ABDELFATAH: Plight of Rohingya perpetuated by lack of media attention


Opinions Column: Global Perspectives


For years a Burmese minority group has lived in fear and has had to endure abuses, repression and systemic violence. For the past couple of weeks, villages in Myanmar have been burning and this same minority has been fleeing across the border, sparking a massive refugee crisis in neighboring countries. There is an ethnic cleansing campaign taking place right now in the country and no one is talking about it. It is being perpetrated by soldiers and Burmese militias against the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are an ethnic population of Burmese Muslims who are indigenous to Burma’s Rakhine province, an area in the North West of the country that shares a border with Bangladesh. There are about 2 million Rohingya in the world today, with approximately half living in Myanmar. The Rohingya were rendered stateless in 1982 by a highly controversial citizenship law that deliberately excluded them as one of Burma’s natural, and thereby legitimate, ethnicities despite being able to trace their roots in the region back nearly a millennium. As a result, the Rohingya are considered “resident foreigners” and face restrictions on their freedom of movement, limitations on access to education and arbitrary confiscation of property.

These limitations on their rights has prompted The United Nations to dub them “the most persecuted people on Earth” in 2015. Aside from their disenfranchisement they have been living in fear and repeatedly attacked by their fellow nationals, causing many to flee their homelands for neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. Government initiatives, such as referring to the Rohingya as “Bengali in an effort to rebrand them as foreigners and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, along with rhetoric by politicians and Buddhist clerics are fueling an intentionally organized hatred for Muslims designed to alienate the native Rohingya from Burmese life and brand them as a threat and an “other.” These efforts have been instrumental in creating a prevailing view among Burmese Buddhists that, as Muslims, the Rohingya are plotting to undermine the Buddhist way of life. In 2015, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum even ranked Burma as the country most at risk of a campaign of genocide. At the same time, researchers at the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) were arguing that the first four of the five stages of genocide had already occurred to the Rohingya, the last stage being mass annihilation.

Within recent weeks the violence has ratcheted up substantially. Burmese security forces joined by Rakhine militias have been engaging in a systemic violence campaign against the ethnic minority. They have been beating, raping and murdering villagers while burning down homes and essentially chasing them out of the country. The UN estimates that 313,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh over the past two weeks. The UN human rights chief has described it as a “textbook” example of ethnic cleansing. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Bangladesh’s side of the border is already home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous exodus’s in the late 70s and early 90s who live in squalid conditions.

Shockingly, the Burmese government is lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a victim of persecution and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. However, she has shamefully denied the Rohingya genocide, claiming instead that security forces are merely fighting against militants, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. She has refused to allow humanitarian aid organizations to enter the region, despite entreaties from the UN and neighboring governments. Suu Kyi has very little authority over the army, but as the de-facto head of the government, she is duty-bound to speak out in defense of the minority populations of her country and fight for their rights.

The international community is not blameless. There has been next to no coverage of the plight of the Rohingya over the past few years. Even now that the crisis has escalated significantly there has still been very little said about it. On the diplomatic front, Western countries have failed to push the Burmese government on the issue, fearing that to do so would jeopardize the democratic transition. The administration has so far avoided calling it an ethnic cleansing, instead opting to express concern about violence on both sides. But what good is democracy if entire minority populations are massacred and forcibly displaced? The international community has an obligation to interfere on behalf of the Rohingya. Economic sanctions could do a great deal to alter the behavior of Burmese authorities. The army is heavily invested in the state’s business interests and so economic sanctions would have a direct impact on Burmese security forces. Foreign aid and investment into the country should be halted and sanctions put in place. The world has stood by far too often during such events. We can’t allow it to happen again.

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column,  "Global Perspectives" runs every alternate Thursday.


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Yousuf Abdelfatah

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