What Is Behind The Hatred Driving The Violence Against Rohingya Muslims In Myanmar?

Rights groups have warned of the escalating crisis in Myanmar for months, as thousands of Rohingya Muslims continue to flee their homes to escape alleged persecution at the hands of the military.

More than 620,000 Rohingya have sought shelter in neighboring Bangladesh since August, fleeing a military operation the U.N. described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". The army has denied allegations of violence.

The plight of the Rohingya has become impossible to ignore, amid mounting evidence of alleged abuses and the escalating humanitarian crisis in refugee camps across Bangladesh. But what are the underlining causes of the violence against the Rohingya?

The word 'Rohingya'

The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority group that lives in segregated conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, mainly in Rakhine state. They are stateless people and are regarded as unwelcome migrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh and they have become one of the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities.

Burmese authorities refuse to refer to them as "Rohingya", a term that would denote their ethnicity.

"There are a number of Muslim communities who live in Myanmar, not all of them are from the same ethnic or cultural background.The majority of Muslims in the Rakhine state refer to themselves as 'Rohingya' based on their language, which is a derivative of Bengali," Charu Hogg, Associate Fellow at Chatham House Asia Program, told Newsweek.

The word is so contentious that even Pope Francis was urged not to use it during his official visit in Myanmar in November. Yangon Cardinal Charles Maung Bo told Reuters ahead of Francis' visit: "We have asked him [Pope Francis] at least to refrain from using the word 'Rohingya' because this word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar".

His statement echoed the view of Myanmar's de-facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who did not use the word during her first address on the situation in Rakhine in September. She later explained the word "Rohingya" was too "emotive" and "highly charged" for an already affected population.

"The Burmese majority denies the existence of 'Rohingya' as a distinct ethnic identity. Part of that denial is a refusal to use the term, and an insistence that others do not use it," Kirsten McConnachie, lecturer at Warwick University and researcher on refugees from Myanmar, told Newsweek.

Stateless people

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As stateless people, the Rohingya do not have access to basic services in Myanmar. According to the U.N. "freedom of movement, religion and education [are] severely curtailed" for more than 800,000 Rohingya in the country.

Some analysts say the persecution of the Rohingya can be traced back to 1974, with the introduction of a new Constitution which rights groups said failed to protect minorities' rights in the country.

Discrimination further increased with the introduction of the 1982 Citizenship Act.

"It provides that citizens should belong to one of the 135 national races as recognized under the Constitution, or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823," explained Hogg. "Since the Rohingyas lacked documents to prove that they were settled in Myanmar prior to 1823, this resulted in their being rendered stateless."

McConnachie agreed that historical factors need to be taken into consideration to explain the current crisis.

"History is shaping the current conflict. Some influences include British colonial policies which ratified ethnic categories, promoted non-Burman ethnic populations and deepened difference and resentment between Burman and non-Burman groups," she explained.

"Burmese post-colonial nation-building promoted the superiority of Burman (Bamar) identity, Burmese language and Buddhist faith"

Other ethnic and religious groups, both Muslim and Christians, have experienced discrimination under military rule, which ended in 2010, when a military-backed civilian government took over.

Under military rule in Myanmar there was a consistent pattern of policies and attitudes which promote 'Burmanisation' - i.e. the superiority of Burman ethnicity, Burmese language and Buddhist religion," said McConnachie.

Current violence

Myanmar violence
Myanmar border guard police force patrol near the Myanmar-Bangladeshi border outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Wa Lone

The Rohingya numbered around 1 million in Myanmar at the beginning of the year. However, due to the ongoing crisis, there are now an estimated 400,000 Rohingya left in the country.

The latest mass exodus was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 11 people in Rakhine. The military retaliated in what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out any fighters found in villages across the state.

"The government has increasingly considered civilian Rohingyas as being allied to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) also known as the Harakah al-Yaqin, designated as a terrorist group by the Myanmar government," explained Hogg.

"Attacks on Myanmar security forces by this group have led to brutal responses by the Myanmar security forces triggering an exodus into neighbouring Bangladesh."

Aung San Suu Kyi's 'weak power'

 Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a national address in Naypyidaw on September 19, 2017. Suu Kyi has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the crisis in Rakhine state. YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

Suu Kyi became the first state counsellor of Myanmar in 2016. She has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis. The politician and Nobel peace prize laureate traveled to Rakhine in November, her first visit since the crisis erupted in August.

Although Suu Kyi is largely regarded as the leader of the country, the Myanmar Armed Forces retain a considerable amount of power under the 2008 Constitution – still in place – which grants 25% of seats in parliament to military officers.

Suu Kyi does not have full control over the military junta in the country, which is still transitioning from military rule to civilian democracy.

"Political transition brings anxiety about the future of the nation and fear of a loss of national identity, and the portrayal of Rohingya as 'outsiders', 'illegal immigrants' and 'foreigners' is part of that," said McConnachie.

"However, it also seems increasingly likely that the violence has been orchestrated and manipulated by elements within Myanmar. The Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar have become the 'common enemy' - and thus also the justification and the reason for a continuing strong military role in Myanmar's politics, and therefore a weak executive and a weakened Aung San Suu Kyi," she concluded.