The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority from the Rakhine state in Northern Myanmar, have often been described as the world’s most persecuted minority. Since August 2017, they have been subject to a wave of organized rape, killing and village burning orchestrated by Myanmar’s military. The campaign came as a retaliation to attacks on security posts by a Rohingya militia group on August 25th. More than 2 months later, an estimated 582 000- out of the one million living in Myanmar in 2016- have fled to neighboring Bangladesh living in squalid, makeshift refugee camps. Not only is this the worst refugee crisis in the region in decades, but also, as stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing

Myanmar security forces, specifically Myanmar Army’s Western Command, the 33rd Light Infantry Division and the Border Guard Police, are carrying out a systematic and organized campaign aiming at driving the Rohingya out of the state. The government of Myanmar has denied the accusations and supports that it is the Rohingya themselves who burn their own villages. A BBC report reveals how the government has even staged photographs to incriminate Rohingyas. While access to UN observers and human rights investigators is denied, eyewitness reports, satellite data, photo and video evidence gathered by Amnesty International document murder, forced deportation and displacement, torture, rape, persecution and denying food to the Rohingya. These acts of violence are listed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. The documentation of these crimes is the first steps towards establishing legal accountability for the perpetrators.

A long history of discrimination and persecution

The Rohingya can trace their ancestry in Rakhine back to hundreds of years but it was not until a mass migration wave in the 1820s that resentment among local Buddhist Rakhines started to grow. Hatred intensified further during the Second World War as the Rohingya sided with the Japanese. They were stripped of their rights during the military Junta in 1962 and became stateless after the 1982 citizenship law. In 2012, about 140 000 were forced out of Rakhine’s capital in what was characterized as ethnic cleansing. Today, the Rohingya are considered “illegal immigrants” and are referred to as “Bengalis”, to link them to Bangladesh, or “Kalar”, a derogatory epithet for Muslims. They face widespread discrimination in employment, access to education, housing and mobility. Moreover, the Rohingya have been subjected to a relentless campaign of dehumanization. Buddhist extremist monks, at the forefront of this process, refer to the Rohingya as “snakes” or “worse than dogs” who steal the land and food of the Buddhist population. The discrimination towards the Rohingya comes from centuries of socio-political conflict and of rooted fear of the “other”. The focus is on them now, and the international community is alarmed, as dehumanization has historically been a recurring step preceding genocide.

Exodus to refugee camps in Bangladesh

Many Rohingya in Rakhine are forced into internment camps but the vast majority has fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The refugees embark on a dangerous, sometimes fatal, boat ride to cross the border in the Bay of Bengal. In Bangladesh, those who make it are crowded into camps where they face unsanitary conditions. In muddy bamboo and tarp stacks, the Rohingya search for foods and clothes. The World Health Organization reported more than 10 000 cases of diarrhea. There is a great risk of outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis. Bangladesh authorities have begun to document refugees by registering their fingerprints. However, the government has excluded granting them refugee status. On the other side, the government of Myanmar has announced that it only those who are able to prove they are from Rakhine will be repatriated.

The international community response: a passive denunciation

Despite the aforementioned UN condemnations, the international community has not taken adequate actions to prevent the escalation of the ethnic cleansing into a full scale genocide. On October 23rd, the Trump administration threatened to take punitive action in the form of economic measures against Myanmar if it did not halt the campaign of violence. As a form of pressure, the State Department has already prohibited travel waivers allowing military leaders to enter the US. The de facto leader of Myanmar and Nobel Prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has come under criticism by politicians and leaders such as the Dalai Lama for her silence on the issue. The international humanitarian response has also been quite ineffective. States have committed 116 million dollars to the UN for humanitarian aid and many NGOs are present in Bangladesh to deliver aid. However, access to camps is often difficult because of inadequate infrastructures. The international community has already let genocides happen under its very eyes. Active international action is extremely urgent in order to contain the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh and to prevent the escalation of what already appears to be a case of ethnic cleansing into a full scale genocide.

Article written by Vasiliki Malouchou

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References

BAKER, Peter and Nick CUMMING-BRUCE. “US Threatens to Punish Myanmar Over Treatment of Rohingya”. October 23 2017.

BEECH, Hannah. “Across Myanmar, Denial of Ethnic Cleansing and Loathing of Rohingya”. The New York Times. October 24 2017.

HEAD, Jonathan. “Rohingya Crisis: Seeing through the official story in Myanmar”. BBC News. September 11 2017.

RAMZY, Justin. “Rohingya Refugees Fleeing Myanmar Await Entrance to Squalid Camps”. The New York Times. October 18 2017.

SOLOMON, Ben C. “In Grim Camps, Rohingya Suffer on ‘Scale That We Couldn’t Imagine’”. The New York Times. September 29 2017.

“Rohingya Crisis: UN sees ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar”. BBC News. September 11 2017.

“The plight of the Rohingyas”. The Economist. June 2015.

“Myanmar: Crimes against humanity terrorize and drive Rohingya out”.  Amnesty International. October 18 2015.

 

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