What Christians Should Know About the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

The Rohingya people located in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have been the victims of ethnic cleansing, according to the U.S. Secretary of State and U.N. officials.

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In a recent statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson identified the atrocities occurring in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar as “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya people.

Since August, nearly 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to the neighboring country of Bangladesh following a military crackdown from the Myanmar government.

This recent refugee crisis is only a small part of an ongoing narrative of marginalization, prejudice and even genocide that the Rohingya people have been subject to over the past several decades by the Myanmar government. A recent report from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had spent a year carefully reviewing events that had unfolded in the Rakhine state, declared:

…Myanmar state security forces and civilian perpetrators committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing during the two waves of attacks on Rohingya men, women, and children starting on October 9, 2016 and from August 25, 2017. There is mounting evidence to suggest these acts represent a genocide of the Rohingya population.

Responding to international pressures to address these atrocities, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement last week for the return of these Rohingya refugees, according to a Myanmar official’s communication to Reuters. However, no clear details about this agreement or the conditions for the returning refugees have been released publicly.

While Myanmar officials have stated that they are ready to receive Rohingya refugees, many of the Rohingya are skeptical, if not terrified, of returning to Myanmar. According to BBC News, Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh said they “want guarantees of citizenship and their land returned.”

As the world awaits the important details of this recent agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, it may be helpful to unravel the story of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that has set the stage for where we are today.

Who are the Rohingya people and why are they being targeted?

Many in the U.S. may be unfamiliar with the tempestuous history of Myanmar (also known as Burma). Following independence from the British Empire in 1948, the newly-formed Union of Burma quickly experienced internal tensions for power and control. As underrepresented ethnic groups sought either autonomy or a part in a unified federal government, military forces staged a successful coup d’etat in 1962, beginning a military-run government that was only recently dissolved in 2011.

rakhine map photo
(Photo: dany13 )

The Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that claims to be descended from inhabitants of the ancient country of Arakan (present day Rakhine State in Myanmar), were one of the ethnic groups that sought autonomy from or unification with the newly founded Union of Burma. However, in 1982, the Union of Burma passed a citizenship law that effectively excluded the Rohingya people by claiming they were not one of Burma’s native ethnic groups. Instead, the government considered the Rohingya “illegal immigrants,” and they have since been subject to harassment, abuse and forced labor, and restricted from traveling freely.

Myanmar Coup d'etat
A file photo of the coup d’etat in Burma. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

From 1962 to 1989, the Union of Burma was under military rule, and nearly all spheres of society were brought under government control, and civil rights such as freedom of speech and press were actively suppressed. In 1989, a second successful military coup d’etat led to the change of the country’s name to the “Union of Myanmar.” In 1990, the government held the first elections outside of a one-party military political system, and the National League for Democracy won the majority of the seats in government.

While Myanmar as a whole has gradually made steps to economic and societal stability, the Rohingya people have continued to receive inhumane treatment from the Myanmar government. According to a U.N. report, a targeted set of “clearance operations” have taken place against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military since August of this year, which has included “killings, torture and rape of children.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, published a statement in September calling these atrocities a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” “gross violations of the human rights of the Rohingya” and “possibly amounting to crimes against humanity.”

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In a time of much need for aid and assistance for the oppressed Rohingya people, foreign non-governmental organizations are now blocked from entering the Rakhine state where the Rohingya people reside. As of August 25, all World Vision staff have been evacuated from the Rakhine state. World Vision’s Australia Chief Advocate, who visited a refugee camp on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar before evacuations remarked:

I’ve met mothers who should be breastfeeding and cannot lactate, and they now have malnourished children. Many walk 10 days without food just to get here because their villages were burned.

World Vision estimates that over 816,203 refugees need shelter, and over 63,000 children are malnourished and need treatment.

Grace Wiebe from the Christian Reformed Church’s World Renew reflected on the horrors she witnessed from her visit to the ravaged area:

Sixty percent of women arriving have been raped by the military. … Husbands have been blindfolded and beaten, tortured, beheaded or shot. The need for psychosocial support services is going to be huge.

As Christians contemplate how to respond to the Rohingya crisis, it is important to remember that these acts against humanity are not too far removed from us to care about. Author D.L. Mayfield remarks on this fact quite pointedly in an article she wrote for Christianity Today:

In my own neighborhood, there are several Rohingya families who have been resettled in the past year or so. They cook food for me, squeeze my toddler’s cheeks, and drop by for a chat every now and again. I know the names of their children and the grades they are in at school, including the Rohingya boy in my daughter’s second-grade class. He is the one I picture as I read the news of more killings, of the government torching homes, beheading people, and planting landmines on the border to Bangladesh as the Rohingya try to flee. It doesn’t feel like a genocide happening far away—it feels close by. It feels like my neighbors are suffering—and just as the apostle Paul said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

“Out of sight, out of mind” is the furthest from Christian compassion, care and love for our neighbors, who are not only the people near us but also those hiding for their lives on the other side of the world. It is all too easy to forget that each Rohingya person has a name, a face and a personality—image-bearers of God who deserve dignity and justice.

More online: Eight Ways to Help the Rohingya People

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