The UN’s World Food Programme has released a bleak report showing the dire situation for many of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. According to the document, over 80,000 children from the persecuted group are ‘wasting’ as they are suffering from acute malnutrition. Much like the food shortages in parts of Africa, this famine has been caused by conflict, and in particular, here, the ongoing violence is between the people of Rakhine, a region of western Myanmar, and the government.
Because of the disruption caused by the violence, only half of food markets in the affected areas were properly functioning, meaning that ‘food prices were highly volatile, and supply of affordable dried fish … was scarce.’ Summing up the overall situation, the UN report stated that ‘the capacity of the most vulnerable population to access food in the long-term is severally [sic] undermined.’
The Rohingya, the group most affected by this famine, are Muslims living in a predominately Buddhist country. Though non-violence is a central tenet of Buddhism, the Rohingya have been the victims of persecution for decades. Despite numbering around 1.3 million, members of the group are not treated as proper citizens of Myanmar. Various vigilante groups like the 969 Movement demand that Rohingya shops be boycotted and that the people themselves be expelled from the country. The anti-Muslim violence that these groups promote is not discouraged by the authorities. In fact, security forces have been accused of killing, raping and torturing numerous Rohingya Muslims. This violence is part of a widescale government crackdown against the group, following an attack on Burmese police officers last October. This retaliation has led to around 140,000 Rohingya people being displaced internally and over 120,000 fleeing abroad. This large-scale exodus of refugees is destabilising relations with Myanmar’s neighbours. Bangladesh has already closed its border with Rakhine State. As this demonstrates, the ongoing conflict in west Myanmar has wider regional ramifications too. The most serious and most immediate impact of the fighting though is the acute malnutrition it is causing.
In the long run, the famine can only effectively be overcome if the conflict comes to an end. That way, the displaced Rohingya will be able to return to Rakhine and can begin to rebuild their local economies. However, the fighting is unlikely to cease anytime soon, as Myanmar’s government is clearly not looking for peace. Since coming to power in March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has reached out to various armed ethnic groups, offering a cease-fire agreement. The Rohingya are not one of the groups included.
In addition to issuing their report on the food situation, the UN has been more directly involved. They recently determined to send a mission to investigate various human rights abuses. However, Myanmar’s government was reluctant to grant them visas for this purpose. The response of other countries in the region has not been entirely helpful, too. Though Bangladesh is understandably concerned about thousands of refugees moving across its borders, it should implement some sort of relief scheme instead of closing itself off entirely: the fate of many fellow Muslims is at stake. Other countries in South East Asia might also be reluctant to help out due to their perception of the Rohingya. The Philippines, who are currently facing an ISIS insurgency, is the main example here. These countries need to realise that the Rohingya are ordinary Muslims, not dangerous extremists. It is unclear what nearby countries could do to bring the conflict in Myanmar to an immediate end, but even voicing their concerns over the mistreatment of the Rohingya could have a positive effect in the long run.
Even if the conflict does not have a short-term solution, the famine it is causing surely requires an immediate response. Though they may chafe at the idea of UN investigators coming to investigate war crimes, Myanmar’s government cannot reject the idea of a much-needed relief mission. If they deny even this, then the treatment of the Rohingya can’t be described as anything other than ethnic cleansing.
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