The Rohingya are one of Burma’s most oppressed groups – an enormous statement when one considers the horrendous overall context.
After all, amongst its many crimes the country’s dictatorial government holds some 1,994 political prisoners, is pursuing a vast Chinese-backed military campaign against the Kachin people and routinely uses civilian captives to carry supplies across minefields.
Yet the persecution of the Rohingya has an additional and abhorrent element: it does not stop beyond Burma’s borders.
Most Rohingyas live in Arakan State- North West Burma. They are a predominantly Muslim people who share many language with traits with Bangladeshis – features which have provided the Burmese military junta in all its various guises (including the current “civilian” facade) with excuses to deny them citizenship.
This leaves the way open for abhorrent and constant abuses by the authorities – including rape, torture and extrajudicial executions.
Marginally less extreme, yet still unacceptable and often devastating practices include the denial of access to education, restrictions on marriage, land confiscations and the destruction of Mosques- all combining to make life unbearable and bringing the Rohingya community “to the brink of extermination.”
Perhaps most ominously, the government has time and time again channelled copious resources into fostering ethnic tensions in a cynical attempt garner at least some public support for elements of what in many quarters is quite rightly deemed to be a genocide.
This appalling situation has led to a long outflow of Rohingya refugees
– seeking to escape the horrors of their homeland or begin a better life for their families elsewhere. Yet shockingly, such aspirations have been met with years of resistance and equally vile abuses from foreign governments.
Many of those who escaped to Bangladesh have been prevented from formally registering, leaving them without food provisions and consequently facing starvation; as well as having no legal recourse in the many cases of rape or extortion by local criminals.
Others in Thailand, including children, are currently being held in dark, overcrowded cells – a disregard of human rights previously demonstrated by Thai authorities setting scores of Rohingya adrift on the open sea. The government of Malaysia, another prominent destination for the refugees, has been outspoken about the need to “turn them back” – rather than meet international obligations of asylum.
Over the years, many strong criticisms of this vicious and abusive climate have been forthcoming. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, itself responsible at many stages for deporting numerous Rohingya civilians back to Burma, has on occasion made positive moves – even raising the issue of persecution directly with the Burmese regime and working on a ‘handbook’ for the Thai authorities. Similarly, national governments including the UK’s, have expressed vocal concerns in various settings; and last week the Organisation of the Islamic Conference adopted a strongly worded and widely welcomed resolution.
Yet for all these words, for all the outcry when abuses take place, for all the solidarity expressed and for all the well-intentioned gestures – very little has changed for Rohingyas on the ground either in Burma or abroad. They are still treated like second class citizens in their own country and like animals abroad. They are still killed and oppressed at home, then caged, raped or murdered when they escape. Change must come.
Of course, things cannot be transformed overnight- but the Rohingya people have suffered for decades. And whilst changing circumstances on Burma is accepted to be a task of epic proportions, improving the rights of refugees in supposedly democratic states such as Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia should be far easier.
Finance, diplomatic pressure and practical support programmes all have their part to play.
For the whole world has a duty to stand with the Rohingyas – in and out of Burma – but whilst words are welcome, such a stand can ultimately only come about through actions…and a dramatic shift in how those fleeing persecution are received.