In an interview with GlobalPost on Jun. 20, 2013, Buddhist monk and hate monger Ashin Wirathu said, “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here [Myanmar], we are suffering under the burden they bring us.” More importantly, Wirathu is a leader in the 969 Movement, a Buddhist Burmese nationalist and hate group that encourages the exclusion of Muslims within the country. Since independence in 2011, the Burmese government has targeted the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population. The United Nations has referred to the violence as ethnic cleansing, according to a Sept. 11 article in the UN News Centre. In the most recent wave of violence, an estimated 620,000 Rohingya citizens became refugees. 

On Nov. 22, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally labeled the violence in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing, thereby encouraging significant pressure for political action, according to a Nov. 22 BBC article. The following day, Myanmar and Bangladesh also reached an agreement that allows the Rohingya displaced by the violence to return home. However, the plan seems a little too good to be true. Human Rights Watch’s refugee rights director, Bill Frelick, stated, “The idea that Burma will now welcome them back to their smoldering villages with open arms is laughable.” In no way should we assume that Myanmar is filled entirely with hate for the Rohingya, but how can we possibly expect their safe return if a country so blatantly fails to recognize their existence? 

Use of the name “Rohingya” has become a political statement. In September, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's chief counsellor and a former human rights superstar, claimed the media’s depiction of the Rohingya crisis was characterized by “a huge iceberg of misinformation,” to the benefit of the “terrorists,” according to a Sept. 6 CNN article. This rhetoric is not expressed by Suu Kyi alone. In fact, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the country’s military, expressed an equally alarming sentiment. During a meeting with Tillerson, the general said, “The situation must be acceptable for both local Rakhine ethnic people and Bengalis, and emphasis must be placed on [the] wish of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens. Only when local Rakhine ethnic people accept it, will all the people be satisfied by it.,” according to a Nov. 16 Radio Free Asia article. While the concern about political instability and violence is entirely warranted, the suggestion that the Rohingya are actually Bengalis is false. 

The Rohingya inhabit Mrauk U in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. The group has gained media attention since the violence against them began in 2012. In June 2014, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof documented violence against the Rohingya, including evidence that some 140,000 were living in modern-day concentration camps. The Rohingya are essentially stateless, even though their families have lived in the region for the entirety of the region’s recorded history. According to a June 26, 2015 National Geographic article, the Rohingya likely trace their roots to the Indo-Aryan population that lived in Arakan for the first 2,000 years of the region’s recorded history. A census from 1901 found 21 percent of those living in Rakhine were Muslim. The Buddhist Burmese population’s effort to rewrite history is despicable. An erasure of a people and their history is often referred to as ethnocide, or the deliberate destruction of a particular ethnic group’s culture. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who coined the term genocide, believed ethnocide to be a part of genocide focused on the killing of a given ethnic group’s culture. The violence against the Rohingya population suggests further violations. 

As refugees, the Rohingya are guaranteed the right to return, but it is essential that the rights of those exploited are prioritized, and the Burmese government must do its due diligence to ensure their safety. Additionally, no refugee should feel the obligation to return. In a Nov. 24 Dhaka Tribune opinion piece, Frelick took it a step further. He wrote, “Refugees and internally displaced people who were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived of their homes, lands, properties, or places of habitual residence have the right to return to their place of residence or choice, and the return of their property. Myanmar should respect the rights of those who are unwilling to choose compensation for the loss of their homes and properties.” Currently, the plan outlined by the prime minister of Bangladesh fails to address the needs of these refugees as she calls for safe zones. Establishing safe zones in Myanmar fails to allow the successful return of refugees and internally displaced people to their homes. Instead, it creates the real risk of dependency on aid while failing to allow the Rohingya to rebuild their lives across the border. Most importantly, if we have learned anything from history, “safe zones” fail to protect the personal safety of civilians.  Safe zones risk potential anti-Rohingya violence, and individuals living in confined areas run extreme health risks. As long as the government and military fail to renounce violence and hold individuals accountable for the violence, the return of the Rohingya is impossible. 

In order to preserve the rights of Rohingya refugees, it is essential that those within the international community continue to liberally donate humanitarian aid to those living in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Hopefully, Suu Kyi will continue her support of Rohingya repatriation and will begin to take steps toward the recognition of the Rohingya ethnic minority group. While this endangered population still faces many challenges ahead, it seems as if the international community is finally beginning to recognize their exploitation.