Four years after a violent campaign against the Rohingya people in which 200 died and 120 000 were displaced the persecution continues, writes Azad Essa.
Upon the invitation of US President Barack Obama, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi will be visiting the White House next week. It will be her first trip to America since she won a landmark election late last year. And as the country’s foreign minister, Suu Kyi faces scrutiny of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya community in the Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s transition in 2010 from a military-led government to a democratically elected leadership has come with drastic consequences for the 1.3 million Muslim people who make up the Rohingya community.
History has disenfranchised them.
The Rohingyas – loosely translated as “inhabitant of Rohang”- in reference to the arethe 1.3 million Muslim people who make up the Rohingya community.
History has disenfranchised them.
Following the exit of the British from the region in the 1950s, the state embarked on a “Burmanisation” project that sought to build a society based on “racial purity”. The Rohingya were particularly hit by the project; they were summarily stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and effectively rendered stateless.
The Rohingyas – loosely translated as “inhabitant of Rohang”- in reference to the area now known as the Rakhine state in Myanmar, have lived in the region for generations. Many others are said to have also arrived from Bengal in the early 20th century as traders and workers. It is for this reason that Myanmar government, including Aung Sun Suu Kyi refuse to call them “Rohingya” for in their eyes it lends credibility to their belonging. Instead they are described as “Bengalis” and forced to the periphery of political, economic and social affairs. The Ministry of Information recommends that the community be described as “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State”.
In August Suu Kyi appointed a nine member panel – to find “lasting solutions to the complex and delicate issues” in the Rakhine. The move comes four years after a set of images shared widely on social media platforms purportedly showing the aftermath of a violent campaign meted out against the Rohingya community in the Rakhine state in Myanmar.
The photos turned out to be fake but the accompanying story was authentic.
At least 200 died in the violence in 2012, and 120 000 others were chased from their homes – first by organised Buddhist thugs and then by the army itself – and forced to languish in squalid displacement camps, where they remain. The more daring amongst them took to overcrowded and rickety boats on the Andaman sea, in a bid to escape to Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. And unbeknown to most, another 100 000 are displaced in the northern Shan province.
All these years later, and little has changed.
In late June, the UN human rights office said it had found “a pattern of gross violations against the Rohingya . [which] suggest a widespread or systematic attack … in turn giving rise to the possible commission of crimes against humanity if established in a court of law.” It said that “laws and policies are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) agreed, describing a “growing ultra-nationalism [that] has spurred discrimination and threats against Rohingya and other Muslims that the authorities have been unwilling to address”.
While the physical violence meted out to the community may be intermittent, the treatment of the Rohingya is steeped in structural discrimination. Describing them as “the world’s most persecuted minority” is not hyperbole. They need special permission to marry, practise their religion, receive health care, or even travel. “Myanmar treats the Rohingyas as badly as the old South Africa treated blacks,” The Economist said.
And so horrific the violence meted out to them, that Desmond Tutu dared to call it a “slow genocide”.
In fact, not only are the Rohingya disenfranchised in Myanmar, the international community has also done little to help. Malaysia and Indonesia have both refused boats full of Rohingya community fleeing their persecution. Bangladesh, while home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, routinely turn boats away.
There is a reason for the international apathy to the persecution of these people.
Myanmar is has one of the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world.
Under the guise of “democracy”, the stage has been set for Myanmar to become a major pivot in the rush to secure energy resources in the region in an attempt to ward off rising Chinese influence. By doing so, the western world is willing to “forgive” Myanmar for some of its shortcomings. Companies like the UK, US, The Netherlands, Australia, and Italy have already signed contracts with Myanmar. For others like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Myanmar is seen as the entry point into Asia.
The China-Myanmar pipeline – the first overland pipeline to China from the Middle East opened in 2015. It allows gas and oil to be transported to China at a fraction of the cost and minimal risk and travels through both the Rakhine and Shan states, where locals have been aggrieved for scant compensation for the appropriation of land impacted by the construction of the pipeline. No surprise then that it is precisely these two states where the Rohingya have been killed, maimed, persecuted and driven from their homes.
The international community is not about to sacrifice possible political influence over Myanmar by forcing the Rohingya issue. Neither, in these harsh economic times, are they willing to forgo the rich deposits in pursuit of justice. And as it happened under apartheid, everyone who turns a blind eye, risks complicity in the crimes committed against these people.
Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the co-founder of The Daily Vox.