Events attempt to untangle roots of Rohingya crisis

Rohningya fleeing burning village
Rohingya Muslims flee their homes during a military raid on their village in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Photo by Reuters.  

By Geethika Dharmasinghe

In recent months, roughly half the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar (Burma) have fled their homes in response to what UN officials have labeled ethnic cleansing. Two campus events attempt to shed light on the crisis.

The series began with a lecture by Gayatri Spivak, University Professor and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Her talk, “The Rohingya Issue in a Global Context,” took place on October 30.

Spivak is a well-known literary and postcolonial theorist and feminist critic who received her doctorate at Cornell in 1967.

On November 7, a roundtable called “The Roots of the Rohingya Crisis: The Eradication of a Myanmar Ethnic Group” will feature Michael W. Charney, Burma scholar and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, along with filmmaker Eaint Thiri Thu and associate professor of anthropology Magnus Fiskesjö.

The roundtable will take place at 4:30 in the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall. Future events are in the planning stages.

The series is organized by the Collective of Concerned Students on Global Issues and supported by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Southeast Asia Program, the South Asia Program, the Comparative Muslim Societies Program, and faculty whose work focuses on Myanmar.

Background and current crisis

The Rohingya are a largely Muslim minority group living in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, a country that is nearly 90 percent Buddhist. Denied citizenship by law, the Rohingya are often described as the most persecuted minority in the world.

On August 23, Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, delivered recommendations to the president of Myanmar on the situation in Rakhine. The recommendations were intended to improve conditions for all the state’s inhabitants. Three weeks later, top UN officials declared that the Rohingya refugee crisis amounted to ethnic cleansing.

The exodus began after attacks on security personnel by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in October 2016 led to security operations in northern parts of the state. Recent news reports, refugee accounts, and satellite images point to the brutal treatment of civilian Rohingya by the Myanmar military, including the burning of many villages. Since August 25, 500,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh.

Hastily created camps are not able to meet the needs of either internally displaced people or those who have crossed into Bangladesh, India, or Malaysia. The refugees suffer from lack of food, shelter and medicine. Bangladesh is now building a mega-camp for 800,000 people, to house new refugees along with those who arrived during previous expulsions.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, was seen as a shining light of democracy, but recent events have provoked a reassessment of her image. Under her leadership, the government has denied all accusations of ethnic cleansing, claiming that this is a problem of national sovereignty, and that the actions of the military are in defense against terrorism.

The government says it will investigate the crisis, allow access to aid groups, and welcome refugees to return. However, these promises have yet to be put into practice.

Tangled roots

The current ​crisis​ has deep historical and transregional roots.

Anti-colonial and independence movements formed a Burmese nation state in the late 1940s with contested relationships with its own diverse and mobile population. At the same time, the country’s strategic geopolitical location has historically placed it at the center of imperial conflicts.

Although today’s mass displacement of Rohingya comes at a time of ​increasingly​ ​virulent Buddhist nationalism in South and Southeast Asia, it also occurs in a context of growing American, Chinese, Indian, and Russian interests in Myanmar's natural resources and strategic Indian Ocean ports.

To understand the Rohingya crisis, it is necessary to consider these complex domestic and international dynamics. The goal of the series is to seek that understanding, both for the organizers and the wider Cornell community.

For more background, please see “Myanmar Rohingya hatred has roots in Buddhist Nationalism,” which quotes Michael Charney, and “The art of ignoring genocide,” which quotes Magnus Fiskesjö.

Geethika Dharmasinghe is a graduate student in the field of Asian Literature, Religion & Culture and a member of the Collective of Concerned Students on Global Issues.