In a crisis that is deteriorating by the day, thousands of Muslim Rohingya residing in western Rakhine state in Myanmar are fleeing the country, alleging large scale persecution of the ethnic minority community by the state.
An estimated 30,000 Rohingya of the nearly one million Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine have been forced to leave their homes following a bloody crackdown by the army after three border posts were attacked allegedly by the community members on October 9 killing nine law enforcement officers and seizing firearms.
A large number of desperate refugees including women and children have flooded the Bangladesh border in the past few weeks bringing with them horrifying claims of gang rape, torture, murder and destruction to their dwellings by the Myanmar junta.
Eight boats attempting to cross the Naf River separating Rakhine from southern Bangladesh were reportedly turned back by Bangladesh border guards on November 28. Bangladesh does not recognise them as Bengali.
“Based on reports by various humanitarian agencies, we estimate that there could be 10,000 new arrivals in recent weeks,” Vivan Tan, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency was quoted as saying.
“The situation is fast changing, and the actual number could be much higher,” she said. John McKissick, head of refugee agency UNHCR in the Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazar, told BBC that troops were “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses and forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh.
Myanmar has denied allegations of abuse, saying the army is hunting “terrorists” behind raids on police posts. However, satellite images released by US-based Human Rights Watch and video footage smuggled out by Rohingya activists show villages in the area being torched and people fleeing.
Reports also suggest that even those who tried to flee the country were shot dead. More than 130 people are reported to have died during the crackdown so far.
But what is surprising is the silence of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto ruler and Noble laureate, on the crackdown against Rohingya.
Her silence amounts to “legitimising genocide” and entrenching “the persecution of the Rohingya minority,” unnamed researchers at Queen Mary University London were quoted as saying by AFP.
“Despite the fact that this is the most significant test of Suu Kyi’s leadership, the country’s de facto leader has remained remarkably indifferent.”
The estimated one million Rohingya practise Islam and account for nearly a third of Rakhine’s population. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically and religiously. The Myanmar government refuses to grant them citizenship status, and as a result, the vast majority of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless.
The discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government in Rakhine state have led thousands of Rohingya to flee since the late 1970s to countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India. There are an estimated 36,000 Rohingya Muslims in India today, concentrated in the seven states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights wrote in April 2015 that “the longstanding persecution of Rohingya has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea (in the region) since the US war in Vietnam.”
Myanmar’s first civilian government led by Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has been reluctant to advocate for the Rohingya and other Muslims because of the party’s need to cultivate support from Buddhist nationalists.
Suu Kyi, who has long pledged to push for national peace and reconciliation, set up a nine-member commission in August this year led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss options for resolving the ethnic strife in Rakhine state. The committee which is expected to submit its report by the end of August next year is intended to make recommendations to reduce communal tension and support the much-needed development in the impoverished state.
“An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable. It is time for the international community to organise a realistic, workable solution.”— Priscilla Clapp, senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace and former U.S. mission chief in Myanmar said.
Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based advocacy group, continue to appeal to major international players to exert pressure on Myanmar Government to end this human tragedy.
It is also high time for the 10-member ASEAN of which Myanmar is a member, to try and find a solution to the festering crisis. The government has a responsibility to ensure the safety of every citizen living in the country. Thus Myanmar is obliged to take care of all its citizens without any discrimination.
Also, regionally no unified or coordinated ASEAN response has been proposed to address the deepening crisis. States in Southeast Asia have no established legal framework to provide for the protection of rights for refugees.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are personal.)