While the World Watches: The Plight of the Rohingya

Dhaka TribuneDhaka Tribune

By Javan Latson

The Southeastern Asian nation of Myanmar (Burma) has been in the headlines… and not for the right reasons. The former British colony has had a very turbulent history rife with dictatorship, repression, and civil unrest. In 1988 people around the world watched as the citizens took a stance against the ruling military junta. Individuals like Nobel Laureate Aang San Suu Kyi became symbols of the country’s struggle for democracy and civil liberty. However, Myanmar has now joined the likes of Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur as ethnically targeted violence rages on in the border state of Rakhine.

The victims of these attacks are the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the poorest state in the nation. Members of this community trace their ancestry back hundreds of years ago to when large groups of Muslims came from present-day Bangladesh to what was then the Kingdom of Arakhan. For years the British governed the region as a part of India and during colonial rule, many Bengali workers were imported. As an Islamic community within a predominantly Buddhist state things have always been tense, but most attacks on the Rohingya refute their Burmese identity. In an effort to justify certain as illegal Bengali immigrants.

This xenophobic sentiment would soon gain a foothold within the government following Burmese independence in 1948. The Buddhist majority held some grievances against the Rohingya for their behavior during World War 2. This is because the group sided with England whereas the majority allied with Imperial Japan. Despite this, the Rohingya were mostly considered a part of Burmese society. It wasn’t until General Ne Win’s ascension to power in 1962 that things took a turn for the worse. With the backing of his military junta, General Win enacted policies that greatly restricted the rights of this minority community.  Three years into his reign all Rohingya language programs were removed from national television broadcasts despite the fact that ethnic minorities were granted slots to broadcast in their mother tongue. Removing the group’s presence from public media was one step, but it was the passage of the 1982 citizenship law that truly harmed the Rohingya community. This piece of legislation declared that the right of citizenship only belongs to members of the 135 ethnic groups recognized by the 1974 constitution. With the stroke of a pen, they became one of the largest groups of stateless people in the world.

Without the protection of the law, these individuals became increasingly vulnerable to extortion and abuse by their neighbors. Rohingya couples are prohibited from having more than two children, must obtain permission to leave their villages, and are denied access to higher education and certain professions. Just two years ago, when the world was praising Myanmar for finally having “free” elections, the Rohingya were stripped of their right to vote.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that there have been conflicts between them and the Buddhist majority. These clashes have left dark stains on Burmese history, especially during the events of 2012. Five Muslim men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman and this led to widespread violence. Radical figures such as Monk Ashin Wirathu fanned the flames of sectarianism through his fiery sermons that called for the Rohingya to be removed from the country to protect Burmese culture. When the dust had settled more than 280 people had died and thousands more lost their homes.

What happened in 2012 may have been detrimental, but what is currently happening is nothing short of a disaster. Following an attack by a group of Rohingya rebels in August, there has been widespread violence targeting members of the community. These attacks have been devastating and the main victims have been civilians. There have been reports of mass rapes, executions, and security forces working with local militias to burn down villages. More than one-third of the Rohingya community have fled the country since August with greater than 375,000 going to neighboring Bangladesh.  Over a hundred villages have been destroyed and there are even reports that the military has been installing landmines on the border to prevent them from returning.  This systematic oppression and persecution prompted the UN Human Rights Chief to label the situation, “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Yet despite the cry of human rights groups and the UN, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said virtually nothing about the situation. Kyi, who gained worldwide support for her stance against the military junta and whose efforts earned her the Nobel Peace Prize, has failed to take a stand.  She appears to be dodging the pressure for her to condemn what is going on and to at least call the issue what it is… a humanitarian disaster. It could be argued that she is acting in this way because of the heavy influence the military still has on the government. However, the same woman that defied the status quo earlier in life for the sake of her nation and endured house arrest, should have the courage to stand.  

The election of Suu Kyi in 2015 seemed to mark the beginning of a new era for Burma.  Impressed by the apparent reforms President Obama, via executive order, lifted all existing sanctions on the Burmese government. Yet despite the so-called reforms that have occurred, Burma is far from free. Weapons continually enter the country from Israel and China even in the midst of the atrocities that are happening to arm the Burmese Security Forces. This is not a wise course of action because a lack of response by the global powers on the behalf of the oppressed could potentially lead to radicalism within the Rohingya population. There have already been reports of Al-Qaeda calling foreign militants to take up arms in Burma, stating that the government should be “punished”. Situations like these play into the hands of extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda because it fuels the narrative of Muslims being oppressed by an infidel government. As observed in Afghanistan during the 70s, Bosnia and Chechnya in the 90s, and the current situation in the Philippines, there is a significant possibility for non-state actors to exacerbate the conflict.  As Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.  It’s time for the global community to step up because if we don’t someone else will, and that someone may or may not share our same values and interests.

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