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How Burma’s Rohingya crisis went from bad to worse

Members of Burma's Rohingya ethnic minority walk through rice fields after crossing the border into Bangladesh near Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area on Sept. 5. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Who are the Rohingya?

In a way, it depends on whom you ask — and that itself may be at the core of the conflict. To most of the world (and the minority themselves), the Rohingya are a mostly-Muslim minority in Burma, the Buddhist-majority nation in Southeast Asia also known as Myanmar.

But the Burmese government says the Rohingya do not exist. In fact, they object to the very use of the word “Rohingya” at all, instead arguing that they are Bengali and entered what is now Burma during the timbe of the British Empire or later as illegal immigrants after Bangladesh's war for independence in 1971.

More than 1 million Rohingya are estimated to live in the country, mostly in the northern part of Rakhine state along the border with Bangladesh and India, and almost as many live outside of it. Though the word Rohingya only came to widespread use in the 1990s, there are records of similar words being used to describe people in what is now Rakhine state as far back as the 18th century. Some Rohingya people say they are descended from an 8th-century shipwreck that links them to Arabs or Persians farther west.

Why does this cause problems?

This dispute over the identity of the Rohingya has big consequences in Burma. The minority is not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country, and despite their considerable numbers and local roots in Burma, they are not considered citizens and are denied access to government services.

The Rohingya long faced discrimination — in 2009, a U.N. spokeswoman described them as “probably the most friendless people in the world” — but there has been a marked deterioration in their situation since the Burmese military began to relinquish power in 2011.

A growing Buddhist nationalism in Burma, where 90 percent of the population identify with Buddhism, has led to a number of laws on religion, including restrictions on interfaith marriage. There has also been major ethnic violence in Rakhine; most notably in 2012, when sectarian riots after the rape of a woman in the state led to large-scale displacement of Muslims, with many moving into squalid camps for internally displaced people.

Why are so many Rohingya fleeing Burma now?

Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh for decades, while some took even riskier journeys on rickety boats to reach countries farther away. However, the surge in those escaping Burma now is unprecedented: The U.N. refugee agency said this week that a total of 123,000 refugees have fled western Burma since Aug. 25.

The catalyst for this is a sudden surge in insurgent violence, in turn prompting a massive response from the Burmese government. The first signs of this came in October 2016, when nine police officers were killed by armed men who were said to be Muslims. In the ensuing violence, scores were reported dead and tens of thousands displaced.

Things grew worse still on Aug. 25, after a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) mounted unusual coordinated attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine. The Burmese army said in response that it had killed 370 fighters tied to the group, though Rohingya activists said that many were not fighters and that the number of dead would rise.

There have also been significant attacks on property in the Rohingya areas of northern Rakhine. Human Rights Watch released satellite images last week that appeared to show mass destruction of buildings in Muslim areas, though the Burmese government has said ARSA burned these villages themselves.

What role has Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi played?

The de facto leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, was once considered a global human rights icon; a pro-democracy campaigner in the time of military rule, she was kept under house arrest for 15 years and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Yet critics have assailed her response to the Rohingya crisis, with some demanding her Nobel Prize be revoked. Suu Kyi was virtually silent on reports of state violence against Muslims for years. Some supporters suggest she has done what she has to maintain Burma's fragile democracy, though others contend she is simply reverting to an authoritarian streak she has long held privately.

Suu Kyi has played down the international outrage over the most recent violence in Rakhine, suggesting that “terrorists” were spreading misinformation. It may be true that misinformation on social media has influenced both pro- and anti-Rohingya sentiment. However, her own government has restricted access to Rakhine for foreign journalists and refused to allowed U.N. experts access to the state to investigate alleged abuses.

Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?

This particular armed Rohingya insurgency first emerged last year. According to a report from the International Crisis Group, it is led by a committee of Rohingya emigrants in Saudi Arabia and appears to be well-funded and well-organized. The Burmese government has called it a terrorist organization that is intent on establishing an Islamic state in Rakhine.

However, the group itself has denied this in an interview with the website Asia Times and the International Crisis Group says there is no evidence of an Islamist militant agenda. The Washington Post's Joe Freeman reported that videos released by the group have shown “only a few dozen scrawny and shabbily dressed fighters.”

Over the past 10 days, more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma’s Rakhine state for Bangladesh, climbing over hills and boarding boats to safety. (Video: The Washington Post)

How has Bangladesh responded?

Officially, Dhaka has pushed back against the flow of Rohingya. However, the sheer scale of the exodus, as well as the nature of the border with Burma, have meant in reality it has been difficult to stop people coming over. Some Bangladeshi border guards appear to have been personally moved by the situation and have become willing to let refugees into the country. “This is a time to show humanity,” one paramilitary soldier told the Associated Press.

At the same time, Reuters reports that Bangladesh has revived a plan to move the Rohingya to an island called Thengar Char — even though the isolated island has no roads or buildings and is prone to flooding.

What about the rest of the world?

Though their plight is often said to be overlooked, there has been a remarkable global response to the flight of Rohingyas from Burma in recent weeks. The angst has been hardest felt in Muslim-majority nations: Malaysia recalled its ambassador to Burma, while Maldives announced it would break trade ties with Burma. There have also been major protests in a number of places, including Indonesia and the Russian Republic of Chechnya.

At a supranational level, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has also responded, warning that the violence could slip into a “humanitarian catastrophe” in a letter to the Security Council.

However, Burma is not totally without allies. Reuters reported Wednesday that Burma is negotiating with China and Russia in the hope of blocking any censure from the Security Council. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited the country this week; Delhi had recently announced plans to deport its own Rohingya population, which is thought to be around 40,000.

More on WorldViews:

Rohingya crisis intensifies as India’s Modi arrives in Burma for talks

The battle over the word ‘Rohingya’

The shameful silence of Aung San Suu Kyi