The majority of Rohingya, about one million, reside in the Rankine state that borders Bangladesh in Western Myanmar. Myanmar’s government, as a majority Buddhist nation, has systematically discriminated and commited violence against the Rohingya who are predominantly Muslim. Anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia that is brewing in Buddhist nationalist movements have stemmed from Myanmar’s 1948 decolonization from Britian. The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are not Burmese but in fact illegal Bengali immigrants; the government to this day refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as Rohingya but only as Bengali. While the Rohingya differ from the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar ethnically, linguistically and religiously, the Rohingya have resided in the present day Rankine state since the fifteenth century in the Arakan Kingdom. The former British colony of India included the Rankine state, so the movement of South Asians into Rankine in the nineteenth and twentieth century was common. In fact, Rankine state was formerly called Arakan state but it was later renamed by head of state General Ne Win in 1974 after the dominant Buddhist ethnic group in the area, the Rankine.
In 1962, General Ne Win abolished the Burmese constitution and instituted a military dictatorship, and since then the Rohingya have faced a pattern of institutionalized discrimination. Ne Win and the military strongly supported a Buddhist national identity and pinned a common enemy on Myanmar’s Muslim population. In 1978, the government carried out Operation Nagamin or Dragon King which violently forced two hundred thousand Rohinghya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh by means of rape and murder. In 1982, the Citizenship Act or Nationalization Act identified 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar except for the one million Rohingya people, rendering them stateless. The Rohingyas were and still are referred to as Bengalis and foreigners in Myanmar. Again, in 1991 the government carried out the poetically named Operation Pyi Thaya or Clean and Beautiful Nation to unleash a reign of terror on the Rohingyas through violence, arson and bloodshed – 250,000 Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
More recently, the 2014 census left out “Rohingya” as an ethnic group and with their status as illegal immigrants, the Rohingya were not allowed to run or vote in the 2015 elections that ushered in Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Today, there are prevalent xenophobic setiments against Muslims in Myanmar; the Ma Ba Tha led by monk Ashin Witharu has used Facebook to spread hateful speech and racist, anti-Muslim propoganda. Witharu is the de facto leader of the 969 movement which claims to protect Myanmar from “foreign” influences by boycotting Muslism-owned businesses and demonizing interfaith marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. The 969 emblem is plastered on shop windows, taxis, buses, homes and stalls all over Myanmar. Tensions came to a head on August 25th 2017 when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked thirty police stations; the Myanmar military began to brutally attack Rohingya towns and villages in Rakhine citing that ARSA was a terrorist organization. From August to September 2017, six thousand and seven hundred Rohingya were killed by the military. Survivors have captured evidence of mass graves, murder, rape, torture and arson to entire towns through footage stored on cell phones. Yet, the military faces no consequences and leaders in Myanmar including Aung San Suu Kyi have neither condemned and continually deny the violence on the Rohingya that the UN deems a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” While the military denies any arson, satellite imagery shows sections of burned areas in Rohingya towns. The military even claims that the Rohingya torched their own homes. The government also claims that their campaigns are clearance operations in response to attacks by Islamic terrorists, but over one million one million civilian Rohingya have fled across the border and Naf River into Bangladesh where they reside in refugee camps such as Cox’s Bazaar and Kutupalong.
Cox’s Bazaar has grown to become one of the largest refugee camps in the world and conditions there are dire. Sixty percent of the water is contaminated and overcrowding has led to health and safety risks such as the rapid spread of waterborne diseases like cholera and diarrhea. Refugees live in cramped bamboo shelters that are prone to the monsoon conditions that frequent South Asia. Recently, on March 22, 2021 a fire tore through the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp killing fifteen people and leaving thousands homeless. Many refugees experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms from their perilous journey to the camps and their experiences in Myanmar. Women make up two thirds of the camp’s population and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking and gender based violence (GBV). Young women are often married off at a young age to “lessen the burden” on the household. Sometimes, women with single parents (one fifth of households in the camp is headed by a single woman) are lured in by traffickers with promises of marriage or a job as a garment worker, cook or housecleaner to support their family. Instead, they are sold to pimps or brothels. Women living in these close conditions fear for their safety because of the lack of privacy and their fears over sharing facilities such as toilets with men.
Children in the camps also face tremendous obstacles; in the Bangladesh camps there are 400,000 school age children and no formal schools. The Bangladeshi government has barred Rohingya students from studying the Bengali curriculum, learning Bangla or enrolling in schools outside the camps because they insist that the Rohingya will return to Myanmar. To this date, the Burmese government has no plans to repatriate the Rohingya or guarantee their safety in the country. The future of the six hundred thousands Rohingya in Myanmar and those within the camps is unclear particularly after the coup on February 1st, 2021 which overthrew civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and reinstalled the military junta whose policies and laws were largely responsible for the Rohingya’s exoduses.
Rise for Rohingya is an organization that was founded by New York University students in 2017. It is dedicated to aid the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh particularly for children and pregnant women by providing funding to organizations working in the camps. To date, Rise for Rohingya has raised $33,500 and has partnered with JAAGO to create a safe space for children and healthcare for pregnant women with Doctors without Borders. In addition, by raising twenty thousand dollars, Rise for Rohinya was able to build a school with the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education. Along with field work, the organization hosts the annual John E. Sexton essay contest which is open to all New York City high school students to encourage them to research and write about the Rohingya crisis.
Please consider visiting their website to make a donation and to learn more: www.riseforrohingya.org
Mekhala Mantravadi is a junior at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. She loves to write plays, fiction, and poetry, and also enjoys learning about gender, culture and identity.