Shortcuts / 18 February 2020

The Rohingya and the Uyghurs

In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts we look at two ethnic minorities – the Rohingya, and the Uyghur. Both groups are predominantly Muslim, and are considered by the United Nations to be victims of human rights abuses. Here we explain who they are, as well as why and how they’re being persecuted.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Sunni Muslim minority who come from the Rakhine region in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), a Buddhist-majority country in South-East Asia. They have been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. 

How did they end up in Myanmar?

While there is a long history of Muslim settlers in that part of Myanmar, it was the British – during their centry-long rule of what was then known as Burma since 1824 – who sent many workers to the area – including the Rohingya. The Rohingya are predominantly Muslim, and as their population grew in the region, tension rose between the Rohingya and the Buddhist locals. So that tension goes back to the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Britain considered the area to be a province of India until 1948 when Burma, now Myanmar, was granted independence. This meant the new nation could now define which ethnicities could gain citizenship – but the Rohingya was not one of them. There was an exemption where families that had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. Things changed though after the 1962 military coup, and all citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue. And then in 1982, a Citizenship Law was passed which went a step further and ruled anyone who had come to Myanmar during British colonial rule to be illegal immigrants – one of which was the Rohingya. The Rohingya were denied citizenship which has effectively rendered them stateless. This is something that persists with the Myanmar government refusing to even officially recognise them as an ethnic minority. Since then, the majority of Rohingya were living in Rakhine state, and numbered around one million at the start of 2017.

So what happened in 2017?

Many Rohingya fled Rakhine state and crossed the border to Bangladesh… this exodus came after Rohingya militants attacked police posts, killing 12 members of the security forces. There were also reports that those Rohingya were involved in the massacre of Hindu women, men, and children in the area. The Myanmar military responded in a big way to these attacks. What the Myanmar military is accused of doign in the UN’s eyes amount to genocide – including actions such razing villages, rapes and gang rapes, torture, forced displacement and whilst the number cannot be verified and are disputed, there is reason to believe that thousands have been killed. These accusations of genocide are something that Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi and what does she have to say about this?

Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for freedom in Myanmar. These days the government still has a big military presence, but she is now its civilian leader, and she fronted the UN’s International Court of Justice in the Hague over charges of genocide and said that while her country’s military may have overstepped the mark in some cases, it was a justified response to violence initiated by Rohingya militants.

Where does Bangladesh sit on all of this?

It has been left to deal with what the UN has labelled a humanitarian disaster that turned an area of Bangladesh called Cox’s Bazar into the world’s largest refugee settlement. And it’s not over. 

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs (there’s a few ways to spell it but we’ve gone with the ABC’s version) are a Turkish-speaking Muslim ethnic minority from Central Asia who are largely reside in the Xinjiang region in far north-western China.

What is China’s relationship with the Uyghurs?

It’s situation is quite a bit like Tibet, with Xinjiang being an autonomous region of China, but the government still exercises a great deal of control over the region. China has had a troubled relationship with the Uyghurs since it started occupying their land several hundred years ago. It was after the region became formally part of Communist China in 1949 that the emigration of the majority Han Chinese population started in the region. So what went from a nearly 80% Ughyur population, became about a 50/50 split between the Chinese and the Uyghurs. It’s this changing demographic that has led to rising ethnic as well as economic tensions. 

How are the Uyghurs being persecuted?

In response to the attacks, leaked documents from the Communist Party revealed President Xi Jinping ordered “an all-out war against terrorism, infiltration and separatism”. The Chinese government began implementing a number of policies which curbed religious freedom, increased surveillance in the region, and even banned some Muslim names for babies, as well as the wearing of long beards and veils. A number of Uygher religious sites including mosques and schools were destroyed or changed to resemble more traditional Chinese architecture. In terms of increased surveillance measures, Uyghurs across the Xinjiang region are forced to show ID wherever they go, hand over their phones to be checked, and facial recognition technology is said to be able to track their every move. This includes highly advanced facial recognition technology, phone scanners and face and fingerprint databases that are used in Xinjiang, and there’s reports of them being used in other parts of China. As part of this crackdown, the government also began opening detention camps, where Uyghurs would be sent to become effectively indoctrinated, or “re-educated”, according to the Chinese government. There are accounts of Uyghurs being forced to renounce Islam and their Turkic language, and profess support for the Chinese Communist Party. Over time, these small camps have evolved into a large-scale system of prison-like concentration camps that are now spread across the region, where more than a million Uighurs are thought to have been detained since 2016. On the other hand, China argues these camps are “vocational education and training centres” where Uyghurs willingly attend classes. Chinese propaganda videos show people inside the camps talking about how they are learning of better ways to live and rejecting their extremist tendencies. However, accounts given to Western journalists about life inside these camps tell a different story. Inside the camps, detainees are given limited contact with their families. There are reports of widespread physical and verbal abuse and torture. As well as adults, about half a million Uyghur children are thought to have been separated from their parents and detained in the camps. Other detainees are sent to work in nearby factories in the region, where they paid very little, sometimes not at all, and are effectively forced to work. As the world has learnt about what is happening to the Uyghurs, many human rights groups, as well as a number of journalists and Uyghur groups, say the actions taken by the Chinese governemnt amounts to ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation, brainwashing, and possibly even genocide. China initially denied the existence of the camps and after satellite pictures made that impossible, it’s acknowledged them as training facilities. So as you can guess, China denies all those accusations. 

How has the world responded?

It’s China – a massive power and trading partner – so it’s diplomatically tricky. The US, for example, has been quiet on the matter. Australia was a signatory to a letter to the UN Human Rights Council in 2019 condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. But there’s little movement towards substantial action or sanctions against China on this.  

Squiz recommends:

ABC Four Corners – How China is creating the world’s largest prison

UN Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett’s address to the UN Security Council on the Rohingya crisis

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