By: Hitha Santosh
Women sit on the dusty ground as infants wail in their laps, brightly colored headscarves bracketing their weary faces. Children play among the makeshift shelters, where ragged tarpaulin stretches tight over rickety frames. These are just a few of the Rohingya refugees who have been flooding into Bangladesh over the past week, following an outbreak of violence in their home state last weekend. Thousands more remain stranded on the other side of the border, blocked from entering by Bangladeshi security officials. The UN has issued an appeal to Bangladesh’s authorities, urging them to continue allowing the Rohingya to seek safety.
This abject situation isn’t a novelty for the Rohingya, who have long been viewed as one of the most persecuted groups on the planet. Numbering approximately one million, they are a Muslim ethnic minority living in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. They hold no legal status in the country: despite their having lived there for generations, the government views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refuses to grant them citizenship. For decades, they have been denied basic rights, such as land ownership, health services, and even the freedom to leave their villages to find work.
Resentment reached a boiling point last Friday, when armed Rohingya insurgents carried out a series of attacks against police and army outposts, leaving nearly 80 militants, 12 security officers, and 6 civilians dead. In retaliation, government troops allegedly burned down villages and shot civilians. The government insists that its retribution was proportional and blames the insurgents for any harm to the civilian population. But satellite imagery has found evidence of extensive burning in at least 10 areas in northern Rakhine state, many of which are consistent with witness statements.
The recent violence is a sobering echo of the events of late 2016, when, in October, hundreds of Rohingya insurgents attacked Burmese border posts. In the following months, approximately 85,000 Rohingya civilians fled to Bangladesh, escaping the Burmese military’s ensuing crackdown. Many described rampant human rights abuses committed by the soldiers, their accounts painting a grim picture of mass rape, indiscriminate executions, and widespread arson. Military leaders decried such reports as “false” or “distorted”; nevertheless, human rights groups have called the military’s actions tantamount to ethnic cleansing. The authorities refused such organizations access to the area, however, so it has been difficult to gauge the extent of the violence.
These dismal events stand in stark contrast to the hopeful atmosphere in Myanmar in November 2016, when free elections were held for the first time after 50 years of military rule. People across the country, as well as international spectators, hoped that the victorious NLD (National League for Democracy) would score sweeping gains for human rights.
Yet the Rohingya have not reaped many, or in fact any, benefits. They remain confined to bleak villages and squalid government camps in the north of Rakhine state, and as the recent violence and ensuing exodus show, they still face a surfeit of danger and uncertainty.
Myanmar’s new leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been widely criticized for turning a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya. She has stayed largely silent on the issue, skirting the question during her rare encounters with the press. In an interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi denied accusations of ethnic cleansing. “It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing,” she said, “It is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up."
Admittedly, Suu Kyi holds little power over the country’s military, which still controls a quarter of Myanmar’s government and retains sole authority over all security operations. There is also the political aspect to consider: some belonging to the country’s Buddhist majority see the Rohingya’s religion as a threat, and condemnation of the group has become increasingly mainstream. In last November’s elections, neither party fielded any Muslim candidates, seeing them as a turn-off for Buddhist voters.
Yet many prominent individuals have lambasted Suu Kyi, who had been vaunted as a champion of human rights, for failing to resist domestic pressure and take a stronger stance in favor of the Rohingya. Last year, she appointed a commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Rakhine, but it is not expected to deliver anything of substance. Meanwhile, offices under her government continue to churn out propaganda, denying the Rohingya’s accusations and denouncing the international media for highlighting their predicament.
For the Rohingya, denied opportunities and vilified by their countrymen, leaving Myanmar often seems like the most promising option. Over the past several years, those who could afford to buy a boat or pay the smugglers have risked the harrowing sea crossing to Malaysia and other nearby countries in search of work and a better life. This situation grabbed international attention in May 2015, when boats crammed with thousands of men, women, and children were turned away from multiple shores, leaving them stranded in the middle of the Andaman sea. Recent events have drawn the global spotlight back towards the Rohingya, but while there is much in the way of attention, there is little in the way of aid.
A commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan recently released its long-awaited report on the status of the "the single biggest stateless community in the world,” a mere day before the latest violence broke out. It urged the Burmese government to grant the Rohingya citizenship and freedom of movement, and warned that further oppression and unrest could create a breeding ground for extremists. The 63-page report deliniates recommendations in numerous policy areas, such as economic and social development, health care, and cultural cooperation. The report has been hailed as a milestone, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had previously promised to abide by its findings.
Yet talk of commissions and experts and ambitious development plans can cause us to lose sight of the very human tragedy unfolding in the present—what a Red Cross coordinator has called a “silent crisis”. And as each new day dawns on new crowds at Myanmar’s western border, the suffering of the Rohingya seems set to soldier on.