The plight of the Rohingya people is a story of oppression and rejection, generation after generation. They are a stateless ethnic minority from the Rakhine state in Myanmar, as well as a religious minority, being predominantly Muslim in a Buddhist-majority state. There is currently a population of just over a million Rohingya, who can be differentiated from the general population largely by their unique dialect called Rohingya. They live in ramshackle ghettos, are traditionally the poorest group in the country, and are often described as one of the most persecuted minorities in recent history.
Under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law, they were actively denied citizenship which, according to the Human Rights Watch, has effectively disallowed the Rohingya ‘the possibility of acquiring a nationality’. Though they view themselves as a native people and can trace their history in the Rakhine area as far back as the twelfth century, they are unwelcomed by the majority of the Myanmar population and are perpetually persecuted by the government. The legal situation for the Rohingya has even been compared to the apartheid system – they have severely restricted freedom of movement, civic rights, and educational rights. Their situation has long been dreadful, and has only degenerated further in the past two years.
Since 2016, the Rohingya have faced increased persecution by the government following an episode in which Rohingya insurgents attacked over thirty Myanmar border posts. The attacks were, in part, a culmination of generations of communal hatred between the Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors. In response to the attacks the government, backed by Buddhist mobs, attacked the Rohingya in their homes. The army and police have been accused of extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, mass-arson, and infanticides. However, the government claims that accounts of such events are exaggerated and have even maintained that the Rohingya burned their own villages. Nevertheless, despite Myanmar’s promise to the contrary, there is overwhelming proof of the occurrence of these atrocities and thousands of similarly tragic stories. There is footage of villages in the Northern Rakhine state being burnt to the ground and claims that their populations were abused by the military. Hundreds of people had been recorded dead by December 2016. In autumn of 2017 there were increased ‘military clearances’ of the Rohingya population involving the razing of villages, rape and murder of the inhabitants, and a forced exodus of the survivors.
Satellite image of a destroyed Rohingya village, adjacent to an intact village.
The severity of harm inflicted upon the Rohingya since 2016 and the most recent military clearances have resulted in nearly a third of the Rohingya population fleeing Myanmar, chiefly seeking refuge in nearby Bangladesh. This has created a massive refugee crisis, particularly since they are nearly as unwelcome in Bangladesh as they are in Myanmar. Migrants have fled most often in boats overflowing with desperate men, women, and children. Countless have died on such journeys from both the perils of the sea and the perils of machine-gun armed Myanmar helicopters. In shooting fleeing refugees, there is an abject cruelty shown to people who are only desperate to live and find a safe home.
Over half a million of these Rohingya refugees have managed to arrive in Bangladesh and it is estimated that 58% are children. Sprawling shelters have been erected near the border to form unofficial, disorganized refugee camps. According to the United Nations, the conditions are extremely poor, with a marked lack of access to consistent food and fresh water. There is a particular need for cholera vaccinations and latrine systems for the thousands of people living in tents. The response plans by the UN require an estimated 434 million dollars in donations.
The treatment of the Rohingya is an appalling violation of basic human rights and an extreme abuse of power by the regime. The most recent wave of persecution is but one in a series of abuses the Rohingya have endured. Though international aid organizations such as Oxfam and the Red Cross have been supporting an aid effort, they have largely been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering and need. Proposals for sanctions to be placed on Myanmar have been summarily rejected, in part because, though the official story presented by the Myanmar government is flimsy, it makes any sort of disciplinary action by the global community difficult. Myanmar continues to maintain a story in which they have no direct involvement in the Rohingya people’s suffering, despite video evidence and first-hand accounts existing that prove the opposite. They continue to support, or at the very least allow, a comprehensive restriction and attack on the basic human rights the Rohingya.