing an even larger disenfranchised population and exploitable power vacuum.
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan, published a report in August 2017 stating that ‘unless current challenges are addressed promptly, further radicalisation within both communities [Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist] is a real risk’. The Commission also found that northern Rakhine is becoming a hub for narco-trafficking, which is both an indicator of and catalyst for insecurity. Furthermore, International Crisis Group expressed concern that Myanmar is becoming a hotbed for militancy, while Malaysia’s Defence Minister repeatedly warned Islamic State could capitalise on the current crisis by recruiting refugees and using the situation in propaganda materials.
Another concern is the potential for a devastating epidemic. The conditions in makeshift refugee camps are similar to those which accelerated the spread of cholera across Yemen—protracted violence, contaminated water, no toilets, a lack of shelter and limited medical services. Journalists have reported human faeces in the streams where people wash and cook, while statements from seasoned humanitarian workers indicate the situation is the worst they have experienced—even when compared to crises in Syria and Rwanda. Experts fear an outbreak of infectious disease, which they are attempting to mitigate through mass vaccination programs. However, unsanitary conditions combined with monsoonal weather and a constant flow of new arrivals remain significant risk factors.
The current Rohingya situation is fast becoming Asia’s most severe humanitarian crisis on record. Almost half a million people have been displaced in the process of targeting a handful of militants. To put numbers into perspective, the amount of refugees who have fled Myanmar since August 2017 is triple the number that crossed the Mediterranean Sea throughout all of 2016. The crisis is clearly a lethal threat to Rohingya civilians and a major challenge for governments attempting to accommodate the large numbers of refugees. In addition to these immediate concerns, longer-term implications can be projected by revisiting recent history where persecuted groups have become non-state actors capable of disrupting the status quo. As the situation continues to deteriorate, a viable roadmap to reconciliation appears increasingly unlikely.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.