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One hundred years on from the Armenian genocide, 75 years since the height of the Holocaust, and less than 25 years removed from the slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda, is the world ignoring yet another systematic ethnic cleansing of a people at the hands of a government? Myanmar is in the midst of an offensive against the Rohingya population of its western Rakhine state, persecuting them and driving them from their homes and lands.
The Rohingya, Sufi-inspired Sunni Muslims, have since the 1970’s faced discrimination from their largely Buddhist countrymen. Buddhists comprise roughly 90% of the Myanmar population and maintain leadership positions in the Myanmar government as well as its powerful military. The Rohingya, with a population of nearly one million, have been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in what the United Nations has recognized as the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world today.
What has been very troubling to international observers and world leaders is the seeming apathy of Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, while refusing to acknowledge ethnic cleansing, has been quick to criticize a rush to judgement by the international community based on the accounts of refugees who have safely reached Bangladesh. The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s government even refused visas for a United Nations backed fact-finding mission.
The Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine to the 1500’s, however, the Myanmar (formerly Burma) government has refused to recognize them as legal residents since independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. The Rohingya today are essentially illegal immigrants without any protections in Myanmar law. According to the Council on Foreign Relations organization, Rohingya in Myanmar face restrictions on employment, marriage and family planning. In certain towns married couples are prohibited from having more than two children. Further harming the Rohingya is the poor economic opportunities within Rakhine, the least developed region of Myanmar, and its 78% poverty rate.
From left to right: In the refugee camp children are reading in the madrasa at Leda camp ,Teknaf; Portrait of Rohingya Refugee at Tambru No-man’s land; Rohingya Refugee at Tambru No-man’s land in Bangladesh-Myanmar border at Tambru, Naikhyangchori, Banderban, Bangladesh.
The current troubles began with a Myanmar military response to attacks on police and government authorities by an insurgent Rohingya group. The resulting offensives by the Myanmar military has driven Rohingya from their Rakhine homeland. Most of the refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which faces difficulties in managing and caring for the influx of Rohingya needing shelter, food and healthcare. Others have fled to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
The current state of Rohingya refugee camps as well as the prevailing conditions in Myanmar that prevent them from returning to Rakhine, are troubling. On November 24, 2017 the UN High Commissioner on Refugees stated “At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm.” As the United Nations, Bangladesh and other regional countries work with Myanmar to improve conditions and rights for the Rohingya, the UNHCR cautions “It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place.”
Sources for this article: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis; http://www.unhcr.org; and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/08/rohingya-refugees-myanmar-bangladesh/