Families fleeing with just the clothes on their backs; tearful children baring famished bellies; the able carrying the injured, the weak, the old — these are scenes all too familiar in a world with an unprecedented 65.6 million people forcibly displaced from their homes by war, violence and persecution.
But the name of one group, facing what the United Nations calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” is perhaps not as familiar.
They are the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic group fleeing their villages in Myanmar to escape persecution, inter-communal violence and an ongoing conflict between rebels and government forces. Although Rohingya Muslims have faced oppression and violence in the predominately Buddhist country for decades, tensions have spiraled in the past year, especially since Aug. 25 when Rohingya Muslim insurgents known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a coordinated attack on Burmese authorities.
Myanmar’s retaliation has been brutal — a violent crackdown on all Rohingya with allegations of killings, rape, shelling and widespread arson that the Human Rights Watch said altogether “bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”
Since then, up to 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, and thousands more arrive each day, according to UNICEF.
Who are the Rohingya?
The United Nations has dubbed the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted people after decades of discrimination, impoverishment and violent persecution. There is some dispute about their origin, but the majority are descendants of Bengali Muslims who traveled before colonial borders from present-day Bangladesh and India to present-day Myanmar. Today, about 1.1 million Rohingya live in northern Rakhine state on Myanmar’s west coast along the Bay of Bengal.
Because of that ethnic identity, the Burmese government — run by a military junta until just six years ago — has denied the Rohingya citizenship since 1982, deeming them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Without citizenship and proper documentation, the Burmese government restricts their ability to travel or work, causing the Rohingya to suffer extreme poverty as well as a lack of access to basic health care and education.
In 2015, the Burmese government revoked voting rights given to the embattled minority group.
The brutal oppression has given rise to rival insurgencies over the years. In 2012, widespread fighting broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, the ethnic majority in troubled Rakhine state, after a young Buddhist woman was raped. Violence between the two groups has simmered on and off since then.
What’s behind the latest violence?
The situation took a dangerous turn last October when a new Muslim insurgent group with trained Rohingya fighters attacked government posts throughout Rakhine state.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, formerly known as Harakah al-Yaqin, attacked the posts in Rakhine state again on Aug. 25 in its deadliest attack thus far, prompting the Burmese military to launch a counter-insurgency clampdown that triggered weeks of violence as well as widespread allegations of human rights abuses and even “ethnic cleansing.”
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, said in a statement posted Thursday on its Twitter account that it wants the international community to help prevent foreign fighters from entering Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The statement appeared to be issued in response to reports that al-Qaeda has been urging Muslim around the globe to support ARSA or its cause.
ARSA says it’s fighting to protect Rohingya Muslims from persecution in Myanmar. The Burmese government describes ARSA as “extremist terrorists” but has not publicly provided much evidence of their alleged links to jihadist groups outside the country.
What is Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi doing?
After her party won the 2015 national elections, Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto ruler.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner during Myanmar’s military rule was once hailed as a global icon of democracy. But Suu Kyi is now facing widespread criticism for not denouncing or stopping the powerful Burmese military from committing atrocities against the stateless Rohingya Muslims.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday reiterated support for Suu Kyi but likened the ongoing violence to ethnic cleansing.
“This violence must stop; this persecution must stop. It’s been characterized by many as ethnic cleansing. That must stop,” Tillerson said during a press briefing in London.
Amid the uproar of criticism, Suu Kyi canceled her trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, her office announced Wednesday.
While Suu Kyi’s views on the situation in her country remain unclear, a statement posted by her office on Facebook Wednesday said she discussed the crisis with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noting there has been a “huge iceberg of misinformation.”
What is the world doing to help?
Rohingya Muslim refugees arrive in Bangladesh at overcrowded camps in poor physical condition and in need of life-saving support. Some traverse difficult terrain to reach the porous borders into Bangladesh, while others brave rough seas in rickety fishing boats to land on the country’s beaches. They often haven’t eaten for days, only surviving on rain and groundwater during their perilous journey, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Amid an acute shortage of humanitarian supplies for the swelling number of Rohingya Muslim refugees sheltering in Bangladesh, UNICEF announced it is undertaking a “massive” scale-up of its emergency operations there to protect the most vulnerable.
“There are acute shortages of everything, most critically shelter, food and clean water,” Edouard Beigbeder, head of UNICEF in Bangladesh, said in a statement Thursday. “Conditions on the ground place children at high risk of water-borne disease. We have a monumental task ahead of us to protect these extremely vulnerable children.”
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his call on Myanmar to suspend military action in Rakhine state, stop the violence and recognize the right of return of all those who had to flee the country.
Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee expressed deep concern Thursday by the more than 120,000 internally displaced persons cut off from life-saving services in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The New York-based global humanitarian aid group called on all parties to the conflict, particularly the Burmese government, to “ensure the protection of civilians and allow for the immediate and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
According to the International Rescue Committee, no U.N. agencies or nongovernmental organizations to date have been able to access northern Rakhine in spite of increasingly urgent need.
“Tenable and dignified solutions for some of the world’s most vulnerable people remain a distant prospect – only further endangering a democratic peace in Myanmar,” Sanna Johnson, the group’s regional director for Asia, said in a statement Thursday. “More than ever, meeting humanitarian need for the Rohingya and the rest of Myanmar’s communities is an urgent and critical step to bringing an end to the world’s longest civil war.”