Nearly three years ago, in the northwest corner of what was once one of the world’s most closed and brutal regimes—Myanmar—the devastations began. At the urging of a Buddhist political party, mobs began to attack people known as the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority of South Asian descent. Scores have been killed since, more than 1,000 homes have burned to the ground, and thousands of families fled.
The violence in the state of Rakhine, just south of Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal, called to mind the 1990s ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. The military regime in Myanmar had begun to implement political and economic reforms that drew praise from the outside world. But at the same time, it increased sectarian tensions in the Buddhist-dominated country, tensions that now are at the center of a humanitarian crisis unfolding on Southeast Asian waters. Thousands of Rohingya refugees have been floating at sea for months, with dwindling supplies of food and water, most turned away by Myanmar’s neighbors Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
On May 20, as international outrage increased, authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia relented. They said they would admit some 7,000 boat people “temporarily,” while insisting that they would take in no more. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya remain in Myanmar, more than 100,000 of whom are now living in camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. In recent revelations and threats facing the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group which has been subject to massive discrimination, it seems to be that the population is at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide. With a recent history of mass atrocities and within a pervasive climate of hatred and fear, the Rohingya may once again become the target of mass atrocities.
Earlier this year, it announced it would revoke temporary identification cards for all minorities, Rohingya included. These cards gave the Rohingya access to health and education services, and also allowed them to vote in what’s expected to be a constitutional referendum later this year. The decision triggered large protests by Buddhist groups, and the government backed off.
These stark early warning signs of future mass atrocities include various acts targeting the Rohingya such as physical violence against individuals, homes and businesses; physical segregation from other ethnic groups; rampant and unchecked hate speech; destruction of mosques; and sexual violence.
Myanmar goes to the polls at the end of this year and if reports are to be believed, then the situation is so untenable that the upcoming elections could serve as a spark that ignites mass violence. Elections are sometimes trigger points for increased violence, especially in places marked by past violence and long-term oppression.
There is indeed a requirement for long-term strategies to counter hate and build resiliency. The government in Myanmar need to take various steps including ending all discriminatory laws and policies targeting the Rohingya; investigating attacks committed against the group in accordance with internationally recognized legal standards; and fully cooperating and assisting humanitarian aid organizations, governments and other agencies trying to assist the minority group.