Understanding the Plight of the Rohingya

In this Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, file photo, a Rohingya family reaches the Bangladesh border after crossing a creek of the Naf river on the border with Myanmmar, in Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)

Rohingya children fleeing Rakhine

“We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens”: the words of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on September 7, 2017, in the wake of more than 18,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in just under a day.

And still, Suu Kyi would not refer to directly to the plight of the largely Islamic Rohingya. With sudden international pressure to see an end to the conflict, she had previously blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” regarding the Rohingya and stood by Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population on claiming the issue too complicated for the world to understand.

When the Rohingya were denied citizenship under Myanmar’s reformed 1982 Citizenship law that guaranteed citizenship to persons “who belong to an indigenous race or lived in British Burma prior to 1942,” the international society maintained their silence. The matter was a domestic affair not for other nations to meddle in.

Then came 2012, when the fighting first seemed to gain dangerous momentum; people finally began to monitor the scene closely. Suddenly the Rohingya conflict was not simply domestic as the issue spread to neighboring countries India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and even to the Southeast Asian regions of Malaysia and Indonesia.

To date, nearly one million Rohingya have escaped the borders of the Myanmar with only another million remaining—of them, 120,000 are internally displaced within the Rakhine State territory.

For many of the international onlookers, the crisis began with thousands crossing rivers to Bangladesh. Before people had the chance to even start to comprehend the who, why, and how of Myanmar’s indigenous Rohingya, the fighting was at full gear with global agencies sounding emergency alarms to the public.

Who are the Rohingya?

But how did it all begin? And who are the Rohingya anyway?

Simply put, the Rohingya are a mainly Muslim minority living in the territorial region of Rakhine, formerly Arakan, situated in the western coastal line of Myanmar. Not much to cause any problems. But, when placed in 90% Buddhist Myanmar, religious differences and racial preference become a hotbed for instability.

When did it all begin?

Existing written records reveal Rohingya settlements in the Arakan region since as early as the 8th Century. Before the “nation-state” was a fixed concept, and before Arakan was considered a legal territory of modern-day Myanmar, nomads primarily from the South Asian region dwelled along the Myanmar coast.

Then, it is said that British colonization in the late 1800s brought in many Muslim migrants from the adjacent region of Bengal as there was no existing international boundary separating Bengal and Arakan territory. These inhabitants were encouraged by the British to occupy the Arakan region as farm laborers but were, essentially, illegal immigrants to local Myanmar Buddhists. For decades, ethnic Rohingya and Bengali migrants lived closely with almost no distinction of race.

Therefore, coupled with hatred for the “English Settlers” and groups that were favored such as the Bengalis, this made for ethnic rivalry and lasting negative feelings.

Over time, the boundaries of the Burmese State became more defined after successive British and Japanese invasions and fortified nation-building. And the 8th Century Rohingya that had never considered itself part of either the native Buddhist group or the migrant Bengalis was found in the middle of the rivalry.

At a certain point, even the Rohingya were grouped as “Bengalis”—associated with illegal immigrants from India with lack of a better origin to their settlement; many of Myanmar’s historians mistaking all Rohingya to have arrived with the British colonists.

Such negative-sentiment has also been flamed by anti-Muslim activists under the 969-movement leader, Ashin Wirathu. When questioned about the rape and abuse of Rohingya women by Myanmar military, he said, “Impossible, their bodies are too disgusting,” adding that Buddhists need to be protected from Rohingya Muslims who have manipulated media for international sympathy.

To be sure, Myanmar citizens are themselves uncertain of when tensions began to simmer. What is known is that suppressed angst between the Muslim and Buddhist factions led to the buildup of conflicts that each time, died-down without any permanent resolution.

For the Buddhists living in Rakhine, the Rohingya are a festering terrorist group that could take over the region at any moment. Not only this, for decades, they are outsiders who have been robbing Myanmar citizens of jobs, natural resources, and religious unity.

Especially since the rise of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Myanmar’s citizens have become greatly alarmed by the prospect of Islamic terrorism spreading out from Rakhine. In assessment of ARSA, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, Trevor Wilson, said, “ARSA shows many of the attributes of Islamist terrorist groups. They have declared links with Islamic State (IS) and show a willingness to introduce arms into what was previously an unarmed political struggle.”

Publicly, however, there are no credible sources behind ARSA connection to terrorist organizations other than the fact that Al Qaeda separately issued a statement urging Muslims around the world to aid the Rohingya crisis.

2017 for the Rohingya

Before, they fled in small units, eventually landing in countries as far as Malaysia and Indonesia where Muslims form the majority. Now, it seems the Rohingya have had enough. Each day, refugees continue to flee the remains of their ransacked homes in Rakhine, and women and children are leaving by the thousands from police attacks, gang rapes, and unmonitored persecution. To date, 400,000 of the Rohingya population currently dwell in temporary shelters in Bangladesh.

Insurgent Rohingya fighters, mainly from ARSA, and their retaliatory methods of attacking local Rakhine police posts and military units are further aggravating hatred toward Rohingya Muslims, ensuing in violent bloodbaths. On September 9th, ARSA issued a statement of ceasefire until October 9 to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Rakhine territory, demanding the Myanmar army to do the same.

The request was roughly denied by the government. In a statement responding to the proposal, Zaw Htay, Spokesman for the office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, told CNN that “[Myanmar] has no policy to negotiate with terrorists.”

Key Players

Apart from her September 7 claim that even non-citizens of Myanmar should be protected, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and forerunner of the country’s democratization movement, Aung San Suu Kyi has made no public move to resolve tensions. Some have said she is powerless to go against the Buddhist majority who gave Suu Kyi her power in the first place. She has no choice but to overlook the Rohingya.

Others, however, are not so lenient. Prominent human rights associations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations assembly have all condemned Aung San Suu Kyi for turning a blind eye. This was followed by a permanent suspending of membership with one of Britain’s largest trade unions—Unison—with Margaret McKee (Unison President) forcefully denouncing Myanmar’s Counsellor for her ignorance, “The situation facing the Rohingya of Myanmar is appalling. Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary membership of Unison has been suspended, and we hope she responds to international response.”

Unfortunately, India and China, key regional powers have also largely supported the Myanmar government’s crackdown on Rohingya. Both nations, with the help of Bangladesh, have opposed UN relief attempts and have pushed for the immediate deportation of Rohingya refugees in regions outside of Myanmar.

On the other side of the spectrum, spokesperson for peace, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh this coming November 30th to December 2nd. The announcement of his trip followed Pope Francis’ expression of sadness for the Rohingya brothers, “I would like to express my closeness to them and all of us ask the Lord to save them and to prompt men and women of good faith to help ensure their full rights.”

Likewise responding to the persecution of Rohingya, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which was founded in 1969 to protect the global Muslim community, to remember the Rohingya, saying, “Should the extensive violation of basic human rights of the Rohingya Muslims be left unattended, it would further encourage extremism.”


Disconnected Humanitarian aid

Meanwhile, widespread international attention has brought countless relief organizations to affected regions and to the main refugee centers in Bangladesh. The International Rescue Committee (IRS), Partners Relief and Development, not to mention UN operations in partnership with Amnesty international and other associations are currently pouring in food and healthcare resources for victims.

But at present, the most critically affected Northern Rakhine region remains untouched by any NGO or international organization due to militant lockdown. Aid groups are essentially working in scattered numbers, with uncoordinated aid that is oftentimes sent, but not received by those in need.

Acknowledgement of Atrocities

2017 marks a point in the Rohingya crisis in which much wisdom is called for all actors involved as refugee numbers are at the brink of reaching half a million persons. Despite calls for dialogue and rational understanding of ethnic origins, hatred is not easily sprouted up from its roots. Alongside physical aid must come a necessary shift in cultural perceptions of race and religious tolerance.

Perhaps more paramount is the simple acknowledgement by Myanmar leaders of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. Acceptance of the persecution is to be the stepping stone and foundation for reconciliation—not of blatant denial of domestic infighting. Leaders must accept that no amount of ostracizing and killing will result in religious or ethnic harmony for the benefit of the nation.





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