The Rohingya Muslim crisis has become one of the most-discussed topics this week, but who’s responsible for the deadly crisis in Myanmar?

Earlier this week, the Rohingya Muslim crisis displaced reports of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in the United States and escalating tensions between North Korea and the U.S. and landed in the global spotlight. The United Nations reported that at least 164,000 people have fled Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) into neighboring Bangladesh in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, disturbing reports indicate that Burmese soldiers are laying landmines to prevent the return of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence.

Rohingya Muslim Crisis
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Protests against the violence in the Southeast Asian nation erupted all over the world, and world leaders are calling on Burmese authorities to put an end to the alleged genocide of the Rohingya people in the Buddhist-majority country.

How did the Rohingya Muslim crisis start?

On August 25, a Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army carried out a series of violent attacks on police posts, killing 12 police officers. The attacks prompted a furious response from the Burmese military and ultra-nationalist civilian groups, which cracked down on the insurgents.

According to multiple accounts from human rights groups and fleeing Rohingya Muslims, vigilante groups have not spared the civilian population. They accuse vigilantes of burning their villages to the ground and shooting civilians in the Rakhine State, the only region in Myanmar where Muslims comprise nearly half of the state’s population.

At least 400 people have died in the violence in Myanmar in the past two weeks, but experts estimate the death toll of the latest Rohingya Muslim crisis to be higher. Human rights activists accuse pro-government forces and vigilante groups of burning the bodies of Rohingya Muslims they killed to cover up the evidence.

Who are the Rohingya Muslims and why are soldiers burning their bodies?

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority living in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, which, according to Amnesty International, is one of the most-persecuted minorities in the world. The governments of Myanmar and other neighboring governments are refusing to give the Rohingya citizenship rights, leaving them stateless and unwanted. The Rohingya have no access to healthcare and education, while their movement across the country remains limited. The Rohingya Muslims themselves claim they are persecuted due to their religious beliefs.

Nearly 90% of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, and only 4.3% is Muslim. In Rakhine State, however, Muslims comprise nearly half of the population.

rohingya muslims crisis map of myanmar
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Where is Myanmar?

Myanmar was called Burma until 1989, when the military government officially changed the English translation of the country’s name. Burma had long been under British rule and was part of India’s territory.

Under British rule, the Rohingya people, who are ethnic South Indians or historically termed Arakanese Indians, relocated to the territory of British Burma. Britons used Rohingya Muslims as a cheap workforce on rice fields, as Burma was a rice hub for all of Asia. After Burma declared independence in 1948, countries started demarking the borders, but the Burmese government refused to give the Rohingya people citizenship rights.

In 1962, the army took over in Burma, making it a military dictatorship, which prompted the leadership to revive discussions about what to do with the hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine State. Two decades later, Burma passed a citizenship bill, but it excluded the Rohingya from any citizenship or political rights.

Today, Myanmar is a multi-ethnic nation that’s home to nearly 53 million people. The nation has more than 100 ethnic groups, eight of which are major ones. All of the major ethnic groups living in Myanmar but the Rohingya have citizenship rights. There are about 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, though the exact number is unknown, given the latest wave of people fleeing the nation.

What is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?

The Rohingya Muslim crisis is now at risk of reaching the level of “ethnic cleansing,” UN Secretary General António Guterres told reporters earlier this week.

UN secretary general antonio guterres quote on rohingya muslims violence

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army emerged in 1948, immediately after Burma gained independence from the United Kingdom. On their flag, the military group pictured two assault rifles and the contours of Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan State, suggesting that they see the area as an independent state from Myanmar.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army remained silent for decades, until it found financial support in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. The “army” is led by Rohingya people living in Saudi Arabia, and their training camps are located outside Myanmar. Militants have reportedly intensified their provocations in the country, attacking police posts, burning Buddhist villages and smashing Buddhist statues.

The violent actions of the militant group have prompted the Burmese military to declare the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army a terrorist group and crack down on insurgents in Rakhine State. Human rights groups accuse pro-government forces of carrying out attacks against the Rohingya Muslims indiscriminately, killing both insurgents and civilians.

According to witness accounts cited by Reuters, Burmese soldiers are laying landmines to prevent the return of the Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing the nation into neighboring Bangladesh.

Do Rohingya Muslims want independence?

The current Rohingya Muslim crisis erupted after Rohingya militants carried out assaults on police posts late last month, but it’s the second wave of violence in Myanmar in less than a year.

In October 2016, armed militants carried out multiple attacks on border guard posts along the Southeast Asian nation’s troubled border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers. Like in last month’s events, the Burmese military reacted immediately and violently, launching a large-scale military operation in Rakhine State.

Experts argue that the Rohingya Muslim crisis is an attempt of the Burmese authorities to prevent Rakhine State from seceding from Myanmar. The Rohingya people, who are denied citizenship in the country, are fighting for their rights, but some believe this highly persecuted ethnic group may have plans to create an independent state in Rakhine State.

The Rohingya Muslims have a high birth rate, with each family having up to 10 children. This triggers a dynamic rise in the Muslim population in Myanmar, which only further fuels Burmese authorities’ fears of the Rohingya fighting for their independence.

In 2012, militants with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army carried out nearly 30 assaults on police posts and a military base in retaliation for the decades-long persecution of their people. As a result, 59 police officers in Myanmar were killed, which triggered a military operation against the militants and brought the official death toll to 88 casualties: 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists.