Ethnic cleansing in modern Burma

History Club’s lecture series ends with contemporary horrors

The fourth and final installment of the History Club’s lecture series on genocide was presented by Dr. Travis Nelson, which focused on the current ethnic cleansing in Burma. The Burmese government is in the process of removing the Rohingya people from the country. They cite them as the reason for economic and social failings in the country.  

Nelson began with a brief history of Burma, and, as with many genocides and ethnic cleansings, the chain of events began with European colonization. In this case, it began with the British taking over Burma and subsequently the Indian subcontinent as a whole. Following World War II, India claimed their independence in late 1947, and Burma joined them in independence shortly after on Jan. 4, 1948.  

From 1948-1962, independent Burma was in a large amount of social strife, with various military groups controlling sections of the country. In 1962 a military coup overturned the Burmese government, immediately nationalizing the economy and banning independent newspapers.  

After years of a semi-stable government, this military group passed a law demoting the Rohingya people to associate citizenship, diminishing their rights and otherwise placing a marker on them signifying that were outsiders in the country. Six years later, the military declared martial law and created the State Law and Order Restoration Council. 

SLORC arrested thousands of human rights activists protesting on behalf of the Rohingya people. They also changed the name of Burma to Myanmar to differentiate themselves from former governments.  

One of the arrested activists, Aung San Suu Kyi, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism while held under house arrest. She was eventually released and became a spokesperson for the protests happening in the country.

In 2007, the Saffron Revolution brought a series of major anti-government protests following the removal of fuel subsidies by the government. These protests were famously led by Buddhist monks, acting as the spiritual leaders of the country.  

In 2008, a cyclone struck the country, killing 85,000 people and displacing over 800,000. The government refused most support offered, accepting help only from a few neighboring countries. First Lady Laura Bush was irate, and in a rare moment spoke in the White House press room about the incident and the United States’ offers of help.

This brief history was how Nelson set the stage for the series of events that led to the ethnic cleansing. A combination of political instability, natural disaster and the separation of a people from the whole caused the Burmese population to be physically and emotionally exhausted.

In 2012, this came to a head when the rape of a Buddhist woman was blamed on a Rohingya man. This accusation resulted in massive violence against the Rohingya people. When the Rohingya were assaulted, the violence hardened their identity, and spurred them to take pride in who they were rather than attempt to assimilate to avoid persecution.  The largely Buddhist population of Burma used anti-terrorist excuses for the violence.  

“On Facebook and other social media, propaganda against the Rohingya was shared everywhere, and because people were uninformed, the anti-terrorist motives were seen as justified to the general public of America and other first-world countries, worsening the situation for the Rohingya as it built up the false motives of the Burmese government,” Nelson said.

A group of Rohingya, under the strain of violence and a lack of safety, created an extremist militant group in response to the attacks. The group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claims their motives and purpose are to defend and protect the Rohingya people from their attackers. The Burmese government, however, has declared them a terrorist group, claiming they are led and funded by foreign Islamists, despite no definitive evidence to come to that conclusion.

In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi, the activist who won the Nobel Prize, was voted in as president of the country. As the state of the Rohingyan people has declined, she has been widely criticized for not speaking or acting on behalf of the Rohingya, as she had when she won the prize.  

“I’m not really sure why she doesn’t speak out. There’s a lot of speculation about it; the military is still largely in control, so her position is very much a figurehead, so she may not have the power to act. Or she may be afraid for her safety to speak up. Or her position on the subject may have changed, or it could be none of those things. All we really know is that she hasn’t done anything publicly to defend the Rohingya since she became the de facto president,” Nelson said.

In 2017, an ARSA attack led to an anti-Rohingya crackdown by the Burmese government, forcing the Rohingya out of their historic homeland and sending many out of the country.  

The situation has not yet been resolved; however, the United Nations are working to send in aid workers and return the Rohingya to their homeland.  The Chinese and Russian delegations opposed the motion to send UN aid into the country as of late 2017.