The Rohingya crisis has been ignored for far too long

Juliette Bretan 12 October 2017

The systematic dehumanisation of the Rohingya minority, a mainly Muslim group living in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, has been pursued for decades; a consequence of opposition from Myanmar’s government to the migration of labourers from India and Bangladesh which took place during the period of British rule over the country, from 1824 to 1948. At first, Rohingya whose families had lived in Myanmar for two generations were allowed to apply for identification, but even so, prospects for the group were growing; with some Rohingya serving in Parliament, including one of the country's first two female MPs, Zura Begum.

Yet a 1962 coup destroyed all hopes of a brighter future for the group: it resulted in a crackdown against the Rohingya people; removing identification and citizenship from many, and allowing them only foreign identity cards, which reduced their education and work opportunities. Though many Rohingya consider themselves indigenous to Myanmar, and many historians claim their ethnicity can be traced back to the 12th Century, the government even now remains adamant that the group can be classed only as illegal immigrants; refuting any chance of citizenship and thus limiting their rights.

What makes this already dire situation worse, however, are the repeated military interventions and persecutions targeting the group, which have sparked intermittently since the late 1970s. Such attacks have caused widespread destruction, displacement and death – the 2012 crackdown, for example, resulted in 80 fatalities and more than 90,000 displaced people. Assaults on Myanmar border posts in the Rakhine State in October 2016 by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army sparked violence again between the Rohingya and the Myanmar army and police – the Myanmar government classes this Army as a terrorist organisation, insisting that their heavy-handed approach is merely in the name of counter-extremism – though the Army is resolute in its declarations of a desire to simply defend Rohingya rights. In any case, it is nigh on impossible to defend the violations of human rights committed by forces in the Rakhine area: atrocities which are alleged to include gang rape of women, the incineration of children, and the shooting of refugees attempting to flee. Whilst this violence continues, however, it is unknown just what is occurring in Myanmar, and how many have been impacted – but estimates state that, in the last month alone, 500000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, where many are now living in self-made accommodation in destitution. But for those still in Rakhine, the situation is even worse: denied humanitarian aid by Myanmar’s government, it was only on the 11th October that sufficient food supplies were able to reach villagers – the first time in three months.

President Macron, in a brief interview with Quotidien, a daily infotainment broadcast on French TV channel TMC, dubbed the crisis “genocide”; stating with the brusque Gallic vigour now characteristic to his political style that “we must condemn the ethnic purification which is under way and act”. This was a lucidity of approach matched by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights, who defined the horrors as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – but definitions aside, political procedures have been less than clear. The Rohingya crisis is rapidly transforming into a horror of diabolical proportions: and with some neighbouring nations enforcing stricter border controls, or threatening deportations of Rohingya refugees, it is a horror that will not disappear easily.

Stricter condemnation must be enacted by countries across the world – and not just condemnation, but also tangible efforts to reduce the suffering. Too much has already been needlessly lost: now, we must act.