Caught Between States

Regarding the Persecution of the Rohingya

by Joshua Kurtz

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published September 23, 2016

Last week, President Obama announced that the United States is prepared to lift all remaining sanctions against Myanmar. First imposed after the Burmese military violently crushed a student-led uprising in 1988, these economic sanctions have greatly regulated American business with Myanmar. Though President Obama eased many of these sanctions last year, several still remain, such as restrictions on trading precious stone and on doing business with certain Burmese military officials. A milestone in the relationship between these two nations, this announcement came during a visit to the White House by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the nation’s general elections last year, thus marking the end of over 50 years of military rule. Suu Kyi, who recently assumed office as Myanmar’s State Counselor, is a longtime human rights activist whose vocal opposition to the country’s military regime resulted in 15 years of house arrest. Since coming to power, the National League for Democracy has embarked on a series of democratic reforms, including releasing political prisoners and amending Myanmar’s existing constitution, including a part that guarantees military representatives 25% of the seats in parliament. Though this constitution bars Suu Kyi from assuming the office of President of Myanmar, she serves as the country’s de facto leader in her role as State Counselor. During her visit to the White House, Suu Kyi emphasized the elimination of US sanctions as an essential step in enabling the Burmese Government to promote democratic reform.

However, several human rights groups have expressed concern that eliminating sanctions against Myanmar will diminish the leverage that Suu Kyi and Western leaders have over the Burmese military and its allies, who still hold a great deal of influence in the Burmese parliament, such as the authority to block any amendment to the nation’s constitution. Further, human rights advocates have argued that this decision turns a blind eye to the various ethnic conflicts that still plague the country, such as the continual persecution of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority indigenous to Myanmar’s western state. The Rohingya have faced state-sponsored discrimination since the military took power in 1962. Recent outbreaks of violence between Rohingya and Buddhist communities, who form the majority of Burmese people, reflect the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment common in Myanmar’s national political discourse. Though images of Rohingya refugees at sea have been circulated widely in Western media, the persecution of the Rohingya people who remain in Myanmar has received little attention.




The population of Burma is comprised of over one hundred different ethnic groups. Of the nation’s 53 million inhabitants, around one and a half million identify as Rohingya. The majority of the Rohingya people live in Rakhine State, which is situated on the western coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have lived on this land for centuries, the Burmese government has consistently refused to recognize the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group. Instead, the state continues to maintain that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. This assertion is at the heart of both the anti-Rohingya rhetoric that permeates Burmese political discourse and the various federal policies that have been implemented to deny the Rohingya people citizenship. 

The conflict between Muslim Rohingya communities and Buddhist communities in Myanmar can be traced to Britain’s “divide-and-rule” policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When the British colonized Myanmar, they offered Muslim communities special provisions, such as top positions in the military and some degree of autonomous self-government, in exchange for support in suppressing Buddhist resistance. During Japan’s occupation of Myanmar during WWII, however, the Burma Independent Army brutally oppressed these Muslim communities. After Myanmar received its independence from Britain in 1948, the newly formed, predominately Buddhist government strove to grant ethnic minorities autonomy over their communities and lands. However, the assassination of General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and subsequent military coup in 1962 foiled these efforts, setting the stage for the development of a government rooted in a distinctly Buddhist Burmese Nationalism. 

In 1982, Myanmar’s military dictator, General Ne Win, implemented a new citizenship law that recognized one hundred and thirty five “legitimate” ethnic minorities, excluding the Rohingya and thus rendering them stateless. This narrow definition of Burmese citizenship was justified as a crucial step in protecting Burmese unity against a Muslim “threat.” The law required both proof of familial residency in Myanmar since before 1948 and education in one of the national languages. However, many Rohingya lack records of their family’s residence in Myanmar; furthermore, the Rohingya speak their own distinct dialect and have limited access to education. Commenting on this law, General Ne Win, who ruled Myanmar from 1962-1988, argued, “Leniency on humanitarian grounds cannot be such as to endanger ourselves […] We will have to leave them [the Rohingya] out in matters involving the affairs of the country and the destiny of the state” (Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic). As a result, Rohingya communities were severely marginalized. They had little access to education and employment and were stripped of their power to challenge their oppressors in court. In legally rendering the Rohingya a stateless people, the state and its various military and police organs have restricted the Rohingya people’s freedom of movement and forced Rohingya communities to desert their ancestral lands. In 1990, for example, the Burmese government confiscated Rohingya land to build “model villages” for Burmese citizens. Given that the Rohingya people are not considered citizens, they were forcibly relocated.

Under President Thein Sein’s administration, which ended only last year, the Burmese government implemented a series of policies intended to restrict marriage and childbirth in Rohingya communities. For example, the state adopted a law, which has yet to be repealed, limiting the number of children that Rohingya couples are allowed to have. This regulation has been enforced through compulsory abortion and contraception. Additionally, in order to obtain marriage licenses, men must shave their beards and women must remove their headscarves, both of which are violations of their religious identity. Though the government has frequently claimed that these policies are a response to threateningly high rates of reproduction, these regulations are rooted in a nationalist rhetoric that disseminates fear of a Muslim “invasion” of Myanmar. Ashin Wirathu, a prominent extremist Buddhist monk, commented, “If the bill is enacted, it could stop the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize control.” Though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly opposed these restrictive measures, they have yet to be rescinded under Myanmar’s new government.

This widespread anti-Rohingya sentiment has not been reified solely by the Burmese government. In recent years, several nationalist Buddhist organizations have arisen in order to foster xenophobia and promote anti-Muslim policies. Most prominently, the 969 Movement, a Buddhist nationalist organization founded by Ashin Wirathu, has urged widespread boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. Comparable to anti-refugee discourses that have emerged in response to the war in Syria, Wirathu’s rhetoric has publically associated Muslim communities with increased rates of crime. Such rhetoric equates Burmese national identity with Buddhism, both of which are drawn as incomparable with and threatened by Muslim minorities.

In 2012, the rape and murder of a Burmese Buddhist woman in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, allegedly by three Rohingya men, set off a wave of violence against Rohingya communities that have left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands fleeing to UN-run Internally Displaced Camps within Myanmar and refugee camps in neighboring countries. The Burmese military, police, and border force were not only ineffectual in curbing this violence, but actively participated in it. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that over eighty-six thousand people fled Myanmar by sea between 2012 and 2014. Many of these refugees pay traffickers to smuggle them into Thailand and Malaysia. Quite often, though, these refugees are sold into slave labor or kept hostage until their families can pay ransom. The United Nations, along with Thai and Malaysian authorities, has discovered several mass graves on the border of Thailand and Malaysia thought to contain the bodies of Rohingya refugees. This persecution of the Rohingya people has set off a wave of protest—often violent—amongst Muslim communities and organizations throughout Southeast Asia. Therefore, state-sponsored violence and persecution of the Rohingya has had significant ramifications in the region as a whole.




The United Nations’ Genocide convention of 1948 defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” These acts include mass murder, the regulation of childbirth, forcible transfer of children, and the infliction of living conditions expected to bring about the group’s destruction. In 2015, Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, commissioned the Lowenstein Clinic at Yale Law School to investigate the extent to which the Rohingya crisis meets these criteria. Ultimately, the clinic found that the persecution of the Rohingya does amount to genocide. They cited the numerous instances of torture, rape, and murder by both military forces and by non-state local actors. Further, in denying the Rohingya basic humanitarian aid such as adequate food, water, and healthcare, the Burmese government has created conditions “calculated to bring about its [the Rohingya’s] destruction in whole or in part.” Finally, Article III of the UN’s Genocide Convention criminalizes a nation’s complicity in genocide within its borders. So far, Myanmar has been more than complicit. The Burmese army and police force both actively participated in the violence against the Rohingya and refused to intervene in instances of violence perpetrated by non-state actors.

Defining the persecution of the Rohingya as genocide is consequential because this classification sets into motion the investigation and trial of perpetrators by either a state or international tribunal. In addition, if the situation were deemed genocide, the United Nations and its member nations would also be responsible for working to quell the violence. The UN’s definition of genocide, however, has been widely criticized since its adoption. Several scholars have argued that the UN has very little power to enforce these laws. Moreover, the definition does not clearly state how many people must die or be persecuted in order to meet its “whole, or in part,” criteria. Perhaps the most nuanced criticism of the definition, though, is its emphasis on intentionality. Intentionality is incredibly difficult to prove, and some scholars have argued that intentionality must not be considered in investigating a situation like that of the Rohingya. Meghna Manaktala, a scholar of international human rights law, suggests that intentionality can be proven by a state’s continuous implementation of policies designed to destroy a group of people. By this metric, the various measures implemented by the Burmese government demonstrate genocidal intent.




Just weeks before Suu Kyi assumed office, the US State Department concluded that the persecution of the Rohingya does not constitute genocide. This decision reflects the United States’ recent efforts to develop a friendlier and more open trade relationship with Myanmar, which would benefit the United States economically. Several human rights activists and organizations have criticized the US government’s decision to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya people. These same advocates have expressed concern that President Obama’s recent decision to lift economic sanctions will decelerate Myanmar’s efforts to end this conflict and build a more democratic state. According to President Obama, “It is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government” (BBC). However, these sanctions are largely directed at key individuals and companies that support Myanmar’s former military regime, including politicians who have been complicit in the Rohingya genocide.

The US’s decision to even employ the term “Rohingya” in official statements, however, have angered several members of the Burmese government. Most notable, Suu Kyi has asked the US to cease employing the term, arguing that the word is too controversial to be included in conversations regarding the situation. The Burmese government, along with many nationalist Buddhists, continue to refer to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Suu Kyi’s statement may be understood as a concession to the prominent and outspoken nationalist Buddhist organizations and politicians in Myanmar. Moreover, many critics of Suu Kyi argue that her political interests exceed her commitment to human rights. Though Suu Kyi has invited Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United-Nations, to investigate the plight of the Rohingya, her continued refusal to invoke the term serves only to support the national rhetoric that has fueled this persecution for decades. This decision suggests that President Obama’s administration may have been too quick to assume that conditions for the Rohingya will improve under this new regime.  


JOSHUA KURTZ B’17 is learning how to witness.