The Rohingya are an embattled ethnic group that predominately reside as a disparate transnational people in south and west Asia.
Saudi Arabia 400,000
Their ancestral lineage leads back centuries to Arab traders in the 8th century, and the Arakanese, and they share a linguistic heritage with the Indo-Aryan peoples of India and Bangladesh (rather than the Sino-Tibetan heritage of Burma/Myanmar).
In the Myanmar state of Rakhine, from the coastal palms of the Bengali Straits to the Arakan Mountains, all is not peaceful for the Rohingya people. Since 2012, the ruling Junta has lead a campaign of ethnic cleansing, starvation, and violence. While ethnic violence is not a new reality to the Rohingya, the level of intensity and persecution has led the United Nations to label them “one of the most persecuted groups in the world”
The Rohingya, who compose only 4 percent of Burma’s population, are an ethnic Muslim minority from the state of Arakan in Burma, a predominantly Buddhist nation. The Rohingya are regarded by the United Nations as the most persecuted people in the world.
Social exclusion is arguably the most outrageous form of human rights denial based on a people’s race, religion or ethnicity. But in addition to denial of citizenship, torture, burning down of houses, looting, rape and human trafficking are an everyday reality for the Rohingya.
Such well-planned and executed persecution by one group of people toward another is hard for civilized persons to comprehend.
The Burmese junta and the Rakhine Buddhist population are increasingly daring in inappropriate use of power. Absolute denial of human rights and powerlessness over their own lives have led to mass Rohingyan exodus to neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and even Australia.
Helpless desperation has forced Rohingya Muslims to brave the high seas on rickety boats; such efforts often end in drowning.
It will never be easy to get exact numbers of people fleeing Burma, but thousands have fled government-sponsored discrimination and ethnic cleansing. Deplorable living conditions in refugee camps lead to disease, malnourishment and high infant mortality.
Now, Doctors Without Borders has been ejected from the region, exacerbating the crises:
The crisis began with the government’s expulsion of Doctors Without Borders, one of the world’s premier humanitarian aid groups and the lifeline to health care for more than a million Rohingya increasingly denied those services by their own government. But the situation has grown more dire in recent weeks, as local Buddhist officials began severely restricting other humanitarian aid to the camps and the rest of Rakhine State, where tuberculosis, waterborne illnesses and malnutrition are endemic.
Some aid workers fear they are being kept away so there are fewer witnesses to rampant mistreatment and occasional bloodletting; the doctor’s group was expelled from Rakhine State after caring for victims of a violent assault on a Rohingya village that the government denies ever happened.
The scope of the government crackdown is serious enough that it has inspired at least some rebukes from world leaders after near silence even as Myanmar’s government ignored violence by local Buddhists in 2012 that left hundreds of Muslims dead and drove many others into the displaced people’s camps. Loath to criticize the government as it moves the country away from a military dictatorship, international leaders also fear losing out in an international scramble for Myanmar’s business, and allegiance.
The U.K. is the largest aid donor to Myanmar, and there is a new petition to target that aid :
The Rohingya (Muslims of Burma/Myanmar) have been designated by the UN as the most oppressed people on earth. Their treatment has been awful at the hand of Buddhist extremists.
Despite European powers entering Central African Republic, Mali and many other countries where Muslims were in power, it seems that when Muslims are the oppressed minority, there is no interest in doing anything to help or assist the oppressed.
The plight of refugees is also in question:
Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Burma border. More than 100,000 Rohingya in Burma continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, forbidden by authorities from leaving
The crisis has reached levels of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The government of Myanmar, aided by its Buddhist majority, see the Rohingya as ‘illegal aliens’, as foreigners undeserving of personhood :
There are 400,000 Rohingya languishing in Bangladesh. For more than three decades, waves of refugees have fled Myanmar. But the government of Bangladesh considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants, as does the government of Myanmar. They have no legal rights and nowhere to go.
This is a story of a people fleeing the land where they were born, of a people deprived of citizenship in their homeland. It is the story of the Rohingya of western Myanmar, whose very existence as a people is denied.
Professor William Schabas, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, says: “When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they really are eventually, that they no longer exist; denying their history, denying the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”
As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort.
Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the negative attitude of the ruling regime in Myanmar and fear of persecution. Now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they no longer receive support from the government. In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were rescued by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.
The Congress of the United States has passed a resolution urging Myanmar to end the humanitarian crisis:
The resolution was introduced and passed by the United States House of Representatives during the 113th United States Congress. As a simple resolution, H.Res. 418 does not require approval from the United States Senate or the signature of the President of the United States because it only expresses the opinion or gives the advice of the House and has no actual legal power.
Passed by voice vote, the measure would pressure Burma to end massacres on minority Muslims. Allegations that Rohingya Muslims were attacked by Buddhists earlier this year have drawn international outrage.
“The Burmese government needs to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group. The situation is dire and rapidly deteriorating,” said bill sponsor Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
The resolution would further condemn the Burmese government for forcing Rohingya Muslims to relocate into relief camps.
“Let’s all send a message that the current state of human rights in Burma is unacceptable,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
It is time this human crisis was not ignored:
Responsibility to protect
Citizenship is not enough, however. Leaders need to speak out in the Rohingyas’ defence. The one person in Myanmar with genuine moral authority, Miss Suu Kyi, has confined herself to calling for respect for the rule of law. When the law is unjust and unfairly applied—as it long was against her—that is a betrayal of the high moral principles she has always espoused.
Elsewhere, Bangladesh must accommodate fleeing Rohingyas. The West has tended to regard the Rohingyas’ plight as a peripheral problem that should not deflect it from lifting sanctions and engaging with the new Myanmar. Yet it should make clear that ethnic cleansing on this scale is central to its concerns. The test of a fledgling democracy is not just how it cares for the majority, but how it protects its minorities.
While anti-Rohingya sentiments are not new to Burma, the attacks have taken on a more urgent and egregious nature with greater access to information. In November last year, a social media campaign whipped up a tirade of animosity against the BBC for a report (published one year earlier) that had identified the Rohingya as residents of Arakan state.
In the wake of the latest violence, a number of online campaigns have been set up to coordinate attacks against news outlets that dare to report on their plight. Angry protesters rallied in Rangoon this week, brandishing signs reading “Bengali Broadcast Corporation” and “Desperate Voice of Bengali.” The latter was a reference to my employer, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Norway-based broadcaster that has made a name for itself among many Burmese as one of the most reliable sources of information about their country. This weekend DVB faced the biggest cyber-attack on its website in the organization’s history, while its Facebook page is still under constant assault from people issuing threats and posting racist material. It is not without irony that an organization once hailed as a vehicle for free speech has become the target of censorship by the very people it sought to give a voice.
As International Crisis Group explains, the violence is both a consequence of, and threat to, Burma’s political transition. However, what they wrongly assume is that the “irresponsible, racist, and inflammatory language” circulating on the internet is likely to be resolved through discussion in the national media. The few balanced voices — let alone those representing the stateless minority — are vastly outnumbered by news outlets spouting simplistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The ongoing crisis illustrates the need for Burma to embrace not only independent, but also responsible and inclusive journalism. In order to facilitate this transition, the government must take concrete steps to address the underlying dispute surrounding the Rohingya. The sheer level of racism against them in Burmese society — enforced by a government policy of discrimination and abuse — lies at the core of the matter.