Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis Explained

In this new episode of Listen, Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong and guest co-host Kelly Kern, talk to Mayesha Alam, international relations research scholar and policy professional, about the crisis in Myanmar with its Rohingya population. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the whole interview, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes

Listen, Ladies (LL): The refugee crisis has received a ton of publicity internationally for months now, but I think a lot of people still don’t fully understand its context and why the crisis has not abated. Mistreatment of the Rohingya population in Myanmar is actually not new. Can you put the current crisis in historical context? And what happened back in August to spur the most recent flood of refugees into Bangladesh?

Mayesha Alam (MA): Sure, I would be happy to. The Rohingya are an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority. They are a Muslim population in a predominantly Buddhist country.  The government of Myanmar claims that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have moved to Myanmar and have no right to the land that they are on. But in fact the Rohingya have been there for generations. They’ve also been in Burma for generations, brought by England from _____ during Burma’s colonial period. Now Burma wants them gone, too.

So what you have in Myanmar is a stateless people who are being denied citizenship and forcibly displaced by the government. Myanmar is extremely diverse, with 135 ethnic groups (they call them “national races”), but the Rohingya are not recognized as one of them.  Many of the groups have been in conflict with the state for a very long time, but the Rohingya are particularly disdained—and not by just the military but also by other ethnic groups. Buddhist extremists groups in the country, for instance, see them as having no place to belong and as a threat to the Buddhist identity of the nation.


Mayesha Alam

LL: There has been some response from the global community. The US secretary of state made a brief visit to Myanmar after which he called for an investigation into atrocities by the country’s security forces. What kind of international response do you think could make a positive impact here? And as a reporter yourself, what are the big questions you are hoping to answer about the situation going forward?

MA: To answer your first question, the international community has been largely paralyzed in its response. For example, at this past weekend’s summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some leaders voiced concern about the situation, but no one offered diplomatic help. And no one offered to help resolve the political crisis in Myanmar that is part of this either. I think it’s important to pay attention to the role of regional powers as well. India has firmly stood behind Myanmar in this, maybe not going so far as to condoning the violence, but Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, and his party, the BJP, which is the Hindu Nationalist Party, have sort of offered their support to Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi:  Soon after the crisis began in August, there was discussion within India to expel the Rohingya population that was already there.  Compare this to the role of China. China has been a consistent supporter of the Myanmar government and has business interests in numerous parts of the country.

A lot of countries recognize that what’s happening to the Rohingya is awful but are afraid to take too strong a stance against the Myanmar government for fear of interrupting the democratization process, which is ironic because nothing about how things are currently moving there suggests that you have a democracy taking hold.

You are right that US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was in Myanmar earlier this week and said that he and others were horrified by the atrocities and then called for an independent investigation. But that’s unlikely to happen if the Myanmar government doesn’t give the necessary access and cooperate with the effort. The UN Security Council was unable to pass a resolution condemning what’s happening and instead had to revert to a presidential statement that was lead by the UK delegation. That’s because China and Russia, which are permanent members of the security council, had threatened to veto any resolution that was too strongly critical of the Myanmar government. So there is real paralysis. I think what is truly disappointing is that we’ve seen this so many times before:  In so many places where ethnic cleansing or some other terrible human rights violation is going on, the international community cannot muster the diplomatic power necessary to correct the political conflict at the root of the crisis. Millions of dollars of aid pours in; but the crisis is never permanently resolved.

Even if the Myanmar government were to take back a tiny fraction of these refugees, what lies ahead? The answer—unacceptable though it may be—is internment camps. Even before this most recent crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government confined the Rohingya to ghettos where they are unable to leave and have no ability to earn a living. It is difficult to see a political solution.  But at the end of the day, we are talking about people, and it is even harder to see how their lives get better.

Top photo credit: United Nations Photo

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