A call for action against Rohingya persecution

A once-taboo word is finally being spoken, but current attention on Rohingya’s plight remains insufficient.
By: , /
June 10, 2015
Rohingya Muslim
Rohingya Muslim children attend religious school at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar May 21, 2015. Picture taken May 21, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The last few weeks have seen a media surge in reporting on the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the democratic reboot of the militarized Burmese state.

For the past three years in particular, this ethnic Muslim community has been subject to some of the most atrocious abuses, infringing nearly all the rights theoretically guaranteed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” The country’s 1982 Citizenship Law instantaneously revoked legal protection for the Rohingya after hundreds of years of heritage in Myanmar and set the stage for decades of persecution and torment.

Today, the magnitude of the Rohingya’s anguish is irrefutable and their official status as “stateless” fails to register the extent of the hardships they have to face.

Since 2012 riots targeting the group, Fortify Rights, an organization advocating against the Rohingya’s subjection has documented countless crimes against humanity and discriminatory laws, including restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, healthcare and livelihood. While such abuses are sufficient to demand a global response under international law, reports of killing, harassment and physical destruction targeted at the group unequivocally renders the Rohingya victims of a “slow genocide,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently reiterated.

Sarnata Reynolds, Refugees International’s Senior Advisor on Human Rights, substantiates the accusation that the Rohingya are victims of a targeted persecution. “People don’t become stateless, almost ever, by accident,” she said in a recent interview.

The extremist Buddhist group, 969, has choreographed a widespread anti-Muslim ethnocentrism that, it claims, counters plans for an Islamic takeover of Myanmar by “Bengali nationals.” The degree to which this fear mongering rhetoric has received popular support is astonishing, especially given that Muslims make up only 30 percent of the population in Rakhine, the state in which they are most populous. Their persecution, therefore, is a product of inflammatory hate-speech founded on dubious assertions of “foreign invasion.”

While the Rohingya’s recent media presence is a welcomed development, the international community has long been too silent. For years Myanmar has refused to even recognize the word “Rohingya” while the world quietly abided. Worse, some UN official and diplomats have themselves erased the name from their vocabulary. The recent Oslo Conference on Myanmar’s Systematic Persecution of Rohingyas involving several Nobel laureates was a major step in the right direction, but took far too long to mobilize and the UN has yet to enforce the registration of these stateless individuals. Further, calls at the conference and in the media for local opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out on the issue have largely gone unanswered.

We also need to turn our attention to the significant failure of regional powers.

Indeed, members of ASEAN have largely remained silent, with even the most developed countries, including Australia, refusing or reluctant to accept even a single refugee. Worse, thousands of Rohingya are being turned back upon arrival to Malaysia. One of the few states that has offered to accept all fleeing Rohingya is Gambia.

Here in North America, the story is very much the same.

In Canada, Senator Mobina Jaffer is among the few voices speaking out.

“As a country that is deeply rooted in fostering multicultural values and promoting diversity, Canada should commit to providing support to the Myanmar Rohingya Muslims,” she said in a statement.

With Canada’s reputation as a leader in human rights plummeting, can Canadians expect the current government to step up to the plate?

With Canada’s reputation as a leader in human rights plummeting, can Canadians expect the current government to step up to the plate? The United States has been more vocal. Over the last few years the U.S. Senate has published reports about the worsening state of the Rohingya’s persecution and Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar did involve the once “profane” utterance of the word “Rohingya.” An important, albeit insufficient, gesture.

Since 2010, the transition away from Myanmar’s closed past towards democracy has meant a massive influx of business interest, a loosening of economic and political sanctions, and a tremendous socialization into the world order. Obama and U.N. officials have rightly stressed that this democratic transition will hinge on Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. However, the regime is hedging its bet that their “liberalization” is more consequential to the international community and to business investors than their human rights record.

In the run-up to Myanmar’s national elections, slated for October or November, this bet has certainly paid off domestically. Embroiled in a strategic game, the government is aware that the discrimination of the Rohingya is good politics as it increases the salience of the ethnic vote.

Yet the world has failed to call Myanmar’s bluff and, as long as its government does not feel the pressure to change its attitude towards religious and ethnic minorities, it will not flinch.

In 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the “Human Rights upfront” initiative to “ensure the UN system takes early and effective action to prevent or respond to large-scale violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.” Is it all hot air?

In the absence of serious consequences imposed on Myanmar’s current regime, the global community cannot claim they “didn’t know,” but rather, world leaders and institutions are now well aware, and are playing the game nonetheless.