On August 25, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims were met with absolute military violence. Villages were burnt from existence, innocent civilians were shot at and women were raped, all with the purpose to expel them out of the country, by their government.
More than 500,000 were forced to flee from the terrors that befell them and seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh, displacing an estimated 50% of the Rohingya population.
The crisis is ongoing and the mass exodus is expected to get worse if there is no intervention soon. Thousands of Rohingya have already been denied access by Bangladesh’s border security guards and are left trapped between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Reuters reported that Myanmar has since begun planting mines across the shared borders of the two countries as a barrier against Rohingya Muslims looking to return home.
Bangladesh border guard officer, Manzurul Hassan Khan, told Reuters of a boy who had his left leg blown off on September 5 close to a border crossing.
The international community has spoken out against Myanmar’s military government to denounce what they deem an act of ethnic cleansing.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has condemned Myanmar as well for conducting a “cruel military operation” and branded it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
It was reported that the military offensive against the Rohingya was in response to an August 25 attack on 30 police posts and an army camp in the northern Rakhine State of Myanmar. 12 people were killed in what was the biggest attack yet by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group.
The Myanmar government has repeatedly dismissed the charges of ethnic cleansing. Officials are blaming the burning of villages on insurgents and the Rohingya who allegedly do so to fabricate false stories and attract world attention to their cause.
Zeid added that the “complete denial of reality” and pretence over the claims of Rohingya setting ablaze their own homes and villages are ruining the Myanmar government’s standing.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi
The de-facto leader of Myanmar has been revered as the face of peace and freedom in her country, but recent events have left her fellow nations’ leaders disappointed.
She has been heavily criticised by her political counterparts for failing to condemn the atrocities committed by armed forces, and international pressure for her to step up and intervene is mounting.
Although it is recognised that Myanmar’s military possesses great power over the nation and Aung San Suu Kyi does not have effective control over them, she has not lost her power to speak. Her response to the whole incident has so far been accompanied with silence, denial and an obstruction of humanitarian aid.
In a nationally televised speech delivered to the nation last Tuesday (September 19), Aung San Suu Kyi said that the majority of Muslims in Rakhine state have not joined the exodus and more than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact, as they were before the attacks took place. Even if true, that still leaves many villages unaccounted for, downplaying their plight.
She also added that all refugees who want to return will be accepted upon verification.
In earlier reports, Aung San Suu Kyi claimed the crisis to be distorted by a “huge iceberg of information”. She stated news photographs in circulation were fake and instigated to promote the interest of terrorists.
Her stance has angered many, who are calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be taken back. A petition has even been set up and as of October 3 over 425,000 have signed.
History of bad blood – why the Rohingya are oppressed
The Rohingya are commonly described as the world’s most persecuted minority. They are unrecognised by Myanmar as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, even though they have an approximate population of 1.1 million and their ancestral roots can be traced back from centuries ago in the western coastal state of Rakhine.
For a better sense of the alienation stemming from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority over the Rohingya population, one must travel back to the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826. The British led a campaign against the Burmese empire (Myanmar) and captured Arakan (Rakhine State).
Following the war, significant migrations of labourers from India and Bangladesh occurred throughout the British regime into the local population and were absorbed by the Muslim Rohingya community.
The result was a Rohingya group of locals and migrants who formed their own culture, different from that of their Buddhist neighbours, who pushed them to move southwards as their community continued to expand in the north. The relationship only went downhill from there.
During the Second World War the Japanese invaded Myanmar (then Burma), and the Buddhist majority sided with Japan because of the strong belief that the invaders would overthrow their British colonial masters and be victorious.
The Rohingya minority though, stayed loyal. Armed clashes happened between the Rohingya and Burmese Buddhist throughout the war and served to propagate the hate and hostilities. When the British won, the Buddhists’ animosity towards the Rohingya intensified.
The persecution to date
After Myanmar’s independence in 1948, a Union Citizenship Act was passed to define which ethnicities could gain citizenship – the Rohingya were not one of them. They saw the migration that took place during British rule as illegal.
A new citizenship law was then passed in 1982 that further crippled the status of the Rohingya. The ruling effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless citizens of the world. A recent Harvard University editorial stated that the law has led to 1 in 7 stateless persons worldwide being Rohingya.
Their statelessness essentially places a default limit to the opportunities available to them – education, work, marriage, travel, the practice of religion and health care access.
It seems now that the injustice, indignity and estrangement hailing from the Rohingyas’ disenfranchised status are not enough for the government. They want the entire ethnic population expelled, denied and stripped of their citizenship – from being stateless to ethnically cleansed.
Need for global awareness
Aid workers are currently not allowed into the region and journalists have close to no access. Satellite imagery published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International show vast lengths of burnt Rohingya villages, but that is far from the full extent of the military campaign.
The Rohingya are definitely nowhere close in terms of the media attention and global concern they receive relative to other prominent groups – such as the Palestinians and the Kurds – seeking citizenship or recognition.
Until world leaders successfully pressure Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s armed forces into restoring the Rohingyas’ freedom and rights, they will continue to suffer the indignity of statelessness and ethnic cleansing.