Rohingya refugees carry their belongings as they make their way to a refugee camp after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on Nov. 2. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Why is Burma attacking only the Rohingya?

As the Burmese military drives out upward of 600,000 Rohingya in what one United Nations official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” most media analyses correctly highlight ethno-religious discrimination and economic motives.

But that leaves us with the question: Why only the Rohingya? Burma, also known as Myanmar, has other hated ethnic groups. Since the country first gained independence from the British in 1948, its government has been fighting the Karen, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Shan and the Mon. Those ethnic groups have had armed militias for decades. The Rohingya only recently spawned a small armed group — and most Rohingya disapprove of their methods.

So why are the Rohingya being so brutally singled out? The answer lies in Burma’s peculiarly stratified hierarchy of citizenship.

In addition to full citizens, Burma has several less-than-full citizenship categories

In 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that institutionalized a social hierarchy of full citizens, “associate citizens,” “naturalized citizens” and “resident foreigners” — complete with different-colored identity cards for each status. The law was part of a campaign of “Myanmafication,” which included the later name change from Burma to Myanmar, whose ostensible goal was to include ethnic groups beyond just the Burmans — although Burman language and culture defined this nationalism.

The quotes below are taken from a Human Rights Watch explanation, which includes more detailed information, as well.

  • Citizens “belong to one of the national races or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of Arakan State.” National races refer to indigenous groups with a heritage of linguistic and cultural competence, from which 1960s leader General Ne Win fashioned a Burmese nationalism that united disparate ethnic groups. These include the Karen, Mon, Shan and Chin.
  • Associate citizens have “one grandparent, or pre-1823 ancestor, [who] was a citizen of another country.”
  • Naturalized citizens are those who can “provide ‘conclusive evidence’ that he or his parents entered and resided in Burma before independence in 1948. Persons who have at least one parent who holds one of the three types of Burmese citizenship are also eligible.”
  • Resident foreigners have no citizenship rights at all. They cannot hold public office, move freely about the country or enroll in higher education.
Mohammad Ilias, a Rohingya Muslim refugee, escaped from Burma after its security forces began burning down his village on Aug. 26. In the chaos, he was separated from his mother. A week later, he went back for her. (Maher Sattar,Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Other ethnic groups rebelled but accepted the classifications. The Rohingya challenged the system wholesale. 

The Karen, Mon, Shan and Chin, designated as “national ethnic groups,” have long taken up arms against a state they see as oppressive and are fighting for some form of self-determination, such as autonomy or independence. But they accept the state’s position that the Rohingya are “resident foreigners,” ineligible for even second-class citizenship because they do not have documents such as birth certificates and land titles. The poor often lack these documents simply because they often don’t own property and traditionally have home births. That the other groups buy into the othering of the Rohingya suggests that they have internalized the social hierarchy that grants them citizenship rights.

However, the Rohingya refused theirs. Before 1982, they were de facto citizens; now they are classified as resident foreigners. The government claims they are Bengali Muslims who didn’t arrive in the region until British colonial rule, between 1823 and 1948. If so, under the citizenship law, they should be able to become associate or, at least, naturalized citizens.

But in the 1980s, claiming that their roots go back to the eighth century, if not earlier, the Rohingya challenged the entire hierarchy and demanded full citizenship — and equal rights. They understand that Burma’s citizenship law renders them stateless — and are calling for it to be amended.

The Burmese government says the Rohingya are violent terrorists

The Burmese government apparently sees this as an existential threat to its system, more problematic than the effort of others to break away from central control.

That’s not what the government says, of course. Rather, the government and some observers point to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and argue that the Rohingya are violent, militant terrorists.

However, my interviews with Rohingya refugees corroborates research that shows how few Rohingya agree with or belong to these organizations, disagreeing among themselves how best to gain full citizenship. Most are focused on mere survival.

Unfortunately, not just the military junta of Burma but also the Bangladeshi government and many among the NGO and aid community believe that the Rohingya have terrorist ties. In 2008, I spoke to officials at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Washington and in Bangkok about durable solutions to the Rohingya crisis. A number agreed that these claims of ties with Islamic terrorism are dubious and unsubstantiated — but said that because they have been made, the prospects for resettlement in the developed world are nil. Many categorically said that only Bangladesh could provide a durable solution to the crisis, which leaves the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the hands of one of the poorest nations in the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation — both internationally and domestically

Why has Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and Burma's de facto civilian leader, been so unwilling to condemn the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in her country? (Joyce Lee,Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

Interestingly, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and not the military junta, has taken much of the flak for the ethnic cleansing campaign, even though she has little control over the military. The daughter of a prominent Burmese politician, Suu Kyi gained a reputation as a champion of human rights and democracy since the late 1980s, when the authoritarian Burmese government held her under house arrest for demanding democratic reforms. That international image is now wearing thin.

During my fieldwork in 2008 and 2012, I learned that Burma’s minority ethnic activists didn’t see her as a national hero the way international observers did. Rather, they believed her to be a Burmese nationalist who supported the official system of unequal citizenship. Some pointed as evidence to her failure to speak up for the Rohingya who had supported her democratic campaign. They told me that democracy without ethnic power-sharing would not bring peace, and they doubted whether she could or would shed her nationalism and help arrange full equality.

Navine Murshid is associate professor of political science at Colgate University and author of “Politics of Refugees in South Asia: Identity, Manipulation, Resistance” (Routledge, 2014).