Just a few months ago, the image of a 16 month old boy lying dead face down in the mud flashed across the front page of the newspapers. The boy drowned while crossing the Naf river, trying to escape to Bangladesh. The boy’s name was Mohammed Shohayet, and he was a Rohingya Muslim.
The Rohingyas are basically Indo-Aryan Muslims from Rakhine state in Myanmar. While the Rohingyas maintain that they belong to the region, the Burmese government maintains that they are illegal immigrants (terming them “Bangladeshis”), who came into the country after Burmese independence in 1948 and after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The Burmese government has denied citizenship to any Rohingya muslim who cannot prove their ancestry before the British occupation (1823). They are believed to have started settling in the Rakhine area from 15th century. When the British took control of the area in the 19th century, Rohingya muslims started migrating from nearby Bengal (the modern-day Bangladesh) to work in the plantations. Ethnic confrontations between the native Buddhists and the Rohingyas was encouraged by the British during WW2 and after independence, separatist movements took over which further deepened the divide. In the present day, Rohingya muslims are considered as “illegal immigrants” and not mentioned in the census. Such is the loathing for them that one senior Burmese envoy called them “ugly as ogres.”
Rohingyas have been described by the United Nations as one of the “most persecuted minorities in the world”, terming the atrocities against them as “crimes against humanity”, an allegation which the Burmese government vehemently denies.
The Rohingyas have lost a lot of their land, are routinely discriminated against, and forced to do menial jobs. They have been robbed of their right to free travel and reports have emerged that they are not allowed to have more than two children. There are reports that they have been regularly denied access to healthcare, medicines etc in the region that they live in. Around 40% of the children suffer from diarrhoea and other water related ailments. Rohingyas have a child mortality ratio which is four times the national average.
In 2012, several Buddhist monks were attacked and killed in the region. As a retaliation, many villages were burnt down and crimes committed against women. Apart from being confined to internally displaced people (IDP) camps, they are being subjected to brutal beatings with the result that many are dying. Some of them have also tried fleeing to nearby countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia, with the Thai and Indonesian military regularly finding Rohingya muslims trying to seek entry into the country to escape persecution in their native land. Since the 2016s, after an attack by armed insurgents on police posts, the Burmese security forces began a crackdown on the local population. Those who escaped tell tales of genocide, mass rapes and burning down of entire villages. Media and other journalists have not been allowed to enter the region, with many experts terming the area as an “information black hole.” There have also been reports of aerial firepower being used on the citizens. Why does one need aerial firepower on innocent citizens other than to exterminate them completely is beyond my reasoning.
The future looks bleak for the Rohingyas. Denied citizenship and proper rights in Myanmar and with the incumbent government not recognising them as one of their own, they are faced with no alternative but to flee from the country (they cannot even call Myanmar as “their”) and seek refuge in nearby places. But how much will countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and India be willing to accept them when they have trouble feeding their own populations remains to be seen.
Latest news updates sound telling tales. International observers have uncovered evidence of sexual assault on a mass scale by the Burmese soldiers against the Rohingya women (read 1 , 2 and 3 ). In spite of these incidents having received significant coverage and condemnation from authorities (4), the ground situation shows no sign of improvement. The Bangladeshi government, which initially welcomed the refugees in its camp in Cox Bazaar, now wants them to go back (5). Even the Bangladeshis want them to return, as the Rohingyas work for lower wages, leading to lesser jobs for the former in their own country.
“Human Rights UpFront” is an action plan created by Ban Ki-Moon in response to the atrocities committed towards the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War. A confidential report produced by the Office for the High Commission for Human Rights detailed in November 2014 that serious human rights violations were taking place against the Rohingyas and the establishment of a human rights watchdog in the area was an urgent need. However, no action seems to have been taken in this regard since the two years that the report was written.
Aung Suu Kyi, the State Councillor of Myanmar, and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is facing increasing criticism from the world media and leaders, who have been calling on her to help end the atrocities against the muslims in the north-western state. But she has remained mum so far. There was even an online petition on change.org to the Nobel committee to strip her of her prize, which was denied. Desmond Tutu has also called upon Suu Kyi to help solve the problem of the Rohingyas. But so far she has not relented.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have not yet ratified the UN Refugee convention. While Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are all taking in the refugees, there are doing so in the express hope that these can be fed through international assistance and all the refugees can be resettled within an area, albeit beyond their borders. International media has been placing their hopes on a political consensus between the ASEAN countries so that this crisis can be managed within the particular region and not allowed to escalate. Bangladesh already faces a huge influx of refugees, with most of them being housed in the refugee colony at Cox’s Bazaar. India, which has upwards of 5000 Rohingya refugees is looking to deport them citing non-ratification of the UN treaty. While the UN is pressurizing India not to do so, India will not agree to them according to the current estimates.
While it is clear that Bangladesh and ASEAN countries do not want anything to do with the refugee crisis unless given the means, it becomes imperative to provide them with the necessary financial means to support the muslims. Parallel to that, Myanmar government must be forced (with the help of sanctions) to stop mistreating Rohingyas; otherwise this could very well turn out to be a repeat case of what happened in Rwanda.
There was international outcry when Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, washed up on the shore. However, even then the world turned a blind eye towards Syria. Let’s hope that the death of Mohammed Shohayet does not go in vain, and the world intervenes before it is too late.