Rohingya wait for humanitarian aid in the sprawling refugee camp on October 6, 2017 at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. aap
More than 820,000 Rohingya have now fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, at least 607,000 since August 25. That is more than half the Muslim population of Rakhine State displaced in just 10 weeks. The scale of human suffering is mind-numbing, and the destruction vast.
Human Rights Watch has released satellite imagery showing that at least 288 villages have been destroyed, including 62% of all villages in the Muslim-majority westernmost township of Maungdaw. Many have labelled this “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”.
On September 11, 2017, even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared it appears to be a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. In light of this, there have been growing calls to boycott Myanmar and impose new sanctions, including by one of our colleagues in Australian academia.
But what is this the best way for Australia to respond?
In stark contrast to the international outrage, public opinion within Myanmar overwhelmingly supports the relative inaction of the government and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Support for the military action is also very high. Why?
Many people are angry, arguing that the international perception is biased and partial, and based on selective reporting. For example, they note that more than half the non-Rohingya population in Northern Rakhine state has also been displaced, mostly towards the south (admittedly a much smaller number of people, as the Muslim Rohingya who have fled across the international border constitute 95% of all displaced).
Likewise, they point out that the military crackdown that prompted the exodus was in response to attacks on 30 police posts and an army base by Rohingya militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
After all, what sort of security response would we demand if a jihadist group launched coordinated attacks on 30 police stations in Australia, Europe or the United States? We should hardly be surprised this is how many Burmese feel.
ARSA claimed that its actions were in defence of Rohingya communities, in response to decades of marginalisation, persecution and harassment by security forces. The Myanmar government, for its part, has labelled ARSA a “terrorist” organisation, and raised fears of an ISIS-sponsored descent into a Syrian-style disaster.
They argue that ARSA’s strategy was precisely to provoke a large exodus to obtain international sympathy. In support of these claims they point out that the ARSA attacks were timed to follow the release of the Kofi Annan Rakhine Advisory Commission report, which contains a comprehensive reform plan that was immediately accepted by the government.
There are many perspectives and fears at play here. All require respectful acknowledgement, as many facts on the ground are not yet established. Neither are all the facts underlying the historical background of this conflict yet clear. It is significant that all major protagonists frame this multifacted crisis very differently.
The Rohingya claim a centuries- or millennia-long history in this land. Most others in Myanmar claim they are recent or illegal Bengali migrants. The name Rohingya is strongly claimed by the Muslims, and hotly contested by others. The politics around names is not incidental in a nation whose own name is disputed.
For now, the massive Rohingya flight - on the back of denial of citizenship and decades of marginalisation - is the principal crisis.
One thing is clear: the situation in Bangladesh requires immediate humanitarian and political responses. But it is too easy to opt for simplistic, black and white positions.