Violence Against the Rohingya: A Gendered Perspective

By Audrey Schmelzer, Tom Oswald, Mike Vandergriff, Kate Cheatham

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Executive Summary

In August 2017, a violent campaign by Myanmar’s security forces killed over 24,000 Rohingya people and sent more than 900,000 fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. This violence was profoundly gendered in nature and was justified through gendered Islamophobic narratives, which were employed to mobilize hatred and aggression against the Rohingya. Xenophobic nationalist movements led by radical Buddhist monks used social media and other platforms to warn of an “endangered” Buddhism, caused by supposed Muslim “overpopulation” and deliberately high birth rates. In addition, popular narratives portrayed Rohingya men as violent sexual predators who were targeting “defenseless” Buddhist women for conversion to Islam and breeding purposes. These gendered narratives contributed directly to the 2017 genocide by popularizing notions that the Rohingya were a threat to historical Buddhist superiority.

Targeted sexual and gender-based violence was an integral aspect of the genocide policy. Soldiers routinely and systematically employed rape, specifically gang rapes and mass rapes, sexual torture, and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people. This violence was specifically intended to limit the ability of the Rohingya to reproduce their culture and identity. In order to contend with the gendered violence, the following recommendations should be adopted: 

  • Improved assistance should be given to victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including programs targeting children born of rape and male victims of sexual violence.
  • Steps to help reframe the Rohingya identity in Myanmar in order to facilitate their social inclusion.
  • Pressure should be placed on social media companies to better counter misinformation on their platforms.    

Key Findings:

Gendered narratives spread on social media popularized the notion that the Rohingya were the primary threat to Buddhism, accusing women of strategically spreading Islam through high birth rates and men of sexually assaulting and corrupting “vulnerable” Buddhist women The sudden rise in social media usership and lack of digital and media literacy played a key role in spreading these fabricated gendered rumors and misinformation The violence of the 2017 genocide reflected the gendered narratives used to construct the Rohingya as a threat in the national consciousness and specifically targeted their ability to “reproduce” the Rohingya culture Policies to assist the Rohingya can be improved by accounting for the gendered dimensions of the violence used during their persecution


Historical Marginalization and Construction of the Rohingya as an “Other”

Since late 2017, mass killings, rapes, arson, looting and many other forms of violence have been perpetrated by the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, which has forced over 900,000 Rohingya to flee from the Rakhine state, mostly to neighboring Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. This violence has been profoundly gendered and has been justified through gendered narratives which have been weaponized against the Rohingya. These narratives follow a pattern of marginalization that has plagued the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar for hundreds of years. Their identity has systematically been separated from that of the state and they have been made into outsiders, enemies, and “ungrateful guests.” 

Colonialism

The Rohingya people have lived in what is now Myanmar for centuries, primarily in Rakhine state in the Northwest of the country. The area came under British colonial rule in 1824, which exacerbated the already fraught ethnic relations of the region. Similar to the policies put in place in other colonial regimes, the British utilized “divide and rule,” which placed the Muslim minority at odds with the Burmese majority. This policy served to prevent the various ethnicities of Myanmar from uniting against British rule and left a legacy of distrust and hostility that would lead to violence long after colonialism ended in the region.

Independent Myanmar

Independence from the British in 1948 was followed by a quick succession of governments culminating in a military coup in 1962. This new military government codified the separation of the Rohingya from mainstream Myanmar society through a series of laws. The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship, not recognized as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country, and had their mobility and ability to marry restricted. These laws reinforced the narrative that the Buddhist Bama majority ethnic group was the ‘rightful owner’ of the nation. By contrast, the Rohingya were characterized as “others;” illegal immigrants, unwelcome, and dangerous. This pattern of marginalization has led to several waves of violence prior to the 2017 genocide, notably in 1978, 1991, and 2012. While each period of violence has had a different catalyst, they all originated with the demonizing and othering of the Rohingya Muslim minority. 

Precursors to Genocide: Gendered Narratives

Radical Nationalism and “Endangered” Buddhist Identities

Xenophobic nationalist movements led by radical Buddhist monks played a key role in mobilizing hatred and aggression against the Rohingya in the years leading up to the genocide. These movements gained popularity after the 2012 rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men, which triggered riots in a majority Muslim area near the Bangladesh border. Subsequent waves of violence resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 Rohingya and caused the destruction of several Muslim-majority neighborhoods.

Concerns regarding the future and reproduction of the Buddhist nation featured heavily in state-wide media coverage of the 2012 violence. Extremist monks, such as U Wirathu, founder of the radical nationalist 969 Movement, delivered speeches throughout the country which propagated the notion that Islam was an existential threat to the Myanmar Buddhist body politic. Through sermons and Facebook posts, he and other radical monks warned of a looming “jihad” against the Buddhist majority and accused the Rohingya of plotting the spread of Islam in Myanmar, popularizing notions of a Buddhism under threat. 

Highly gendered nationalist narratives were central in cementing the Rohingya as the primary threat to historical Buddhist superiority. Anxieties of a diminishing Buddhist population were aggravated though the circulation of fabricated narratives of overly fertile Rohingya women and predatory Muslim men. These rumors and stories explicitly linked the defense of the Buddhist state to the protection of Buddhist women. 

The Threat of Muslim Motherhood

Nationalists warned of Muslim “overpopulation” and high birth rates on Facebook and other social media, citing these as “proof” of a Rohingya plan to spread Islam by driving demographic shifts. Popular narratives accused Rohingya women of having unusually large families, fanning anxieties that Buddhists (who constitute over 90% of Myanmar’s population) would soon become a minority. Despite being demonstratively false (the Rohingya population has remained stable at 4% since 1980), these claims of an “exploding” Rohingya population were quickly popularized. 

It was against this backdrop that the bodies of Rohingya women became the targets of regulation, due to the threat they posed in ‘reproducing’ the Rohingya culture and nation through motherhood. In 2013, authorities in Rakhine state began to enforce a controversial two-child limit for Rohingya families living in townships with high Muslim populations. These regulations also mandated that Rohingya couples seek permission from the state to marry, and forced many women to undergo pregnancy tests as part of the application process. 

“Predatory” Muslim Men

In addition to claims regarding the fertility of Rohingya women, widely disseminated rumors portrayed Rohingya men as violent sexual predators who were a threat to “defenseless” Buddhist women. As inter-religious tensions continued to spread throughout the country, fabricated stories of Muslim men violating Buddhist women were shared widely on social media. Rohingya men were accused of being polygamous, predatory, and hyper-sexual, solidifying their status as the primary threat to Buddhism in the national consciousness.

Fabricated narratives of Muslim men strategically targeting Buddhist women for conversion to Islam were central to these defamatory efforts. Marriage between a Muslim man and Buddhist woman was framed as domestic violence, with Muslim men described as beating their wives until they converted, and then using them exclusively for breeding purposes. According to this discourse, Muslim men were rewarded by their communities for converting the daughters of Buddhist officials. This supposed plan to “infiltrate” Buddhist communities was understood as a long-term premeditated effort; when advocating a ban on Muslim businesses, for example, radical monk U Wirathu claimed, “[they] will use that money to manipulate women, forcefully convert those women into their religion, and the children of them will become enemies of the state.”

These accounts were fundamentally reliant on a perception that Buddhist women were morally weak and easily corruptible, necessitating their protection by Buddhist males. Ultimately, these narratives linked the safeguarding of Buddhist women to the defense of the Buddhist state. As this perception became widespread, Buddhist nationalists were successful in advocating the passage of the 2015 Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, which attempted to end the union of Buddhist women to Muslim men.

Role of Social Media

The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment corresponded with a dramatic increase in the number of social media users throughout the country. Access to the internet increased exponentially after the country’s 2011 political reforms and subsequent liberalization of telecom services. In 2016, Facebook partnered with Myanmar’s state-run telecom company to provide subscribers with free access to the site. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar rose from 2 million in 2014 to more than 30 million by 2017. After decades of press censorship under the military dictatorship, citizens were ill-equipped to critically evaluate media bias. In fact, limited exposure to internet services led most new users to regard Facebook as the internet itself. 

Radical monks and members of the national military exploited the increase in social media usership and lack of digital literacy to engage in systemic efforts to manipulate and misinform the public. Nationalist sermons and anti-Muslim propaganda, which included manufactured accounts of Muslim men violating Buddhist women, were successful in fomenting fears among many ordinary Buddhists that the growth of Islam would destroy the Buddhist way of life. The movement was particularly effective in mobilizing young Buddhist men, many of whom felt directionless due to high unemployment, lack of opportunity, and unprecedented social changes in the midst of significant political reforms.

Gendered Nature of Genocide 

Overview

In August 2017, a Rohingya Militia known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) led coordinated attacks on several police stations across Rakhine in response to years of marginalization and repression by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and state military forces, the Tatmadaw.

Within hours of the offensive, the Tatmadaw responded brutally, disproportionately, and indiscriminately with a scorched earth campaign of violence and destruction against the entire Rakhine Rohingya population. The Tatmadaw razed Rohingya villages and systematically killed, raped, tortured, executed, disappeared, and displaced entire communities.

Most recent casualties since the clearance operations began are estimated at about 24,000 with an additional over 900,000 displaced mainly to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Violence against Women and Girls

Targeted sexual and gender-based violence was an integral aspect of the genocide policy. Soldiers routinely and systematically employed rape, specifically gang rapes and mass rapes, sexual torture, and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people.  Their goal was the eradication of the Rohingya culture, and sexual and gender-based violence served as a useful tool for this objective.

For women and girls, the violence was directed at their femininity, motherhood and reproductive abilities, and was intended to induce trauma, stigma, and punish the group.  Violence further sought to rupture the continuity of Rohingya culture and identity. Inflicting such intense and traumatic violence is a unique and essential component of the eradication of group identity. 

Women and girls were systematically targeted for rape, particularly women and girls of reproductive age, pregnant women, and babies. They were also subjected to physical branding of their bodies by bite marks to their necks, chests and thighs. In addition, women were brutalized to limit their ability to have consensual sexual intercourse with their husbands or conceive in the future. Reported cases number in the tens of thousands. This indicates that the actual number of women and girls who experienced these acts are significantly higher with the inclusion of those who have been killed and those who have not come forward due to stigma. 

It is important to understand how this policy furthers the goal of genocide. Such targeted violence serves three purposes. First, these forms of sexual violence instill fear and incentivize others to flee, or risk befalling the same fate. Second, genocidal rape fractures the victim’s connection with their family and community, where they are liable to face humiliation and ostracization. In Myanmar, Rohingya culture remains patriarchal, and subjecting women to rape often results in victim blaming and shame-imposed exile.

Third, rape served to “dilute the Rohingya identity” through forced impregnation.  Altering the ethnic landscape and destabilizing Rohingya identity furthered the Tatmadaw’s ability to delegitimize Rohingya as an official ethnic group. Moreover, targeting women as mothers and bearers of new life served to diminish their ability to ‘reproduce’ the Rohingya culture and mitigated fears of the rumored growth of the Rohingya population and spread of Islam.

Violence against Men and Boys

For men and boys, the most common forms of sexual violence reported were mutilation, burning, castration, penis amputation and anal rape.  The Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist narratives that became prevalent prior to the 2017 attacks, which portrayed Muslim men as sexual predators that threatened the Buddhist state and vulnerable Buddhist women, are clearly linked to the types of sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya men and boys. The torture and mutilation, which were most prominent, served to destroy the parts that made Rohingya men and boys “predatory,” dismantle their masculinity, and neutralize the “threat” these men posed to historical Buddhist superiority. The systematic use of anal rape was similar to the tactics used on women and girls and was intended to bring about humiliation and stigmatization. However, the key difference is that the use of rape on men and boys was meant to humiliate them by emasculating and feminizing them within Rohingya society, which remains highly patriarchal.  

Unfortunately, data on sexual violence against Rohingya men and boys remains limited. While it is clear that sexual violence was commonly deployed against men and boys, taboo and stigma prevent most from coming forward.  A lack of SGBV programs targeted at men and boys, as well as improperly trained humanitarian workers, present additional barriers to data collection and effective responses.

Recommendations

Based on the gendered nature of the genocide against the Rohingya people, we recommend the following actions be taken:Increasing Assistance for Victims of Sexual and Gender-Based ViolenceCurrent programming offers few if any services to men and boys, while services aimed at women and girls remain inadequate. Due to the prevalence of sexual violence and the central role it played in the genocide, better support for victims is desperately needed, including:Programs for women with children born of rapePrograms that recognize sexual violence against men and boysMental health support to assist survivors in coping with traumatic stress, and to promote protective and resilience factors such as social networks, spiritual and religious practices. 
Reframing Rohingya Identity in Myanmar to Facilitate their InclusionThe legal marginalization of the Rohingya has allowed the Buddhist majority to position themselves as the rightful owners of Myanmar. The Buddhist majority has also used the law to render the Rohingya stateless, restrict their freedom of movement, limit their access to resources, and limit their ability to flee genocide. Pressure must be placed on the government of Myanmar to change these discriminatory practices. This pressure should come from governments and international organizations as well as community, civil, and religious groups inside of Myanmar.Change discriminatory government policiesGranting of Myanmar citizenship to the RohingyaRecognition of the Rohingya as an ethnicity in MyanmarLift restrictions on freedom of movementRemove the two-child policy and special marriage lawsImplement programs that promote inter-communal dialogueFoster tolerance through civic education, raising awareness of misinformation and countering toxic Buddhist nationalism Civil and religious leadership must be part of the solutionReligious leaders must denounce ethnic-based violence including condemning the 969 movement
Stopping the Spread of Misinformation on Social MediaSocial media has allowed gendered misinformation to spread and the constant exposure to false posts reinforces harmful identities. Media literacy programming should be introduced to help consumers better recognize fake and misleading news reports. This training should be targeted at those most likely to carry out violence.     Governments and international organizations must place pressure on Facebook and other social media companies to introduce improved fact checking policies which lead to the removal of harmful posts and false information.

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