We live in a world in which a great Asian humanitarian crisis is still being ignored with not much substance being done about it. This great humanitarian crisis that has been going on since 1962 has also been slowly killing off the many ethnic groups of Myanmar, and it also threatens to drain Bangladesh.
The emergence of Myanmar (then Burma) from British and then Japanese rule was nothing short of violent and bloody, with concurrent communist and ethnic insurgencies. It was during this time that the current ethnic rebellions emerged, namely that of the Rohingya and Karen ethnic groups and later the currently-ongoing rebellions by the Chin, Shan, and Kachin ethnic groups.
Myanmar’s status as a perpetual military junta not too dissimilar from Pakistan emerged in 1962 as the Burma Socialist Programme Party seized power with the help of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. The country had previously been a parliamentary democracy but the decision to replace it with a centrally-controlled socialist state would prove to destroy any chances of improving inter-ethnic relations. It was also responsible for completely isolating the country from the world and keeping it a South East Asian backwater while its neighbors prospered.
Matthew J. Walton of George Washington University argued in 2013 that Myanmar has had and still has an institutionalized supremacy favoring the majority Bamar/Burman ethnic group who form about 60% of the population. This would certainly explain the lack of progress or unwillingness in integrating Myanmar’s ethnic diversity into a federalist constitution. Instead, a centralized socialist stratocracy was formed in 1962, leaving ethnic minorities in the dust.
With such a massive backsliding of political freedoms and economic stagnation, ethnic conflicts with the Karen, Kachin, and Shan picked up pace, and the long-lasting guerilla traditions of the respective ethnic groups were established. Yet another example of a centralized socialist state failing miserably.
Pertaining to Myanmar’s relations with its eastern neighbors India and Bangladesh, the Rohingyas share with the Karennis the experience of being discriminated against by the pre-dictatorship government starting from 1948. The Rohingyas hold an unquestionable status as one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups as they can reliably trace their origins to Muslims from the sub-continent who migrated 500 years ago to the then-existing Arakan Kingdom in modern-day south-eastern Myanmar, part of the regions that we now call the Rohingya homelands.
It was after this migration that the Rohingya language, culture, and identity developed, not prior to it. This is something to remember when we come across instances of the Myanmar establishment labeling them as ‘Bengalis’.
The recorded history of Rohingya interactions with their neighboring ethnic groups is not a flattering one for the Rohingyas either if we are being honest as the 1950s and 1960s saw instances of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Rohingya militias against ethnic Arakanese in the region. This was because the Arakenese sided with the Japanese occupation while the Rohingyas held aspirations of either joining East Bengal (Pakistan), even reaching out to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, while other Rohingya leaders wanted to carve out an independent state.
Understandably, the establishment in Rangon used the incidents as a pretext to rein the Rohingyas in by force over the decade.
1977 saw a disproportionately violent and heavy-handed repression of innocent Rohingya civilians through Operation Nagamin, driving them into then-newly independent Bangladesh for the first time in response to attacks by the militant Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF).
Successive waves of ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion into Bangladesh would follow, leading to the situation we are dealing with now. On the other side of Myanmar, a similar sequence of events would follow with Karennis being driven into Thailand, leading to frosty and even hostile relations between the two.
It is worth noting that the British colonial administration favored the Karen ethnic group over other ethnic groups, something that anyone well-versed in the history of British India would recognize. Yet, the refusal or inability to make Myanmar function as a muti-ethnic federation has always been difficult primarily due to the socialist-influenced Bamar ruling class.
Currently, upwards of 1.3 million Rohingyas are in Bangladesh. This can be considered tantamount to a near-total forced transplantation of an entire ethnic group into another country by force, and a key end objective of the ethnic cleansing campaign.
What are the effects of such a massive inflow?
Bangladesh is already one of the most overpopulated countries in the world and is expected to hit 200 million by the year 2061. The consequences of such a population explosion have been unsustainable urbanization, biodiversity and forest destruction, and rapid mineral depletion. The influx of the Rohingyas simply makes all of these problems much much worse, especially in the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf area where a lot of them are housed, in squalid conditions and a culture of fear thanks to violent camp politics.
When it comes specifically to Teknaf, The Financial Express writes: “Increased groundwater use has reduced the groundwater level by 9-11 feet, according to a government official.”
This effectively makes the groundwater unreachable. The Financial Express goes on to further state that: “According to a report published by UNDP, the Rohingya refugees are occupying 4,818.1 acres of land. In order to accommodate them, 1,999.5 acres of project forest area and 2,917.6 acres of natural forest area were destroyed.”
Within this destroyed forest area lived majestic Asian elephants, who are marching fast on the road to extinction in Bangladesh, with unnatural elephant deaths reported every now and then. Wildlife extinction and especially the dwindling of nationally treasured animals such as the Bengal tiger, the Sarail hound, and the magpie, the loss of Asian elephants in Bangladesh is a devastating blow.
Large-scale bulk migration has frequently caused conflict and economic turmoil throughout history, no matter what the Western and Middle Eastern mainstream media may attempt to claim. It happened with the Goths entering the Roman Empire, and the Bulgars entering lands held by the ancestors of the Romanians.
Incidents in the modern day such as the 2015 Cologne attacks and the explosion of violent crime rates in Sweden, along with significant social strife in Turkiye do not bode well for Bangladesh, which is facing a large influx of migrants that are poor, angry, culturally distinct, and with nothing to lose just as they had been in the aforementioned cases.
I acknowledge that these conservations are never easy and that tough choices are made that cut away at the conscience of those that benefit from them. However, we may risk more in the future through inaction.
Despite the fact that it may seem irresponsible and rash, this is the point in this article where I implore you, the reader, to seriously consider the idea of forcing Myanmar to comply with demands from the UN, Amnesty International, and so on….with military force if absolutely necessary.
What is not commonly known is that Myanmar under Ne Win had previously agreed to denote the Rohingyas as lawful citizens of their own country, shortly after Operation Nagamin, and a repatriation agreement was even signed. It is commonly written that this event occurred due to then-President Ziaur Rahman threatening to arm the Rohingya refugees that arrived in Bangladesh due to Operation Nagamin, proving that Myanmar does bend to the prospect of force.
The whole world and the UN collectively banded together in important events that safeguarded the rights of many. These include the defense of the Republic of Korea, the defense of Congo’s territorial integrity, and the liberation of Kuwait. All of these events showed that the UN can extend its arm to force the plans of rogue states to falter, and it should definitely be remembered in the context of approaching Myanmar.
Right now, pro-democracy rebels in Myanmar are fighting a slowly losing battle alongside the already existing ethnic rebels. Kyaw Moe Tun, the pre-coup ambassador to the UN who had been retained after the change in government has made calls for military intervention himself and has indicated that such a move would be supported by the anti-military faction.
This crisis needs to be resolved once and for all after it has been left to continue for decades upon decades. Not only has inaction brought misery to Myanmar’s ethnic groups, but also destroyed its own chances of becoming a democratic and ethno-federal powerhouse. Along with all of this, Thailand and Bangladesh are also suffering from their choices.
Once again, the prospect of a military intervention is quite the moral quandary. Yet, it is something to think about seriously, so that the Rohingyas, Karens, and all of Myanmar’s ethnic groups may live with dignity in their homelands.
[Photo by VOA Burmese, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Fatin Anwar is a student of Geography at the University of Dhaka and a freelance writer/researcher.