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WorldTalks Focus: Myanmar - A Country Rife with Ethnic Conflict

On January 23rd 2020, the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a ruling ordering the South-Asian state of Myanmar to protect its Rohingya minority from genocide. On Tuesday, February 4th, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced a full-on investigation into the alleged crimes committed by Myanmar against the Rohingya community.


Myanmar is a country in South-East Asia, located in the Bay of Bengal. Bordering on India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, it is an ethnically extremely diverse country, with a Buddhist majority population. In the past, it was part of the British colonial empire and under the jurisdiction of British India. Formerly known as Burma, the country gained its independence in 1948 after years of being the tug-of-war between two major colonial powers, Great Britain and Japan. What followed soon after was a military coup, and the emergence of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureaute, Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of the general who had negotiated Burmese independence in 1947, she got involved in the pro-democracy struggle against the military junta. That struggle finally came to a fruitful halt with the first democratic elections in 2015.


The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in the Southasian country, primarily living in the Northwest of Myanmar. In a Buddhist majority country, they are mostly Muslim. Both their distinct ethnic and religious identity have resulted in their ‘othering’, their history in Myanmar as a violent one, filled with tales of conflict. Described by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted people, their history in Myanmar is a violent and complex one. Depending on which side of the story to believe, the Rohingya are either illegal immigrants from India and Bangladesh, settling in the Northwest of Burma, or they are descendants of the Arakan Kingdom, a multiethnic, multireligious monarchy lasting over 350 years, its territory corresponding to today’s Rakhine state. The history of the Rohingya and where they came from is fundamental to the ongoing conflict of the Rohingya with the Burmese authorities and Rakhine Buddhists.


Since 2016, there has been an increasing stream of Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Global shock was imminent: Here was a country, a Buddhist one, led by a former Nobel Peace Prize laureaute, Aung San Suu Kyi, seemingly on its best way to democratization after decades of military dictatorship, and yet there was this expulsion happening. But for the Rohingya, and many other of the 135 ethnic and national minorities in Myanmar, this was nothing new. The history of Myanmar is rife with battles between Rakhine Biddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with guerilla warfare of the Kachin people, with the struggle of the Chin Christians.


At the moment, while there seems to be massive attention focused on Myanmar, the focus almost never is on activists from the persecuted groups themselves. Over the next two weeks, World-Talks will be publishing various interviews with different activists, all related to the issue of ethnic conflict within Myanmar. The idea is to provide a platform for those rarely heard from in the mainstream, to give them a chance to speak. Therefore, we interview Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger living in exile; Thin Yumon, a Chin human rights defender and educator; and Yasmine Ullah, a Rohingya refugee and activist.

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