An Unknown Crisis, An Ignored People
On 15 May 2020, it was reported that the first coronavirus case has been detected in one of Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, according to Aljazeera. This settlement in southern Bangladesh is home to a million refugees and fears have risen as to the possible fallout if the infection spreads. The presence of COVID-19 in a densely populated refugee camp poses a huge problem and a possible humanitarian crisis, but my issue was that I had no idea who these refugees were. I had never heard of the Rohingya nor did I know what they were seeking asylum from.
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities. They are described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world.” In 2017, Myanmar’s military began an ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority group that involved burning villages, raping women, and killing thousands of men, women and children. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement.
In 2018, UN investigators accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent.” The accusations have led to widespread dismissal from the Myanmar government and investigations have turned up insufficient evidence. Beyond sanctions from members of the international community and condemnation from peace organizations, the responses to this issue have been rather quiet. I believe that most of the world sees the event as over, that the extension of power by the Myanmar government and the Buddhist Bamar majority is a natural result of political and cultural change. The world has failed the Rohingya people, and it’s important to see how this trend could unfortunately continue across other cultural minorities and stateless populations.
A Look at The Response
The persecution of ethnic minorities is often the result of a seizure of political power, fighting between militant factions or blatant hate for a minority population. In the case of the Rohingya people, all three boxes are checked. The civilian population has been caught in the crossfire between the Arakan Army, a separatist militant group in the western Rakhine State, and the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military. But the destruction of the Rohingya people pre-dates the senseless acts of violence that targeted the group in 2017. In 2014, they were denied citizenship and excluded from the 2014 census, as reported by the BBC. Myanmar refutes the Rohingya’s historical claims to the land and assert that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The divide is further accentuated with linguistic, ethnic and religious distinctions between the dominant Buddhist groups, and the Rohingya. It is a systemic problem.
Initial rulings by the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to protect the Rohingya from being persecuted and killed, according to the CFR. The U.S, Australia, Canada and the European Union have imposed sanctions on military leaders and many nations have upped their humanitarian assistance as well. Violence and discrimination remain despite these efforts. Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are trying to cope with the Rohingya who have sought refuge in their respective countries, but many of these states lack the necessary infrastructure to sufficiently aid displaced populations. Human trafficking, exploitation and terrible living conditions run rampant through many of the refugee camps. The rules of noninterference in international law prohibit vigilante states from taking action against Myanmar without enacting some form of authorized conflict. Essentially, the world is left to watch as investigation after investigation leads to nothing but denial and insufficient evidence.
The global response’s ineffectiveness is only underscored by the most recent wave of violence reported at the end of April, where the Myanmar military is accused of launching air and artillery raids in civilian areas in Rakhine and Chin states, killing and injuring “scores of adults and children,” as reported by Aljazeera. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi, de-facto leader of Myanmar, continues to work alongside the Tatmadaw and contest any challenge to the legitimacy of the government, and military action taken against the Rohingya. With Suu Kyi once held as a democratic icon and Buddhism believed to be a relatively nonviolent religion, the situation is woefully ironic. One can’t help but feel that vulgar nationalism has eroded the humanitarian ideals that once made the world whole, the principles that guided us to work and care for our fellow man.
An Attempt at Reconciliation
So how do we solve a humanitarian crisis such as the one facing the Rohingya? The circumstances parallel the disparities between the Jewish and Arab populations of Israel, the Muslim and Hindu populations of India and Pakistan, the Catholic and Protestant populations of Ireland, and the Jewish and Christian populations of Nazi Germany. It is the unfortunate problem that arises between peoples of different colors and creeds. Such polarity is only heightened by the discriminatory social systems and aggressive military action imposed by the group in power. When the humanitarian crisis is relatively contained and the actions of the oppressive regime do not extend into the sovereignty of other countries, intervention becomes hard to justify.
Myanmar has never crossed its borders in order to persecute and kill the Rohingya, but the ramifications of their actions are felt throughout the region. It is also important to note that intervention is unlikely to be economically beneficial for Western powers that indulge in being the white knights of global conflict. While the U.S would step in at the drop of a hat if any humanitarian crisis involves oil supplies in the Middle East, urgent action is absent when the plight does not fit squarely into the spreadsheet of economic interest. Members of the international community seemingly have no issue getting their hands dirty, so long as it’s from the mud under their own shoes.
Nonetheless, the Rohingya crisis requires a more actionable and practical response, but one that is also grounded in a fundamental shift in cultural understanding. At the root of the issue is a misinformed and dogmatically driven hate towards the Rohingya culture from the Buddhist majority. The animosity is like that of two lions both trying to lay claim to a piece of territory, the important part being that neither lay claim to it from the beginning. Myanmar, much like other places across the globe, saw thousands of people from a plethora of origins traverse the land and settle to call it home. As time went on, those people began to assimilate to larger and more general cultures.
The crisis is not the fault of the Buddhist religion, but rather of its cultural identity amongst the Bamar majority. As is so often the case, religion is used as a means of organizing people and then wrongfully adopted as being the primary motivator behind the people’s actions. The Bamar wish the Rohingya gone simply because they see them as a threat to their temporary authority. Much like the rustic white population of the U.S, they see minorities as a looming possibility of losing control; and like any other human, they want to stay in control. Majorities will employ rather Hobbesian ideas, citing the right of the stronger and the fact that life is poor, nasty, brutish and short. They disenfranchise the minorities in the hope that they will simply “go back to where they come from” because it certainly could not have been where they themselves are from. How disgusting would it be to share a home, an origin, with a people so different than I? This is the fundamental issue: tolerance.
At the center of peace is an understanding of the other. Tolerance is about helping fellow humans regardless of their identity and their actions, and the Rohingya have tolerated enough. The international community must stop hiding behind fruitless investigations and take initiative against the Myanmar government. The UN, as the global conglomerate of authority, must enact strong sanctions against the Myanmar government and look at securing a safe haven for the Rohingya that does not burden neighboring countries. The Rakhine State should be established as a sovereign nation for the Muslim minority and given protection from the Myanmar government. It echoes one of the solutions proposed for the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Instead of allowing a cultural minority to be persecuted by a majority, simply establish a sovereign state for the minority so that everyone lays claim to something.
It sounds idealistic, yes, but it is a practical and nonviolent solution. It would give the Rohingya people power and a dignified identity. Should Myanmar extend their reach into the independent Rakhine State, then they would be risking a greater global conflict than they have seen in the past. It is a solution where everyone wins. My hope is that we recognize such oppression as soon as it occurs and take large leaps in order to bring it to a swift end. In the times facing us now, we as a people must not be afraid to help one another out of the fear that we become more alike in the process.