A world without Rohingyas

SEPTEMBER 10 — A few months ago, I found myself in conversation with a very gentle Myanmarese man.

Sitting surrounded by his extensive art collection, he was funny and warm. And in the way conversations meander, we got to talking about Myanmar and the Rohingya people.

The sudden change in his demeanour from relaxed to assertive was telling even before he told me he was in complete agreement with the actions of his government on this issue (even if he disagreed with them on other things) because to him the Rohingyas were not Myanmarese.

I think there is no need to emphasise the irrelevance of his argument. Because as I pointed out to him (even though it was incredulous that I even needed to say something so fundamental) they were still people; they were in most cases born in Myanmar and to systematically eradicate a people is genocide.

The dictionary defines genocide as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.

Ethnic cleansing is the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority to achieve ethnic homogeneity. Both acts entail crimes against humanity; death and suffering inflicted on a population on a large scale.

The Rohingyas, a small Muslim minority who live largely in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, are being killed and driven from their villages by the Myanmar army, police and villagers from the Rakhine Buddhist community.

This photo taken on September 6, 2017 shows Rohingya refugees in Ukhiya bringing the body of a fellow Rohingya killed by the Myanmar military to shore. — Picture by AFP
This photo taken on September 6, 2017 shows Rohingya refugees in Ukhiya bringing the body of a fellow Rohingya killed by the Myanmar military to shore. — Picture by AFP

Hundreds are reported dead and thousands have fled across the border to Bangladesh.

While the last few weeks have seen an uptick in violence, the persecution of the Rohingyas is hardly a new development. The Rohingyas have been systematically discriminated against for years.

They are denied Myanmar citizenship and in a reflection of South African apartheid or even Nazi era Nuremberg laws, there are restrictions on their movement from specific villages and even on their marriages and the number of children they can have.

They have also long been subject to periodic attacks and pogroms following tension with Buddhist villagers and the military.

The latest round of attacks follows claims by the Myanmar government that armed Rohingyas attacked police posts on the Myanmar Bangladesh border.

However, there has been no external verification of the government’s claims. And even attacks surely wouldn’t justify retribution against the entire civilian Rohingya population.

Two years ago, I wrote about the Rohingyas (http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/surekha-a-yadav/article/rohingyas-a-worthless-people) and sadly today very little has improved. In fact, it has gotten worst.

Over the past few days, it is estimated that almost 100,000 Rohingyas have fled towards the Bangladesh border — the Rohingyas are thought to number not much more than a million people so this is near 10 per cent of the population.

A small impoverished population with few regional or global allies, the Rohingyas face the real possibility of elimination. At the current rate in years — not decades — Myanmar will be free of Rohingyas.

Given the extreme nature of the threat to an entire people you would think there would have been a global outcry. But there hasn’t really much said as the odd headline has been largely overshadowed by Kim Jong Un and Donald Trumps’ antics.

Even regionally the response has been muted to the point of being non-existent.

At the 30th Asean summit held only months ago, the Rohingyas were not mentioned. This is pursuant to Asean’s long-standing policy of non-interference in members domestic matters.

However, the Rohingya issue is surely no longer purely domestic.  Over the past few years, tens of thousands of persecuted Muslims have fled and Asean members are now subject to waves of Rohingya boat people.

Thailand and Malaysia have had to deal with thousands of refugees — meanwhile populations in Muslim-majority Asean nations have grown angry at the plight of Muslims in Myanmar.

The leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia have criticised the Myanmar government but there has been no systematic, economic or diplomatic response from Asean or any South-east Asian nation.

Only external pressure and the palpable threat to investment and trade flows is likely to pressure the central government into action, but no one seem interested in mediating and damaging their relations with the Myanmar government over the impoverished and marginal Rohingyas.

Which is why even into the 21st century in the age of 24-hour new coverage, global information sharing and immediate video uploads allowing us to see the plight of the people first hand it is still likely we will see the disappearance or displacement of an entire people.

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