Up until approximately one month ago, most people were not aware of the Rohingya even though Amnesty International has repeatedly publicised crimes against this people in recent years. Last Thursday night, the UN failed to formulate a meaningful response to the atrocities visited upon the Rohingya people at the hands of the Myanmar military. Verbal outrage will do little to ease the plight of a displaced people, and it is difficult to understand how the UN failed to place an arms embargo on Myanmar despite the Rohingya mass-exit into Bangladesh and countless reports of horrific atrocities and crimes against humanity.
Rohingya – The Background
The UN and the international community have long been aware of the plight of the Rohingya people. Living in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingya are a stateless people. Of the just under 2 million Rohingya, 900’000 live in Bangladesh, 500’000 (up until recently) in Myanmar, 400’000 in Saudi Arabia, 200’000 in Pakistan, 100’000 in Thailand, 40’000 in India, 12’000 in the USA, just over 11’000 in Indonesia, and 200 in Nepal.
Even though the Rohingya have 8th-century roots in Myanmar, the Myanmar law does not recognize them as an ethnic group. As a result, the Rohingya are excluded from education and employment, and the UN described them as one of the most persecuted minorities in 2013. A 1982 law denies the Rohingya citizenship, and the Myanmar military waged horrors on the Rohingya during campaigns in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015, and during 2016-2017. These concerted actions led the UN special investigator, Yanghee Lee, to believe that Myanmar is attempting to expel the entire Rohingya population.
The Events that Lead to the Mass-Exit
On 25 August 2017, the Myanmar military began a campaign to drive the Rohingya from their villages. The Myanmar military said it was responding to a rebel attack on police, during which 12 security forces were killed by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army. However, many observers believe the military’s violent reaction to be a concerted effort to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar. An estimated 200 villages were burned down, and the atrocities against the Rohingya have been compared to ethnic cleansing as well as genocide. The military said it was rooting out rebel forces, but many innocent civilians suffered at the hands of the Burmese forces.
Approximately 400’000 Rohingya have since fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, while 100’000 are staying at camps for internationally displaced people. Reports of torture, violence, rape, burning down entire villages, and persecution have been making international headlines.
The UN estimates the number of dead to be 1’000 while some observers believe that, during the first four weeks since the start of the reprisals, 3’000 were killed by the military, most of them civilians.
Reports from refugees who reached Bangladesh speak of torture, rape, beatings, shootings, and burning down entire villages injuring and killing hundreds of civilians. The Burmese authorities have claimed that villagers were burning down their own villages after satellite images showed hundreds of fires, while also denying journalists as well as reporters access to the area. Observers fear that many Rohingya Muslims remain trapped in Myanmar. As the Burmese government is denying access to aid agencies, food and medical supplies cannot reach those refugees, further worsening their plight.
Most refugees fled on foot or by boat, with one vessel reported to have overturned off the Bangladesh coast. More than 60 refugees are believed to have died.
Condemnation of the atrocities has been unanimous. The UN security council met last Thursday, during which the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres, called the conflict “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare”.
Responding to criticism, Myanmar’s national security adviser denied the accusations, stating that 50% if Rohingya villages remained intact. He went as far as to question the reasons for the mass-exodus and blaming it on what he called “terrorists”.
Despite widespread condemnation of the actions of the Burmese government, the UN did not end the council meeting with a unified statement nor the establishment of an arms embargo. Campaigners see this as a major failure and have since called on governments across the world to suspend any military cooperation with Myanmar. The EU already has an arms embargo against Myanmar, and the UK has vowed to suspend any military cooperation.
Support the Rohingya Refugees
While it is difficult for aid agencies to gain access to Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, most efforts have been focused on the refugee camps in Bangladesh. The following organisations are seeking donations for their on-site work:
- Oxfam: Food, water, etc.
- Medicines Sans Frontieres: Providing medical aid for dehydration, diarrhoea, injuries from violence and rape
- Save the Children: Tents, cooking kits, hygiene kits, helping unaccompanied kids
- Unicef: Food, shelter, water, therapeutic food supplements
- International Rescue Committee: Attempting to help the refugees remaining in the Rakhine region of Myanmar
- World Food Program: Distributing food supplies
The UNHCR has also scaled up its aid efforts and is now distributing life-saving aid to two refugee camps in south-eastern Bangladesh.
Many other non-government organisations are also actively seeking donations for their work with the Rohingya refugees, and it’s worth checking out the work of the charities in your country.
Is There a Solution to the Rohingya Crisis?
The Rohingya crisis originates in century-old ethnic conflicts and swift resolutions seem a remote possibility. The Burmese state recognizes 135 different ethnic groups, the Rohingya not being one of them. With the Burmese government severely limiting access to independent observers as well as failing the recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, finding a resolution appears exceedingly difficult.
Nevertheless, the international community ought to stand resolute and united in its condemnation of all crimes against humanity, while continuing to apply the greatest possible pressure on the Myanmar administration. Providing aid to refugees is the current priority, however, it is the UN and the international community’s responsibility to stand with the Rohingya and ensure their human rights are upheld.