Throughout 2017, the situation in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State has deteriorated significantly, with potential long-term consequences for regional security and stability. Harsh counter-insurgency operations carried out by Myanmar’s government, ostensibly targeting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), have sparked an abrupt exodus of over 600,000 Muslims. Many of those fleeing identify as Rohingya, an ethnic category that is not recognised by the government of Myanmar, which is a predominantly Buddhist country. Reliable reports have emerged of atrocities committed by Myanmar’s soldiers, including massacres of civilians, infanticide, summary execution, the burning of villages and gang rape. Taking shelter across the border in Bangladesh, these newly displaced people join around 450,000 Rohingya who had previously lived in Myanmar, but now struggle for survival on the margins of Bangladeshi society. A large number of the refugees are children, and many are malnourished. Before the exodus, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar numbered an estimated 1.3 million. Myanmar considers them illegal Bangladeshi migrants, yet Bangladesh itself, though a mostly Muslim country, does not recognise its Rohingya residents as citizens.
The Rohingya’s plight is a humanitarian crisis with wide-ranging political, strategic and cultural dimensions. It is quickly reshaping the once glowing international views of Myanmar’s government, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. She spent 15 years under house arrest by the formerly ruling military junta, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been revered as a champion of human rights. She and her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – emerged victorious in Myanmar’s first contested national election in 25 years in 2015. She took office in April 2016. But uncomfortable questions about Buddhist chauvinism in Myanmar have tarnished the NLD’s reputation for enlightened benevolence. Its power-sharing arrangement with the country’s armed forces, which are currently headed by the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, enjoys widespread support among the Myanmar people, who appear overwhelmingly resistant to accept that their elected leaders may share blame for the Rohingya calamity.