Home to the world’s longest ongoing internal armed conflict, Myanmar is a country mired by political strife, inequality, and violence.
Its people are slowly emerging from long-standing military rule to one rooted in democracy, which presents myriad challenges and opportunities for improvements in humanitarian conditions across the country.
Myanmar—referred to as Burma until 1962—gained independence from the United Kingdom in January of 1948. Three short months later, communist groups, excluded from governing the country, formed an armed insurgency against the government.
Constant and overlapping armed conflict between the Myanmar military apparatus and the country’s various ethnic groups persist to this day.
One ethnic group, the Rohingya, was described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. A Muslim minority stripped of citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to state education and civil service jobs, their treatment by the Myanmar government is often compared to apartheid-era South Africa.
This World Refugee Day, as the spread of COVID-19 threatens this extremely vulnerable population, the story of the Rohingya people—and other populations forcibly uprooted from their homes due to targeted discrimination and violence—is more important than ever.
In 2012, tension escalated between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. Buddhists make up the majority of Rakhine and enjoy the support of the Myanmar government and security services. Waves of violence have continued since, as the Myanmar government increased persecution of the Rohingya minority group—going so far as to exclude them from the 2014 census, arguing that they were “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh and didn’t deserve inclusion.
Before 2017, around 200,000 Rohingya had fled the country in search of refuge nearby, primarily in Bangladesh, due to ongoing persecution executed primarily by the Myanmar military apparatus. In August of 2017, Myanmar authorities reinvigorated their campaign of persecution and carried out an effort to “reinstate stability” that included the rape, torture, forcible displacement, and murder of thousands of Rohingya in an act that many legal scholars say amounts to the mass atrocity crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Approximately 288 villages were partially or wholly destroyed by intentionally set fires in the months following August 2017. At least 6,700 Rohingya, including over 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the genocide.
The resulting displacement saw almost 800,000 people flee to Bangladesh, seeking safety from persecution. Hundreds of thousands more fled to neighboring countries.
The humanitarian situation both in Myanmar and neighboring countries such as Bangladesh are already dire, with COVID-19 presenting additional risks associated with a marked deterioration in current humanitarian conditions. At present, Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar hosts the world’s largest refugee camp, home to over 1 million Rohingya. There are over 145,000 internally displaced people still living in Rakhine State.
Politically, the situation in Myanmar is extremely fragile. Public sentiment toward Muslims remains hostile and is fueled by a campaign of mis- and disinformation, further compounding false, negative perceptions of the Rohingya community. In the 2015 elections, no major political party put forth a Muslim candidate. Today, no Muslims serve in Parliament for the first time since the country’s independence.
The Myanmar government continues to defy the U.N. Human Rights Council, denying the scale and intensity of the mass atrocity crimes that have credibly alleged to be perpetrated. In January 2020, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that Myanmar must take action to protect and repatriate the Rohingya. To date, few steps have been taken to comply. In March 2020, the Bangladeshi government announced it would no longer accept refugees from Myanmar.
Persecuted in their homeland with hundreds of thousands forced to flee for safety, the Rohingya are indeed one of the most persecuted populations in the world and suffering greatly.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have struggled to provide adequate shelter, healthcare, and protection during this crisis. Lack of funding, undue bureaucratic and administrative impediments, political challenges, and security barriers to humanitarian access all complicate the humanitarian response. How can the NGO humanitarian community best support progress while remaining neutral and impartial for its own safety and security?
In the second part of this blog, I sit down with Katie Striffolino, InterAction’s Senior Manager for Humanitarian Practice, to discuss her work with the NGOs on the front lines of this crisis.