Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country of 55 million people, uniquely situated between India, Bangladesh, Laos, China, and Thailand. Due to its unique location, this captivating country is home to various ethnicities, religions, and languages. Although not-so-well-known, Myanmar has recently been frequenting the front pages due to what experts have determined to be the ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya people. But who are the Rohingya people? And what exactly is going on in Myanmar? Why has the military overthrown Myanmar’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi?
UPDATE 2021: The military has taken control of Myanmar on February 1, 2021. They have also detained Aung San Suu Kyi. Below are some infographics to help you get a quick overview of what’s going on TODAY and in the past.
MYANMAR: A BRIEF HISTORY
Shortly after the end of Myanmar’s British colonization, the Myanmar military forcefully took control of the country and ruled dictatorially from 1962 to 2011. For decades, the military’s brutal regime was known for arresting those who spoke against the military, murdering protesters, and taking part in institutionalized oppression and genocide against ethnic minorities in Myanmar. The latter still occurs today since the country is still, at least partially (25% parliament seats), controlled by the military.
WHO ARE THE ROHINGYA?
The Rohingya are considered stateless Indo-Aryan people from Rakhine State in Myanmar. However, the Myanmar government regards them as illegal immigrants and many Burmese insist on referring to them as Bengalis. Disagreeing, the Rohingya argue that their ancestors have lived in Rakhine State for hundreds of years.
Since the end of British colonization, the Rohingya have been systematically targeted, murdered, raped, and mutilated by the Myanmar military. Today, of approximately two million Rohingya, more than half are scattered as refugees around the world.
JN Joniad is a Rohingya who grew up in Rakhine State and attended Sittwe University. Halfway through his degree, he was forced to flee the country due to the violence that erupted in 2012. In an interview, JN stated:
In 1982, the Military Junta revoked our citizenship out of fear of Islamic influence. So today, the Burmese indiscriminately call us illegal immigrants… [Their] treatment of us is widely considered as textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Hundreds [of] thousands of Rohingya have been killed and children are thrown in fire alive. Women and girls are raped by both military and Rakhine people as if there is no government at all and Rohingya are used as their cattle.
Today, JN has found refuge in Indonesia where he is finishing his degree in political science while teaching English to other Rohingya refugees.
WHAT IS GOING ON IN MYANMAR NOW?
On 25 August 2017, the Rohingya crisis escalated when Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched various simultaneous attacks against police stations and barracks in Rakhine, resulting in various deaths.
Since this escalation, satellite images and a Myanmar government spokesperson confirmed that nearly 40 percent of Rohingya villages targeted by the Myanmar military are now empty or burned down. And recently, slain bodies of Rohingya children have washed up on the shores of Bangladesh, revealing the extreme measures the Myanmar army is taking against the Rohingya. According to Human Rights Watch, the Myanmar military has also been accused of planting landmines in the paths of Rohingya who are fleeing the violence. Since the August 2017 attack, over 400,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh and other nearby borders.
On November 8, 2020, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi won her re-election. Taking a page out of President Trump’s book, the opposing party (the military) claimed there was election fraud despite there being no evidence. So on February 1, 2021, they led a coup, arrested the Aung San Suu Kyi, and have regained power over the country. This is particularly harrowing, given the military’s brutal and repressive history of ruling the country. This has already begun when they turned off the internet on February 1, 2021. This greatly limited many of the Burmese people’s ability to stay informed and communicate.
WHAT DOES THE MYANMAR GOVERNMENT HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE ROHINGYA CONFLICT?
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the beloved revolutionary Bogyoke Aung San, has been Myanmar’s elected government leader since 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi spent over a decade of her life under house arrest for her dedication to democracy. Though previously internationally acclaimed for her achievements and dedication, Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has been under international criticism. She’s been recorded saying, “No, I don’t think ethnic cleansing is going on because ethnic cleansing is too strong a term.” As well as thwarting blame from one side by asserting that “There is fear on both sides.”
Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi defended her silence, pointing out that the government has limited power which could be lost completely to the military if Aug San Suu Kyi loses popular support.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROHINGYA CONFLICT
Some Burmese have expressed their discontent with the way the media is portraying these events. They worry their country is being unfairly targeted by the international press. Burmese blogger, who wishes to keep her name anonymous, defended her country in an interview:
[The] Rohingya will never integrate with locals. They do not speak Burmese nor Rakhine they only speak Bengali… They also refuse to control their population. They have several children in one family since the man can marry up to four wives without the use of contraception. Some men will beat their women if they take contraception pills… [The] Rohingya are not innocent… It’s very difficult for us to be handed all the blamed while our people are being slaughtered. Many Rohingya also support joining radical Islam[ic] groups… It is unfair for the world to pressure us …in a short time. I don’t deny the Burmese army’s atrocities. But the army does not equate to us Burmese… I just ask that both sides be considered in this conflict.
Substantiating some of this blogger’s claims, in September, India’s government stated that Rohingya presence in India poses a security threat because some have ties to “terror organizations”. They are linking the Rohingya with Pakistan-based armed groups.
WILL THERE EVER BE PEACE IN MYANMAR?
I think it is only fitting that I remind you today that our government has not yet been in power for even 18 months. It will be 18 months at the end of this year. Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we have been expected to do. –Aung San Suu Kyi
It’s hard for many to be optimistic for Myanmar’s near future because its political structure is precariously new. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to acknowledge the gravity of this situation is seen by many as a way to assuage the bipartisan demands, but others call it a blatant refusal to remedy the crisis. Myanmar’s nascent democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, and the Military Junta’s still-standing control are major hindrances to peaceful advancement in Myanmar.
- It’s important to keep in mind that since the Burmese have endured decades of military repression, Orwellian brainwashing, and strict censorship. Many are afraid to speak out against the grain. Therefore, what some Burmese openly think about the situation is not indicative of them all.
- There is a valid fear of terrorist activity stirring up within the Rohingya community. However, it’s also important to consider that the connections to terror organizations could be the effects of decades of oppression making them the perfect targets for recruitment.
- The Burmese imposing an “all lives matter” logic by pointing out that other ethnic groups are also suffering is a poor attempt to divert the attention from the Rohingya Crisis. Yes, there are many different groups suffering from the military’s oppression, Burmese included. But the current focus at hand is the Rohingya Crisis.
- While both sides are not entirely blameless of violence, considerable evidence shows that the Burmese military is substantially responsible for the mass murder, mutilation, rape, and slaying of Rohingya people. The Burmese military’s usual poor handling of the situation has been cruel, brutal, oppressive, and out of proportion. Considering these actions, it is difficult to simply brush this entire crisis off as both sides being guilty as many Burmese claim. The main problem is Myanmar’s (military and/or government) cruel handling of the situation. This is indisputable.
If you want to learn what you can do to help and why you should NOT boycott travel to Myanmar, subscribe to my blog (upper left bar). I’ll be publishing a separate post on that topic within the next few days.