How the Democratization of Myanmar Exacerbated Systemic Oppression of Rohingyas, and How the International Community Should Step In

Sarah Syed
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been under close watch for its human rights abuses.[1] In 2012, the Myanmar military rounded up thousands of Rohingya into ghetto-like camps with deplorable conditions in the Rakhine state.[2] The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group of Bangladeshi descent.[3] On top of being excluded from citizenship and all forms of legal existence, many Rohingya are detained and forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries.[4] Major international organizations hold a firm stance that there is evidence that ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and that genocidal acts are being perpetrated under the government, which recently transitioned from a military dictatorship to democracy.[5] The socio-political history of Rohingyas in Myanmar, as well as U.S. influence on Myanmar’s democratization, explain why the violence against Rohingyas occurs without significant international intervention.[6] As the international community stands by, the Rohingya in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps face harsh conditions and ongoing threats of violence, resulting in a refugee crisis.[7]

  1. Socio-Political History of Rohingyas

The long-persecuted Rohingya are excluded from Myanmar’s political process.[8] In 1982, the military government of Myanmar, known as Burma at the time, enacted a Citizenship Law that revoked Rohingya citizenship.[9] The Rohingya were forced into IDP camps in June 2012, when communal violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas led to targeted police sweeps in which masses of Rohingyas were detained.[10] The breaking point was in October 2012, when military forces destroyed most Rohingya homes and neighborhoods, leading to their displacement.[11] There are currently over 375,000 Rohingya in secluded camps, while the remaining 1 million face everyday persecutions and restrictions on their freedom of movement.[12] As of July 2012, the Myanmar government does not include the Rohingya minority group—classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government’s list of more than 130 ethnic races.[13] Therefore, Rohingyas have no legal claim to citizenship.[14] Movement restrictions within IDP camps limit income-generating activities for Rohingyas, who already have very little access to resourceful lands and markets.[15]

  1. U.S. Influence on Myanmar’s Democratization

The United States has applauded the government’s democratization steps, ignoring the undemocratic disenfranchisement of the Rohingya ethnic minority.[16] The 2012 national elections brought Thein Sein in as President, a moderate military general in comparison to previous leaders.[17] The United States enticed Myanmar’s government to carry out democratic reforms in exchange for loosening economic sanctions that were placed in 2003 as punishment for Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest while protesting freedom of speech limitations.[18] These sanctions included strict restrictions on Myanmar’s financial institutions and a ban on all economic ties, such as imports from Myanmar.[19] Once these sanctions were somewhat alleviated, Myanmar’s GDP increased substantially.[20] However, due to the GDP spike, wealth disparity between Rohingyas and ethnic Burmese increased, as the former were not included in the flourishing economic sectors.[21] Despite the GDP increase, politicians in Rakhine were worried about the promises of the new government to instill democratic reforms.[22] Many Rakhine Buddhists support democratization, but also insist on preserving power structures that disenfranchise Rohingyas.[23] Before the Rakhine Riots of 2012, there were talks within parliament of restoring Rohingya citizenship and lifting the ban on teaching in ethnic languages.[24] Consequently, the ethnic Burmese’s fear of becoming a minority was even more amplified.[25] In 2015, Parliament proposed a bill to allow Rohingyas to hold voter ID cards.[26] However, many Buddhists and monks immediately revolted, and President Thein Sein dropped the bill.[27] Many other democratization efforts have excluded Rohingyas, such as the freedom of speech laws in 2012.[28] Before these reforms, Myanmar’s strict censorship laws required all news outlets to pass through government approval, and imposed harsh prison sentences for those who criticized the government.[29] However, most of the prisoners released were ethnic Burmese.[30] To reward Myanmar for its democratization efforts, the United States welcomed President Sein’s visit.[31] In May 2013, Thein Sein, the military-backed President, became the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years.[32] Nonetheless, President Obama assured Thein Sein that Myanmar would receive U.S. support and aid in its political transition.[33]

  1. Refugee Crisis

Rohingyas are denied access to education and health care, allowing disease to run rampant.[34] They are not allowed to leave the camps without official permission and are guarded in by the military.[35] Children that are born to Rohingyas are no longer given birth certificates, a process denying them citizenship and legal existence.[36] They are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment to have no more than two children.[37] In their desperate measures, many Rohingya often take small and fragile boats that are dangerous on the open seas.[38] They have been fleeing in dangerous journeys to Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia for refuge.[39] Over 7,000 reached their destinations, only to be held in detention centers again.[40] Whether it is through targeted sanctions or humanitarian aid, international organizations have a responsibility to condemn and prevent the systemic violence and killing of Rohingyas in Myanmar. International organizations must look to other peacekeeping missions for a blueprint of enacting safety measures for Rohingya communities and improving healthcare in IDP camps. As these camps are disbanded, international organizations must be vigilant that the quality of the already poor health centers do not disintegrate. More funds should be allocated to the IDP camps and outward transitions, as the international community helps the Rohingyas rebuild their lives, including support for housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. However, IDP camp reintegration must be taken with care—if it is carried out too quickly, many Rohingyas may be left homeless without any support.

[1] See Lowell Dittmer, Burma Vs. Myanmar: What’s in a Name?, 48 Asian Surv. 885, 886-888 (2008), [2] Burma violence: 20,000 displaced in Rakhine state, BBC News (Oct. 28, 2012), [3] Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?, Al Jazeera (Sept. 28, 2017), [4] Id. [5] UN Security Council: Refer Burma to the ICC, Hum. Rts. Watch (Nov. 3, 2017), [6] Id. [7] Eleanor Alder, The Rohingya Crisis, Council on Foreign Rel. (Oct. 4, 2017), [8] Amanda Catanzano & Nazanin Ash, The US must take a lead in the Rohingya crisis, CNN (Nov. 20, 2017), [9] Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?, supra note 3. [10] Burma violence, supra note 2. [11] Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?, supra note 3. [12] Myanmar, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, (last visited Nov. 26, 2017). [13] Feliz Solomon, Myanmar Stands Accused of Ethnic Cleansing. Here’s Why, Time (Sept. 12, 2017), [14] See id. [15] Id. [16] Obama Vows US Support as Myanmar Leader Visits, NPR (May 20, 2013), [17] Thomas Fuller, As Myanmar Changes, So Does Its Leader, N.Y. Times (Apr. 3, 2012) [18] Richard C. Paddock, Obama’s Move to End Myanmar Sanctions Promises a Lift for Its Economy, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2016), [19] Id. [20] Myanmar – Central bank assets to GDP, Trading Econ., (last visited Nov. 26, 2017). [21] Rakhine Emergency Situation, Myan. Info. Mgmt. Unit, (last visited Nov. 26, 2017). [22] U.S. Holocaust Mem’l Museum, “They Want Us All to Go Away”: Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Burma 13 (2015), [23] Id. [24] Joseph Schatz, In Myanmar, Attacking the Rohingya Is Good Politics, Al Jazeera (May 29, 2015), [25] Id. [26] Id. [27] Id. [28] Freedom House, Myanmar Country Profile 13 (2017), [29] Id. [30] Id. [31] Obama Vows US Support as Myanmar Leader Visits, supra note 16. [32] Id.  [33] Id.  [34] Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?, supra note 3. [35] Id. [36] Id. [37] Id. [38] Ron Corben, UN Reports Increase in Boat People Fleeing Myanmar, Bangladesh, VOA (Aug. 24, 2014), [39] Id. [40] Id.