Crisis in Myanmar: An Explainer

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has once again been thrown into the spotlight of international scrutiny in recent weeks, with violence flaring up in the Western region of Rakhine.

The predominantly Buddhist state in Southern Asia has witnessed a long history of tension and conflict with its Muslim population; tensions dating as far back as the creation of the state. Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, instability and authoritarian rule have blighted Myanmar’s political scene, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi rising to prominence for her peaceful campaign for democracy in the country. It is important to note, that the Myanmar military still influences much of the government in power even today, with an estimated 25% of the seats in parliament and ministers in office.

Who are the Rohingya Muslims?

Largely concentrated in Rakhine state, the Rohingya Muslims are the predominantly Muslim minority, seen as a stateless people, having been denied citizenship rights by successive governments since the 1982 Myanmar Laws of Nationality. An estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims have long been under the fear of persecution, with the state of Myanmar refusing to recognise their nationality, despite the fact that this minority can be traced back as far as the 8th  century. To the Buddhist establishment, they are outsiders, known as “Bengalis”, and many believing they are illegal immigrants. Discrimination is not restricted just to citizenship, but also removes the freedom of movement, state education and the availability to civil service professions.

Violence erupts again

The current wave of violence began after a group of militant extremists attacked a series of police outposts on August 25th, killing 12 policemen in the Western region of Rakhine. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), a small group that claims to be fighting for the rights of the Rohingya people, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Myanmar government has categorised them as Muslim terrorists. A representative of the International Crisis Group however, has told Al Jazeera that there is no clear ideology motivating the group.Anagha Neelakantan, Asia Programme Director of this group, said “From what we understand the group is fighting to protect the Rohingya and not anything else”.

The military in Myanmar has replied to the attacks with what, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people.  An estimated 1,000 people have been killed, while numbers of refugees fleeing have reportedly reached over 310,000.

Finding humble sanctuary across the border from Bangladesh, refugees claim the military have massacred Rohingya people and burned entire villages. The Myanmar government are limiting access to human rights investigators and hence these claims cannot be fully substantiated, however Satellite analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch has shown evidence of fire damage. High Commissioner Mr. Zeid further registered his horror at reports stating that government authorities have placed landmines along the border with Bangladesh, and that border guards are only allowing people back if they can provide proof of nationality. This is an impossibility for Rohingya people as their citizenship is denied.

Government Response

The government have countered these stories claiming that the military are legitimately targeting the terrorist group Arsa, in response to the attacks of August 25th. They further claim that that Rohingya militants have been burning their villages down, and are responsible for the deaths of both Muslim and Buddhist people, claims that the UN High commissioner describes as a “denial of reality”.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, has faced a wave of international criticism for her apparent inactivity in defending the Rohingya people. She has attributed the violence to centuries of instability in the region going “back to pre-colonial times”, saying that it is “unreasonable” to expect the government can resolve these issues after a mere 18 months in power.

Towards Peace?

Since Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy came to power in November 2015, have set up the Rakhine Advisory Commission. Chaired by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, the commission was created to “examine the complex challenges facing Rakhine State and to propose answers to those challenges.” The final report of the commission was published in August, laying out a number of recommendations focussing on citizenship rights and other issues that affect the Muslim population disproportionately.

Aung San Suu Kyi has responded to the report saying the government will set up a ministerial-led committee to ensure the report is implemented. However it is yet to be seen whether these recommendations will be implemented in full or indeed if they will be successful in bringing peace to the state.


Seonadh Twomey & Anthony O’Riordan – Politics Writers

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