Why should the plight of the Rohingya community concern you? Especially when the world is full of so many terrible crises, all of which deserve our compassion and interest?
Perhaps the simplest and yet most poignant reason is that the Rohingya are, in many respects, an abandoned people.
Most of the Rohingya, a Muslim community living in Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine state, are stateless, having been stripped of citizenship by a discriminatory law in the 1980s. They are also demonised in their own homeland, referred to as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” by powerful officials, despite evidence to the contrary, and denied justice by their own government, having been subjected to pogroms and persecution.
The latter point is of acute importance at the present time. Late last year, the first armed assault by a Rohingya militant outfit in decades took place in parts of Northern Rakhine state. Nine Border Guard Police were killed. The response by Myanmar’s police and military was, according to the United Nations and rights groups, unimaginably brutal.
The UN’s rights organisation OHCHR issued a “flash report” in February which documented acts of “devastating cruelty” perpetrated indiscriminately against whole communities in Northern Rakhine in response to the acts of the militants. These included the killing of babies, the burning alive of children, gang rapes, torture and mass killing. Officials in two UN agencies have estimated that the death toll of Rohingya victims may exceed 1000, while tens of thousands fled over the border to Bangladesh.
And even as the violence was raging, the government sought to dismiss allegations of atrocities as Rohingya lies. A senior official told the humanitarian news agency IRIN that “the things they are accusing us of didn’t happen at all,” while the Ministry of Information answered allegations of military arson with claims that the Rohingya burnt down their own houses in order to “cast suspicion over security forces.”
Most sinister of all, the leading state-run newspaper ran a story which alluded to the minority as “detestable human fleas” and a woman who claimed she had been raped was publicly shamed as a liar on a page run by the office of de facto leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
At the present time, the government has declared that it opposes a UN-mandated fact-finding mission which will investigate military abuses across Myanmar but especially against the Rohingya; authorities look set to block access to Rakhine state for investigators. Domestic probes, including inquiries that involve the military investigating itself, have been predictable shams.
So, having been denied dignity or recognition in their homeland, and having suffered so much, the Rohingya must now languish in the apartheid-like conditions they have endured in Rakhine state for decades without any meaningful hope of justice.
What makes this worse is that it has all happened before.
Similar violence occurred five years ago this month when communal clashes morphed into outright pogroms targeting the Rohingya. Further organised attacks on the group occurred in October that year. An unknown number were killed and whole neighbourhoods razed to the ground. Human Rights Watch determined that these incidents involved “crimes against humanity” perpetrated as part of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in which local Buddhist mobs and state agencies were involved.
More than 100,000 Rohingya were displaced following the 2012 violence. Following the pogroms, allegations of atrocities levelled by Human Rights Watch were dismissed by the then President as a “smear campaign” while domestic investigations all but exonerated the government. No one was held accountable.
Meanwhile, violence against Muslims spread across Myanmar during 2013, and hate speech broadly targeting Rohingya in particular and their co-religionists in general also grew in prominence. Anti-Muslim campaigns led by nationalist monks culminated in a series of laws being passed which contained measures for population controls over Rohingya and laws preventing unsanctioned Buddhist-Muslim marriages.
In 2015, the year of Myanmar’s historic first fully honoured free and fair general election in half a century- the country having previously been an undemocratic, military-ruled police state for decades- the Rohingya were summarily disenfranchised, despite having possessed the vote in previous polls under military rule.
In the same year, the steady outflow of Rohingya seeking to escape the site of their immiseration drifted into global consciousness when boats loaded with the group were left abandoned at sea by human traffickers. Estimates now indicate that at least 200,000– up to a fifth of the population of Rohingya once resident in Myanmar- have fled their homeland, part of the largest maritime exodus in the region since the Vietnam War.
And the group are now closer to the precipice than ever. The emergence of the armed group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) mean that further escalations in Rakhine state are probable- judging by the response of the Myanmar army in October, any attacks by the group will likely be answered with a wildly disproportionate crackdown.
The situation is undoubtedly serious. And the Rohingya need our help. But what can be done?
Although the Rohingya can be described as almost hopeless in Myanmar, they do have international support from human rights groups, as well as members of the International community and Muslims worldwide. While the performance of the UN in Myanmar with regard to the Rohingya has been a topic of some controversy, the organisation is a broad church and certain agencies of the world body have provided critical, and in many cases, life-saving support to the minority.
Support for organisations doing vital advocacy and humanitarian work, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Fortify Rights, UNICEF, OHCHR and more specifically Burma Campaign UK and Burma Task Force in the United States, will benefit the Rohingya. The aid group Partners Relief have also been working in Myanmar for some time and have provided much-needed assistance to some very needy communities, especially those ineligible for government assistance.
And, of course, the #WhoIsHussain campaign itself is committed to raising funds for the benefit of the displaced and disenfranchised, like the Rohingya, which will go toward vulnerable refugees in Lebanon.
Please consider a donation today to reach out to them.
– an anonymous contributor on the ground in Burma