The Rohingya, a small Muslim minority group in Myanmar that has been the subject of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the government has once again come under attack — this time in an effort to limit their ability to have children. The Rohingya must have children three years apart according to a piece of legislation signed into law by the country’s president last week. Legislation issued last year already stipulates that residents of two predominately Muslim areas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have no more than two children.
Despite their marginalized status, extremist Buddhist monks have long maintained that the Rohingya hold growing influence over the country — and pose an existential threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist identity.
“In terms of attempts by the government to limit future generations of the Rohingya, that’s not an entirely new effort,” Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum told ThinkProgress.
Kikoler and colleagues at the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide believe such restrictions on the Rohingya population constitute early warning signs of genocide that include a denial of citizenship, state-sponsored discrimination, and restrictions on basic rights including the freedom of mobility. Their assessment was based on the social policies and human rights abuses that led to other genocides around the world, including the Holocaust.
In a report released by the museum earlier this month, researchers outlined dozens of human rights violations and discriminatory policies that they said, “put [the Rohingya] population at the grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide.”
According to statistical analysis by the Early Warning Project, which assesses the risk of genocide, Myanmar has the highest probability of seeing a genocide of any country in the world.
Many Rohingya advocates also feel that the country is on the brink of mass atrocity. “They want us all to go away,” one advocate said when asked what the government intends for the Rohingya population.
Rohingya people have been fleeing Myanmar in droves, despite grave risks to their lives. More than 3,000 have left Myanmar and landed in neighboring countries on crowded and often unstable boats. They’ve made the journey despite being turned away from countries like Malaysia and being left stranded at sea by boat captains.
“We assumed that danger would come, but there was no other way,” Mahammed Hashim, a 25-year-old Rohingya man told the New York Times from a boat stranded off the coast of Thailand with dwindling food and water supplies. “We were living in a country that is more dangerous than the sea.”
While the young man and the hundreds of others on the boat managed to make it to Indonesia, they face a difficult plight there, too, since Rohingya people from Myanmar are essentially stateless.
“By denying us citizenship, they are denying our entire existence, our struggle, and our survival,” another advocate told researchers from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, referring to a 1982 law that considers Rohingya — even those who have lived in Myanmar for generations — to be migrants from Bangladesh. A large number of Rohingya migrated to Myanmar from Bangladesh in the 19th century, although many of them maintain that they are indigenous to the eastern part of the country.
Tensions between Buddhist extremists and Rohingya Muslims came to a head in 2012, when around 200 were killed and 140,000 sought refuge in makeshift camps that still house thousands of Rohingya people.
Many counter the notion that the Rohingya pose any real threat to Myanmar, not least because they make up only around four percent of the country’s population. Still, the government recently arrested about a dozen Rohingya people who it claimed were involved in terrorist activities. Many experts believe that government fabricated an Islamic terrorist threat to justify further attacks on the Rohingya.
“We’ve seen a deterioration in the living conditions of the Rohingya [after 2012],” Kikoler said. “What is so particularly concerning right now is the very public and overt discriminatory practices of the government, but also the very virulent hate speech that’s being espoused by religious leaders.”
Helping to inaugurate political liberalization in Myanmar was cited as one of President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy achievements a few years ago, but the success has been called into question with the continued — and even heightened — attacks on the rights of the the Rohingya.
“The plight of the Rohingya right now,” Kikoler said, “is kind of like a tinderbox situation where any match can…result in untold numbers of people killed.”