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Rohingya Muslims: Act before it’s too late

In this Sept. 14, 2013 photo, Muslims travel past a road barrier next to a security checkpoint in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar.Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe, AP

By Aylin Kocaman
November 30, 2013

WHAT happens when you change a country’s name? Can you erase an unwanted past? Is changing the name a new beginning? Do the people in that country and their memories assume a new form? Perhaps that was what the junta in Burma was trying to do by erasing its colonial past by changing the country’s name to Myanmar. And maybe even by erasing some of the country’s minorities. 

Myanmar has been under military rule for 50 years and is an absolute military state. The country has been synonymous with the terms assimilation, genocide, discrimination and even fascism. One expert says, “Calling what has befallen the Rohingya Muslims who make up the minority ‘war’ is putting it mildly. This is a massacre!” 

According to the United Nations, the Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine Province on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh are one of the world’s most persecuted communities. Rakhine has been the homeland of the Rohingya people, distinguished by their language from the predominantly Buddhist people of Myanmar, for hundreds of years. However, the government maintains that they recently migrated there from the Indian subcontinent. Based on that view, the Yangon regime denies the Rohingya people citizenship rights. This has terrible consequences: 

• The Rohingyas have no social status in the country. Since they are not allowed to have more than two children in their marriages — which themselves are subject to permission — more than 60,000 Rohingya children are effectively non-persons. 

• Rohingya Muslims are not allowed to travel; they even have to obtain permission to go from one village to another and have to pay heavy bribes. That restriction severely limits their access to schools, work and market opportunities and health services. 

• Rohingya Muslims have no means of accessing state hospitals or of course, social security. Diseases requiring intensive care or major surgery are treated in clinics lacking proper staff and equipment. Most diseases cannot be treated and the necessary drugs are very expensive. 

The situation of the people of Rohingya, already living under harsh conditions in one of the poorest parts of the world, worsened after the clashes that broke out in 2012. Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims were martyred and hundreds more forced to leave the country. Poor families who had lost all their possessions were forced to flee the country in unseaworthy boats. Bangladesh soon closed its border, and Thailand sent the boats back. Very few of these boats reached land. The rest were left to die. The Myanmar regime, which uses various and sundry gangs to implement its policy of ethnic cleansing, left nothing belonging to the Muslims in those lands after forcing the people of Rohingya out of the country. And that was in any case the whole purpose; the area was being prepared for a natural gas pipeline project extending as far as China. Some analysts have renamed the “Shwe gas pipeline” as the “pipeline of death.” 

Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Myanmar in the company of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) representatives last week was significant. The whole world may have seen the pain of the weeping Rohingya Muslims as they embraced Davutoglu. Happily, optimistic steps were taken in the wake of the visit: The Third Committee of the UN General Council demanded that Myanmar recognize equal citizenship rights for Rakhine Muslims and the EU Commission has promised to step up humanitarian aid for the Muslims in the region. Claus Sorrenson, the director general of the EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department, compared the situation in Rakhine to the ghettoes set up by the Nazis in Europe. “I remember European history, where Jews were locked up in the ghettos,” he said. “We all know how that ended.”

The Nazi holocaust took place before the eyes of the world. History remembers that tragedy all too well and asks, “How could we have let it happen?” The same thing must not happen to the Rohingya Muslims. We must draw world’s attention to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. When a house catches fire, you raise alarm so assistance can be provided; otherwise that house will burn to ashes, and nobody will even be aware of it. We must not let that happen in Rakhine. We must raise our voices and draw attention to the fire. When all eyes are on them, those who wish to set the fire will no longer have the courage to do so.