South-East Asia faces a massive refugee crisis. Over 400,000 people have now fled Myanmar. Most have ended up in Bangladesh, which is buckling under the strain. The United Nations has labelled the persecution of the refugees as textbook ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The situation will likely worsen before it gets better, as international politics is at a stalemate on how to assist the crisis. Here’s the breakdown on what’s happened.

Where is Myanmar?

Relatively speaking, just down the road. It shares a border with Thailand and Malaysia. It used to be called Burma.


The group being persecuted are the Rohingya. They don’t call any state or country their home. Instead, they’ve been hunkered down in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for many decades, or centuries – depending on who you believe.

Why did Burma become Myanmar? 

Officially, either name is still acceptable. Burma was under British rule from 1824 until the second world war, part of the colonial prize pack that included India. Burma was the British’s word. An independent Burmese military eventually took over, switching the name to Myanmar in the late 80’s. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, however, and many Burmese still prefer their country by the British name. Civil wars have blemished the history of Myanmar for much of the twentieth century. It’s predominant conflict has been with the Rohingya.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya have been called the ‘most persecuted group of people in the world’ by the United Nations. The majority are Muslim, but some are Hindu. Myanmar is a largely Buddhist nation. In Myanmar, they are not allowed to become official citizens. Their treatment has been compared to that of an apartheid. The Myanmar government doesn’t recognise them as an official ‘race’, and they are barred from freedom of movement and employment. The most recent ethnic cleansing has been on the cards for a while, as many have feared an eventual attempted genocide of the Rohingya people.

Photo by Onur Coban. This woman has fled Myanmar to the shores of Bangladesh.

Why are the Rohingya so persecuted?

The Rohingya maintain that they have lived in what is now Myanmar’s Rakhine State since the eighth century. But the Burmese government disagrees.

Back when the country was under British rule, Bangladesh, India and Burma was all considered one big territory. During that time there was a significant migration of labourers into Myanmar from India and Bangladesh. That migration wasn’t popular among Myanmar natives, however. When independence came, the government saw the migration as illegal. Many in Myanmar believe the Rohingya to actually be Bengali. In many Buddhist’s eyes, the ‘Rohingya’ are just an invention created for political purposes – essentially, a conspiracy.

It’s a narrative essentially based in racism, and is most definitely not true. The evidence that the Rohingya have held a place in what is now called Myanmar for many centuries is plentiful.

How bad is it now?

In October 2016, the Myanmar government blamed the murder of nine border police on the Rohingya. This triggered the most recent round of ethnic cleansing, displacing 400,000 people. Troops have fired indiscriminately into crowds of men, women and children. Entire villages have been burned to the ground. The estimates on how many have died remains unknown.

The United Nations is encouraging the international community to help the refugees where they can. It is likely that Australia will take some refugees, but there’s been no official announcement on this.


Will the Burmese Government stop?

That’s unlikely.

Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – which is like a Prime Minister. She’s a pretty amazing woman, having worked for the United Nations and worked over many decades to stabilise the Myanmar government. She’s very popular, consistently winning democratic elections. She was a political prisoner in 1990 when the military placed her under house arrest. They refused to hand over power after her party won an election. She remained under house arrest for fifteen years. Her party eventually gained power in the 2012 elections, and then again in 2015. Her career awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Aung San Suu Kyi has denied allegations of ethnic cleansing. She’s also refused to give citizenship to the Rohingya. She’s gone as far as to offer ID cards for residency, but says that citizenship is impossible. It’s a disturbing glitch in Aung San Suu Kyi’s celebrated public image, and many are now saying her Nobel Peace Prize should be withdrawn.

It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

From Aung San Suu Kyi’s essay ‘Freedom From Fear’

Internally, the military has a lot of support. The Rohingya are seen as a threat to Myanmar’s sovereignty and security, which has only been worsened by the attack on the border officers.

The Rohingya population inside Myanmar has dropped by more than 10% in the space of just a week. It’s dropped 25% in the space of the last twelve months.

Charities such as Amnesty International have campaigns to help support the crisis.

Photo by Charlie Costello of Old Bagan, central Myanmar. 

We’ll keep Slow News Weekly updated as the situation evolves.

If you like this blog, share it around. We’ll be back at the end of the week.


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