The Rohingya People

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The Rohingya people in Myanmar have been attacked, raped, displaced and killed over the past years. Tens of thousands of lives are now at risk as the persecution continues.

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Narration: They have been forced to live in modern-day concentration camps, surrounded by government military checkpoints. They are not able to leave, nor to work outside the camps; they do not have access to basic medical care or food. Most aid groups are banned from entering or working in the camps, leaving them to their own devices for sustenance and healthcare. Journalists are usually denied access, a way of ensuring the world doesn’t see their slow, intentional demise. Those who have managed to flee to neighboring countries, have to take shelter in dismal, over-crowded makeshift camps with a constant state of fear they will be imprisoned or deported. They are a Muslim minority of about a million people in Rakhine state in western Myanmar. Despite living in the country for generations, they are treated as illegal immigrants. They are the Rohingya people …

The Rohingyas face regular violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, and other abuses, a situation that has been particularly acute since 2012 in the wake of a serious wave of sectarian violence. Islam is practiced by around 4 per cent of the population of Myanmar, and most Muslims also identify as Rohingya. Yet the authorities refuse to recognize them as one of the 135 ethnic groups making up Myanmar’s population. On this basis, Rohingya individuals are denied citizenship rights in the country of their birth. Government policies, including restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement have institutionalized systemic discrimination against this ethnic group. According to World Bank estimates, Rakhine state, where this minority group lives, is also Myanmar’s least developed state, with more than 78 percent of households living below the poverty threshold. Widespread poverty, weak infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities exacerbate the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.

Since 2012, the region’s displaced population has been forced to take shelter in filthy refugee camps. An estimated 140,000 people were internally displaced within Myanmar, and almost 86,000 made the hazardous journey into neighboring countries. More than 120,000 Muslims, predominantly Rohingya, are still housed in more than forty internment camps. In recent months, tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled the country, many taking to the sea to try to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Their plight has been compounded by the responses of many of Myanmar’s neighbors, which have been slow to take in refugees.

Many Rohingya have turned to smugglers, choosing to pay for transport out of Myanmar to escape persecution. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), fleeing repression and extreme poverty, more than eighty-eight thousand migrants took to sea from the Bay of Bengal between January 2014 and May 2015. The fact that thousands of Rohingya prefer a dangerous boat journey they may not survive to staying in Myanmar speaks volumes about the conditions they face there.

A series of attacks on security posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in October 2016 revived ethnic violence in Rakhine state. The Myanmar security forces, then, launched a large-scale security operation in northern Rakhine State. Amnesty International’s research reveals how the military campaign has gone far beyond what could be considered a proportional response to a security threat.

SOUNDBITE [English] Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher, Amnesty International: “The government is not allowing anyone into northern Rakhine state, so it's been pretty much cut off to the international independent observers since the 9th of October and I think we've documented quite clearly as a pattern of violation that collectively target the Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity and religion which we believe may amount to crimes against humanity.”

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Narration: Multiple eyewitnesses describe how soldiers entered their villages and killed villagers; women, men and children.

SOUNDBITE [Local Language] Rohingya People: “They were moving towards us from the southern direction, setting fires on the way. First we thought they would not come to us. We along with our sons, daughters-in-law, granddaughters, grandsons assembled together at one place. We did not move at all, lest they notice us. They crawled towards us to ensure we do not notice them. Then they started firing. We stretched out over the ground to avoid bullets by Allah's mercy. By then they had started shooting people one by one and setting fire to the houses. What more can I tell you. I can't bear the suffering anymore.”

Narration: The recent bloodshed is the most deadly since hundreds were killed in clashes in 2012. Rohingya advocacy groups estimate about 400 Rohingya have been killed in the military operations. Images released by Human Rights Watch in November showed 1,500 burned homes. An estimated 27,000 Rohingya have fled to the neighboring Bangladesh for safety. Malaysia has described the Myanmar government’s actions as ethnic cleansing and called for the practice to be stopped.

SOUNDBITE [English] Najib Razak, Prime Minister, Malaysia: “... Aung San Suu Kyi ... Enough is enough ... Enough is enough ...The world cannot sit back and watch genocide taking place. They world cannot just say, "Hey, look, it's not our problem." It is our problem ... It is our problem ...”

Narration: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prizewinner and de facto leader of Myanmar, has been criticized for her government’s silence on the treatment of the minority group. As frictions boil over into waves of violence in Rakhine, many analysts are skeptical that the democratic election of a civilian government will do anything to change the fate of the Rohingya.

SOUNDBITE [English] Ravina Shamdasani, Spokesperson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “The High Commissioner today warns the government of Myanmar that it's short-sighted, counterproductive and even callous approach to handling the crisis in northern Rakhine, including its failure to allow independent monitors to access the worst affected areas. This could have grave, long term repercussions for the country and the region.”

Narration: To date, countries to which Rohingya have fled over the years as refugees have been quick to condemn the recent violence and persecution but have not been so quick to recognize the rights of stateless Rohingya refugees within their own territories. Bangladesh, for example, has pushed back thousands of recently arrived Rohingya and has blocked humanitarian assistance to the approximately 300,000 unrecognized Rohingya refugees living in the country. The Failure of the international community to use their leverage over Myanmar’s state to ensure protection and recognize the rights of Rohingya could have dire consequences for human rights, democracy and stability in the country.

The most persecuted people on Earth, Myanmar’s Muslim minority have been attacked, raped, displaced and killed over the past years.

SOUNDBITE [Rohingya] Unknown Woman: “They slit the throats of four influential people of our village in our presence. They rallied about 50 people, including our relatives, in a line. They took some of the pretty girls, they took them to the nearby forest, some others to the hill, and raped them. They knocked my son down on the street and violated me.”

SOUNDBITE [Local Language] Unknown Woman: “The military killed my husband, set fire to our house so we could not get any help to save us, we fled our land and have come here.”

Narration: Tens of thousands of lives are now at risk from a humanitarian crisis after the Myanmar authorities imposed a near blanket ban on aid in northern Rakhine State. Malnutrition levels are critically high in the region where 150,000 people are dependent on food aid for their survival. The suspension of health services is particularly worrying for the sick, as well as pregnant women and new mothers, many of whom now have no way of receiving medical treatment. Rejected almost everywhere they seek safety, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people are now living in limbo across Southeast Asia.

An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable. It is time for the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution. A countless number of Rohingya are dying undocumented in an invisible genocide.  


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