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The annihilation of Burma’s Rohingya and why the world must act

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia Nov 25, 2016. Pic: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

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THE warnings are categorical.

Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has been calling for an immediate end to the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. More than a year ago, a study published by the International State Crime Initiative in London declared the Rohingya people were facing the “final stages of genocide”. Last week, a senior United Nations official told the BBC that Myanmar’s government is seeking the ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya population.

The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for decades the iconic champion of democracy and human rights in Burma and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been shamefully silent on this issue. Behind closed doors earlier in the year, she even advised the U.S. embassy not to refer to the term Rohingya. Bizarrely, Harvard University decided to award Suu Kyi its ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ award in September, speaking to the world’s tacit neglect of the human rights of Rohingya peoples.

The situation is now beyond crisis point.

The Rohingya are stateless, Muslim people whom the majority Buddhist population view as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, although they have lived within Burmese borders for many generations. Extremist Buddhist nationalists have long exacerbated tensions by openly calling for pogroms against Myanmar’s Muslim community. Since June 2012, tensions between the ethnic Burmese and the Rohingya have led to systemic persecution of the minority group. Inter-ethnic violence continued into 2013, leading to the refugee ‘crisis’ in Southeast Asia last year.

In this photo taken Jan.1, 2013, Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are  intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand. Officials said the 73 refugees from Myanmar's Rohingya minority found adrift off a Thai resort island will be repatriated to their homeland. Phuket provincial Governor Maitri Inthusut said Wednesday they declared they were unable to continue their hoped-for journey to Malaysia due to exhaustion and fear of mishaps at sea. (AP Photo)

In this photo taken Jan.1, 2013, Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand. Officials said the 73 refugees from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority found adrift off a Thai resort island will be repatriated to their homeland. Phuket provincial Governor Maitri Inthusut said Wednesday they declared they were unable to continue their hoped-for journey to Malaysia due to exhaustion and fear of mishaps at sea. (AP Photo)

After the October attacks on police outposts that were blamed on Muslim insurgents, security forces have cracked down hard on Rohingya areas in Rakhine state.

Up until early November, the government had not even granted access for aid organisations and foreign diplomats to provide assistance in the region.

Hundreds have been killed, houses burnt and rights groups report systemic rape of Rohingya women. Some 30,000 people were displaced in just a week.

A United Nations representative has asserted that “the recent escalation of violence may lead to more incidents of sexual assault, and therefore I call upon the government of Myanmar to take measures to stop this spiral of violence, particularly against women and girls.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar denies wrongdoing and claims its security forces are operating within the rule of law. In the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi has reportedly told foreign diplomats that her country is being treated unfairly.

(File) Myanmar leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi was bestowed the Harvard 2016 “Humanitarian of the Year Award” in September. Pic via Facebook.

(File) Myanmar leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi was bestowed the Harvard 2016 “Humanitarian of the Year Award” in September. Pic via Facebook.

It is clear, therefore, that Burma cannot manage this issue on its own without further decimating the Rohingya population.

Conversely, there has been some good news for the Rohingya diaspora in recent months. The UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) last week announced in Malaysia that it was working with the government on a pilot program to allow Rohingya refugees to legally work in the country, many of whom have lived there for decades. Some 55,000 Rohingya are currently residing in Malaysia, which provides greater physical safety but denies them access to formal education, employment and healthcare.

The Indonesian immigration department has announced that more than 102 Rohingya refugees that have been languishing in Aceh and elsewhere in the archipelago will be relocated in preparation for resettlement in third countries – namely the U.S.

Still, for the roughly one million Rohingya remaining in Myanmar at risk of murder, rape or displacement, these minor interventions mean nothing.

Firstly, ASEAN, other nations in the region, and resettlement countries like Australia and the U.S. must raise their intake of Rohingya refugees. Indonesia and Malaysia offered to provide resettlement to 7,000 Rohingya in 2015, yet again this is only a tiny fraction of the persecuted population. The U.S. has and continues to resettle several thousand Rohingya refugees, while even the distant African nation of Gambia offered protection to people fleeing Myanmar.

The nations of ASEAN need to open their doors to the Rohingya, while the international community must urgently devise a large-scale solution for permanent resettlement.

Secondly, the international community must openly and forcefully condemn state violence against Rohingya and push Myanmar to stop committing mass human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.

The U.S. has now described the situation as “dangerous”, expressing grave concern at the recent sitting of the UN Security Council. In a perverse bit of diplomacy, Malaysia has threatened to withdraw from the ASEAN Cup football tournament given Burma’s violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Indonesia has offered more substantial action, its Foreign Affairs ministry stating that “the government has been pushing for the government of Myanmar to immediately remedy the situation”. Typically reserved in international affairs, Muslim-majority Indonesia has closely followed the persecuted Rohingya population, particularly after refugees began arriving on its shores last year. Indeed this week, Muslim students rallied outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta to protest the persecution of Rohingya.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s administration has declared its support for promoting democratic governance, human rights and the principle of decentralisation – a vital aspect of Indonesia’s archipelagic democracy – stating “we are ready to help if they want to learn from our experience about creating harmony between a multi-ethnic population. Bilaterally we will continue to cooperate with Myanmar.”

John Coyne, head of the Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has argued that indeed Jakarta is the Rohingya’s last hope. Nevertheless, Indonesia’s defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has also suggested to Myanmar that it implement a form of his ministry’s ‘Bela Negara’ or State Defence program. This is an appalling recommendation for a country grappling with communal violence, given it would effectively further militarise a state tepidly transitioning from military dictatorship to democracy.

In any case, mere suggestions and recommendations will not address the urgency of this unfolding humanitarian crisis.

And whatever the solution, other states need to act quickly.

If the international community does not want another Rwanda or Bosnia on its conscience, the time to save the Rohingya people is long overdue.