“The most friendless people in the world”: We need to act for the Rohingya now

There has been a little more media coverage than usual of the Rohingya people in Myanmar as over 120,000 have recently poured over the border into Bangladesh as refugees and claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide within Myanmar have to come to light. The recent crackdowns and expulsions occurred after Rohingya militants attacked police station in Myanmar. Today, there are one million Rohingya in Myanmar, and one million Rohingya refugees displaced in the South Asia and Middle East regions.

The Rohingya have a history going back to the eighth century in Arakan, Myanmar. Arakan is a state in the southwest of Myanmar (prior to the military junta, known as Burma). Rohignya means “an inhabitant of Rohang,” which was the early Muslim name for that area. The Rohingya people refer to themselves as Ruáingga. Historically they were known as Arakanese Indians (thanks Great Britain!) and also Bengali Muslims. Rohingya is a term that the refugee community now regularly uses to identify itself. Rohingya are a combination of precolonial and colonial settlers and are majority Muslim.

The early permanent settlements of Muslims in the state date back to the fifteenth century to the kingdom of Mrauk U. Whilst conquered by Buddhist kingdoms, many Muslims held key positions in the administrations, and the population grew considerably in the seventeenth century as they formed a large part of the workforce in that period. During this century, raids out of Arakan captured a large number of Bengali Muslims and forced them into slavery and endentured labout; many of them remained in Arakan and form part of the Rohngya. British colonisation saw an increase in Muslim migration to Arakan as well, which exacerbated the conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists, particular in Myanmar’s cities. During World War II, both Buddhist and Muslim communities committed atrocities against each other with the support of either British or Japanses forces.

These latter atrocities and the links of the Muslim communities with the British Empire and latterly India are key reasons for the oppression of the Rohingya today. They are quite simply perceived as enemies of the Buddhist majority communities in Myanmar, and there is a long history of conflict on which to base this conclusion. As displaced Rohingya returned to Myanmar aftr World War II and after independence, they were regarded as new and unwanted illegal immigrants rather than returning communities, and many were denied entry.

Briefly after independence, Rohingya were recognised as an ethnic nationality and had representation and government positions. However, after the military junta took over in 1962, Rohingya were deprived of their rights. Rohingya are now denied citizenship in Myanmar and not recognised as one of the national ‘races.’ Even with the increased democratic representation and the general election in 2015, Rohingya politicians continue to be disbarred and imprisoned because they are not citizens. They are restricted from freedom of movement, state education and civil service jobs. Rohingya have no voting rights. The Myanmar government denies the Rohingya history and claims that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who came after 1950. The Myanmar does not recognise the name Rohingya and refers to them as Bengalis. The growing attacks on Rohingya are led by strident calls from “ultra-nationalist Buddhists” to expel them, and the security forces have acted on these calls.

Rohingya have suffered summary executions, enforced disappearances, gang rape, arsons, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment and forced labour. Rohingya refugees who fled the country to Bangladesh are currently at risk of being forcibly relocated to Thengar Char, a low lying flood prone island that is used by pirates and is only accessible in winter. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have expressed concern of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar. They assert that the Myanmar government intends to expel all Rohingya from Myanmar. Rohingya are considered amongst the world’s most oppressed minorities.

Talking about ethnic cleansing upsets some. A UN official in Myanmar said “today using the term, aside from being divisive and potentially incorrect, will only ensure that opportunities and options to try to resolve the issue to be addressed will not be available,” and Aung San Suu Kyi has simply stated that “I don’t think there’s ethnic cleansing going on.” These protestations to speak softly and politely occur at the same time that the International State Crime Initiative in London has provided evidence that the Myanmar government is in the final stages of an organised process for genocide. We have all seen this story before in our lifetimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Rwanda and in Somalia and Western Sahara.

Our leaders will tend to stand around wringing their hands and making sure to not say anything of import, particularly as Myanmar has weak labour and environmental protections, has barely any industry and enormous natural mineral resources. New Zealand has invested a little bit in exploring dairy industry development there. However, pricking the conscience of our leaders is possible, as we saw with East Timor and Bougainville, where ultimately New Zealand played a very positive international role after a small group of people worked hard to raise public awareness. We need to do the same for the Rohingya in Myanmar.

We need to encourage our leaders to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to criticise the security forces actions against the Rohingya and for her government to put legislation to extend the rights of citizens to Rohingya. We also need our leaders to push for ASEAN nations and other South Asian countries, most importantly Bangladesh, to recognise Rohingya as refugees so they are protected by international law and gain access to support and resources. Individually we can donate and fundraise to support NGOs who are attempting to stand in the breach for Rohingya. And yes, there is a hashtag: #SavetheRohingya. We can help if we all do something. Please start by sharing this blog to inform our friends and families.

[Header image from AP Photo/Anurup Titu: A Rohingya man who fled Burma pleads after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh]

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2 thoughts on ““The most friendless people in the world”: We need to act for the Rohingya now

    1. As I understand it, this is to say “Each state must protect its people, irrespective of religion and race,” to which I can only say I agree wholeheartedly.

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