IT is believed that two-thirds of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have been forced to leave the country over the last five years, the majority of whom are taking shelter in an extremely limited space in Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. They are still arriving every day — sick, hungry and exhausted.
Despite the magnitude of the Rohingya crisis and the subsequent exodus, the global outrage and response to their misery has been far too slow and insignificant, compared with the outpouring in the horrifying terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. It is partly because the Myanmar authorities’ attempt to conceal the evidence by imposing a blockade on Rakhine, making it inaccessible to journalists, international monitors and human rights investigators. Hence, the genocide that is unfolding in Rakhine largely remains obscure to outsiders.
None of us, even those living in neighbouring countries to Myanmar, have a clear idea how many people have been killed and how many women have been raped and sexually assaulted over the past two months. A latest survey carried out by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) found that at least 9,000 Rohingya died in Myanmar due to violence, including at least 730 children under the age of 5, between Aug 25 and Sept 24 last year.
The latest drone footage depicting thousands of desperate new Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine into Bangladesh is heartbreaking. It clearly shows the suffering of those targeted in crimes against humanity in Myanmar. However, this is not the first time that the Rohingya are fleeing their home across the border into Bangladesh.
In 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh when the Myanmar government launched an operation under the code name “Naga Min” (Dragon King) to expel the scapegoated illegal immigrants from its territory. The operation targeted the Rohingya Muslims through killing, widespread rape, looting, forced labour, arbitrary arrest and burning homes and religious sites.
Again in 1991 and 1992, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya took shelter in Bangladesh, following a dramatic increase of forced labour, torture, rape and summary executions committed by both the Myanmar military and local Rakhine Buddhists. Between October 2016 and February last year, around 74,000 Rohingya refugees entered Bangladesh after the Myanmar army launched a crackdown, according to International Organisation for Migration’s estimates. The ultimate purpose of these heinous crimes against Rohingya was to make them invisible in their motherland.
Although the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar since the 8th century, they are discriminated as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the Myanmar government, which subsequently used this as a pretext to deny them citizenship for decades. It is an unfortunate fact that the local Rakhine Buddhist population is deeply misled by their military and government into considering the Rohingya a threat and treating them with hostility.
There is, in fact, well-documented evidence that Rohingya were once legitimate citizens of the Union of Burma under Article 3 of the Aung San-Attle Treaty (1947) and the First Schedule to the Burma Independence Act in 1947. They even had their own political parties and representation in Parliament, cabinet and peoples’ councils of different levels during the democratic period from 1948 to 1962. But in 1982, 20 years after the coup d’état, General Ne Win’s military regime redefined the citizenship law that made the Rohingya effectively stateless.
The question is, what role does the international community play in stopping the systematic repression of the Rohingya and the ongoing final stage of genocide?
The simple answer is, none! In the past, the United States, the European Union and others have remained silent, letting the military regime do what they want. Now, they close their eyes to the mass annihilation of Rohingya with the excuse that any intervention may put Myanmar’s young democracy at risk.
With the exception of Malaysia, Asean continues to play no role in the Rohingya crisis. The 31st Asean Summit in the Philippines on Nov 10 to 14 last year avoided discussing the deadly exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar. Even the words “Rohingya” or “Rohingya suffering” were not mentioned in the summit draft statement.
Many human rights activists, lawyers, academics and scholars use the term “genocide” to describe the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
The Rome-based Permanent People’s Tribunal consisting of seven judges, with strong professional judicial and academic backgrounds, found Myanmar guilty of the crime of genocide against the Rohingya after hearings took place in Kuala Lumpur from Sept 18 to 22 last year.
It is surely the right time to apply international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi’s regime to ensure recognition and restoration of the rights to the Rohingya.
Analysts say the international community will not intervene now because they are afraid of losing their possible investment in Myanmar’s oil and gas sectors.
There is only one recourse: to raise global awareness of the citizenship rights and basic human rights of the Rohingya. This may influence the international community, especially the US and EU, to put an end to the Rohingya crisis.
Ishak Mia Sohel currently works as a regional coordinator for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance at the Asian Resource Foundation, Thailand, and occasionally teaches environmental conflict and security at the International Institute of Peace and Development Studies in Bangkok.