Amidst headlines saturated with an almost frenzied coverage of the recent United States presidential election, many news stories are drowned out and often go underreported, especially those involving the deprivation of the rights we often assume as granted. The failure by media outlets to spread awareness regarding the plight of the Rohingya people epitomises the silence exhibited throughout the long, often violent, troubles faced by the Rohingya in the pursuit of equal rights and representation in Myanmar.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a union constituted of around 50 million peoples belonging to over 100 ethnic groups, with one of the largest minorities being the largely Muslim Rohingya people. The Rohingya, an ethnic group united through religion as well as a shared past have been subject to considerable, even systematic, racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination historically, as well as in recent years. The Rohingya, who total around one million individuals in Myanmar, are considered by the United Nations “to be the world’s most persecuted minority.” They have faced violence and a loss of citizenship and basic rights that some claim is encouraged by the state, which has led to many becoming refugees in their own country, residing in displacement camps with low living standards. Commentators, such as retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, have described the events in Myanmar as “slow genocide against the Rohingya people”, while financier and philanthropist George Soros has compared the Rohingya displacement camps with the ghettos and camps set up by the Nazis: “The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming.”
The present unrest and suffering in Myanmar can be traced back to the country’s colonial past. In the 19th century Britain annexed the northwestern part of the country, including the state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), where the majority of the remaining Rohingya Muslims live today. The occupation encouraged the mass migration of Bengali Muslims, who became laborers and administrators in the colony. Owing to the influx, Burmese Buddhist peasants were internally displaced, leading to the seeds of hatred being sown. When Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, the government aimed to rectify the predicament of its displaced Buddhist population. Fears of an Islamic invasion, as well as failed Rohingya uprisings between 1948 and 1961, where some Rohingya attempted to declare their own independence, contributed to an atmosphere of Islamophobia and culminated in the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. This law is largely to blame for the Rohingya’s statelessness, their lack of access to employment, education, and basic healthcare, as well as the confiscation of their property. Thus, the historical background of the Rohingya’s suffering emphasises how they were, and are today by many Burmese nationalists, viewed as outsiders and invaders.
Such context has meant that the Rohingya have faced ongoing persecution from people who live alongside them, as well as by the state. One of the most active groups to fuel sentiment against the Rohingya has been the 969 Movement, an anti-Muslim nationalist movement that opposes what they see as Islam’s expansion in Myanmar. One of their most prominent members is a Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who claims that he is simply defending his nation and religion against attacks by outsiders, saying “The Burmese race has been insulted…the Buddhist religion has been attacked, and our country has been trespassed.” Such ethno-nationalist rhetoric fuels antipathy between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, creating a climate in which intimidation, violence, and rape regularly occur against the Rohingya people.
In June 2012, the state of Rakhine erupted in violence following reports of conflict between Muslims and Buddhists, including the rape and murder of a woman. Within days, the trouble had spread across Rakhine, with people being beaten, killed, and displaced, as well as homes being burnt down. The Rohingya whose homes were burnt and destroyed in 2012 today live in internally displaced person (IDP) camps with a low quality of life owing to the lack of access to food and emergency healthcare. The International Peace Institute has shown that since the outbreak of violence in 2012, “around 125,000 to 140,000 Rohingya in Rakhine, denied the right to leave the state, reside in camps” with disturbing levels of malnutrition and lasting health implications. With so many thousands of Rohingya refugees estimated to be internally displaced, some have left the country, trying to move to Malaysia or Thailand. Yet, in most instances the border remains closed to them, further emphasising how the Rohingya, in being denied citizenship and rights in Myanmar, are a stateless ethnic group, having been rejected by many foreign governments.
The plight of the Rohingya is made worse by the indifferent response of the state of Myanmar. The government maintains that no official state policy of discrimination exists, and those who claim the violence against the Rohingya is planned, or purposefully ignored by the authorities, do not understand the situation. Indeed, even the eminent pro-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly failed to speak up about the plight of the Rohingya, which has led some to question her devotion to human rights. Yale Law School has collected evidence that the government of Myanmar has committed crimes under the Genocide Convention. Human Rights Watch has also gathered evidence using high-definition satellite imagery that shows widespread fire-related destruction in ethnic Rohingya villages in Rakhine. Meanwhile, the UN has expressed deep concern over events in Myanmar, with Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, warning in 2013 that “there is a considerable risk of further violence if measures are not put in place to prevent this escalation.” His words seem prophetic, as violence has again erupted in Rakhine, where around 30 people have been killed in clashes with the army.
Violence and discrimination against the Rohingya people is alive today, and we have a collective responsibility to spread awareness of what is happening in Myanmar. Indifference and neutrality regarding the plight of the Rohingya people only serves to embolden their opponents. If you would like to read more information on this abuse of human rights please have a look at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Al Jazeera.