Beyond the Headlines: Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar


The Beyond the Headlines @BUPardeeSchool, or BtH, series at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, continued on February 23, 2018, with a panel discussion on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. 

The Rohingya are a stateless people from Rakhine stateMyanmar who were the targets of widespread attacks in 2017 by Myanmar military forces and local Buddhist extremists. The majority of the Rohingya are Muslim, while a minority are Hindu. According to a January 2018 report from the United Nations, nearly 690,000 Rohingya people had fled or had been driven out of Rakhine state to take shelter in neighboring Bangladesh as refugees. 

The panel included Kate Cronin-Furman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School Belfer Center; Jayita Sarkar, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School; and Pardee School Dean Adil Najam. The discussion was moderated by Noora Lori, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School. 

“The Rohingya are often referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority. They suffered extremely abusive treatment at the hands of the Burmese state and their Buddhist neighbors in Rakhine state,” Cronin-Furman said. “They have been denied citizenship rights which means they don’t have access to higher education, they’re restricted in their ability to marry — things that are extremely basic rights.”

Cronin-Furman outlined how the government of Myanmar has attempted to portray the conflict as a counterinsurgency campaign in response to attacks by Rohingya in August 2017 on military and police installations that killed a number of security personnel.

“They claim that the violence that is occurring now is the state’s legitimate response to those attacks,” Cronin-Furman said. “This is an attempt to frame this violence in terms of the global war on terror. The state would like the international community to believe that these Muslim insurgents are connected to international terrorist networks and that Burma’s response is both justified and proportional.”

Najam discussed his experience as part of a delegation of members from the Asia Foundation’s Board of Trustees that visited Myanmar in early 2018. During the trip, the delegation met with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other leading officials from the government in addition to academics and human rights activists.

“There is widespread disdain and disinterest in the crisis from everyone in Myanmar and not just the military,” Najam said. “The real tragedy to me is inattention of the international community which has ignored and forgotten one of the biggest ethnic cleaning tragedies of modern times.”

Najam stressed his opinion that in addition to the government and military of Myanmar, the international community deserves to be held accountable for the ongoing crisis.

“The conditions have been created not just by Aung San Suu  Kyi, not just by the military, not just by Myanmar, but by the whole world,” Najam said. “Essentially the Rohingya have been kicked out into one of the poorest countries in the world and they are not going to come back.”

Sarkar discussed the history of the Rohingyas, a Bengali-speaking Muslim population, and its impact on the current conflict in Myanmar dating back to the Burma Campaign of the Second World War and the Partition of British India.

“I find that there are several similarities with respect to the challenges of forming nation-states in the latter part of the 20th century, especially in the post-colonial context,” Sarkar said. “I’ve found that the insurgencies and the ethnic violence that plays out in these borderlands have a lot of overlap because there are populations who speak the same language, and sometimes have the same religion.”

Sarkar also recently published feature essay in The Diplomat on the history of the Rohingyas entitled “Rohingyas and the Unfinished Business of Partition.”  In the essay, Sarkar concludes that since no great power interest would be served in siding with the Rohingyas, humanitarian intervention is improbable.

Lori stressed the importance of increasing awareness of the Rohingya crisis and discussed how the Rohingya crisis differs from other refugee and humanitarian crises around the globe.

“It’s not like the other refugee crises we’re experiencing in other parts of the world such as the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not widespread violence we’re witnessing, but targeted persecution of an ethnic minority,” Lori said. “What we do to document what is going on right now is really critical. Not speaking about it, not saying the name ‘Rohingya,’ is itself incredibly politically significant.”

Lori also discussed the range of contributing factors that lead to the 2017 crisis, and the failure of the international community to fund a response plan or react in a meaningful way.

“We can’t explain this issue by only looking at domestic politics. The timing has to do with international politics and larger political dynamics,” Lori said. “What we’re missing is the money to support this response plan. It’s only 25 percent funded,” Lori said. “The real atrocity is that we can act — we have the legal ability to act, we have a plan in place, we have the organizations that are capable of doing it, but we don’t have the funding behind it.”

Beyond the Headlines is a regular series at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies which seeks to cultivate informed conversations among experts and practitioners on issues that are currently in the news headlines, but to do so with a focus on intellectual analysis and on longer-range trends. Recent Beyond the Headlines discussions have focused on topics including the politics of development researchChina’s Communist Party Congress, and the future of U.S. global climate policy.