Why is this happening? Why is this human holocaust, happening right before our eyes, not being stopped? Tawakkol Karman, co-recipient of 2011 Nobel peace prize
THE Rohingya, an ethnic group that has been a part of Myanmar for centuries, has been a target of systematic ethnic cleansing since 2010. In plain sight of the world, these people were burned alive, their houses were razed to ground, Rohingya women were gang-raped and their children were murdered in the most horrific ways. The tyranny and persecution became so severe that the United Nations, which usually remains detached in the face of local conflicts, declared the Rohingya ‘world’s most persecuted people’ and called their treatment ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. Since then, many world leaders, in addition to countless human rights organizations, have joined the UN to condemn the attacks and called the actions genocide but the relentless violence pushed on. Vicious attacks forced hundreds of thousands of innocent people to seek shelter in neighboring countries. However, most of the time, they ran into the cold face of rejection. Australia, despite its richness and vast lands, refused to lend a helping help to the Rohingya, even when they were stranded on the ocean on dingy boats without any prospect for help. Yet, the entire world is still being silent regarding this disaster.
In addition, the persecution and tyranny didn’t remain only physical ; there is a systematic effort underway to erase the ethnic group from the collective history and memory of the country. Myanmar’s authorities are unabashedly denying the Rohingya’s past, claiming that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refuse to call them by their name, Rohingya. The identity, heritage and legacy of this ethnic minority, which was a thriving community with ministers in the government until a couple of decades ago, are brazenly denied. Hannah Beech, the Southeast Bureau Chief of the New York Times expresses her shock: “Myanmar’s sudden amnesia about the Rohingya is as bold as it is systematic. Five years ago, Sittwe, nestled in an estuary in the Bay of Bengal, was a mixed city, divided between an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.Walking Sittwe’s crowded bazaar in 2009, I saw Rohingya fishermen selling seafood to Rakhine women. Rohingya professionals practiced law and medicine. The main street in town was dominated by the Jama mosque, an Arabesque confection built in the mid-19th century. The imam spoke proudly of Sittwe’s multicultural heritage.’ But today, the state-enforced amnesia seems to have affected everyone:’ ‘Sittwe’s psyche has adapted to the new circumstances. In the bazaar recently, every Rakhine resident I talked to claimed, falsely, that no Muslims had ever owned shops there.’
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Myanmar’s authorities are trying to “effectively erase all signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognizable terrain.” The remaining Rohingya, those that Myanmar’s army didn’t manage to force out, have to live in ghettos and face restrictions on their freedom of movement, marriage, health-care and education. Even if it is as something as mundane and trivial as needing to visit a neighboring village, they must apply for travel pass. The American actor Matt Dillon, after visiting the squalid camps of the Rohingya, expressed his shock: “No one should have to live like this, people are really suffering. They are being strangled slowly, they have no hope for the future and nowhere to go.”
Similarly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, although a little bit late, called the actions of Myanmar’s army – and authorities – an act of ethnic cleansing and said: “No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued. These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh. After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in Northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.” Despite these calls to stop the violence and establish peace, Myanmar’s authorities remained unaffected and continued their crimes. Since August, an increase in systematic massacres, rape and arson forced a fresh wave of Rohingyas, more than 620,000 people, to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, which is already a deeply impoverished nation. In a surprising turn of events, Myanmar and Bangladeshi authorities recently announced that they reached a deal for the repatriation of some 600,000 Rohingya.
It is clear that Myanmar’s authorities are not going to stop their oppression simply because they are condemned and censured. It is time that the UN and the world’s countries step up and take real action to save helpless people from horrendous savagery. Islamic countries can take the lead and make a decision to form a joint naval force and send capital ships to the region. Their presence off the coast of Myanmar as observers to ensure that no human rights violations occur would surely be a deterring factor. This move could be supported by economic sanctions by those among the international community that wish to be more than mere by-standers to ongoing crimes. There is no doubt that the world can do far more than issue criticism when helpless people are being brutally massacred in a clear-cut case of genocide.
— The writer, author of many books, is based in Islamabad, Turkey.