An entire ethnic group face extermination in Burma, according to a report by ESRC researchers.

A study by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) research centre at Queen Mary University of London has concluded that the Rohingya a minority ethnic group who are Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) are the target of a systematic campaign of violence, institutionalised discrimination and abuse, co-ordinated by the highest echelons of government, civil society groups, Buddhist monks and members of the ethnic majority Rakhine community in Rakhine State.

Children in Rohingya camp outside Sittwe (Photo: ISCI)Prior to 2012, people from Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religions lived side by side in the city of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where the Rohingya people mostly live. There were over 140 Muslim businesses and 38 mosques. Schools were mixed, and the different communities traded with each other and engaged socially.

However, that year the Rakhine people turned against their Muslim neighbours, massacring over 200 of them, burning their homes and businesses down and herding them into detention camps outside the city. Now over 140,000 Rohingya are imprisoned inside these camps or in a ghetto in the state's capital city, Sittwe. The majority live in Northern Rakhine State, an area the researchers were denied access to. Many thousands try to escape the horrendous conditions by boat, braving a perilous journey across the Andaman Sea.

Ruins of destroyed and abandoned mosque Sittwe, February 2015 (Photo: ISCI)An ESRC-funded research project led by Professor Penny Green at ISCI explored whether or not the persecution the minority group were experiencing inside Burma was in fact genocide. The ISCI team (Penny Green, Thomas MacManus and Alicia de la Cour Venning) spent four months interviewing Rohingya people, members of the government, monks, civil society leaders and local Rakhine people. They also visited detention camps and the ghetto Aung Mingalar.

The researchers found detailed evidence that the 2012 massacres were organised by local Rakhine politicians, who worked alongside civil society leaders to mobilise local men and women from the Rakhine population to attack the Rohingya. They also found evidence of state policies aimed at deliberately stigmatising and isolating the ethnic group including removing their national identity papers and their access to healthcare, restricting their freedom of movement and marriage rights, and implementing forced birth control aimed at limiting the Muslim population.

The prevalent attitude amongst local Rakhine people was that Muslim Rohingya were sub-human, terrorist invaders who were lying about their ethnic identity to gain official national identity status and sympathy from international aid agencies.

The authors analysed the persecution of the Rohingya against six stages of genocide: stigmatisation and dehumanisation; harassment, violence and terror; isolation and segregation; systematic weakening; mass annihilation; and finally the symbolic enactment involving the removal of the victim group from the collective history of the country. They concluded that the Rohingya had already experienced four of the stages, and were only one step away from mass annihilation.

"The Rohingya are currently experiencing the fourth stage of genocide, where they are being systematically weakened through hunger, illness, loss of civil rights and disenfranchisement," says Professor Green.

"We spent time in the detention camps, in what are effectively prison villages and in the ghetto, and witnessed appalling conditions - many people were desperately hungry, ill and depressed. Children are dying of curable diseases like diarrhoea. People begged us for food and for medicine. The parallels with the Nazi ghettos are very strong indeed. The Rohingya are living bare lives, denied of virtually all basic rights. They are on the edge of annihilation. In terms of understanding genocide the next stage is mass extermination."