In a major crisis, Rohingya, often dubbed as ‘Asia’s new boat people’, now seem to have nowhere to go. The Indo-Aryan ethnic group from the Rakhine State of Myanmar, also called the ‘Arakanese Indians’, are considered by the United Nations as the most persecuted minority in the world owing to the brutality they have been facing from the Burmese military and government.
Mostly Muslims who claim to have descended from Arab traders, the Rohingya trace their origins to Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal. But a large number of them have been present in the Buddhist-dominated Myanmar for centuries.
With restrictions on basic human rights such as healthcare and even free movement, the Burmese government has never recognised the ethnic minority as its people and has refused to grant them citizenship, making them the one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
The Burmese government claims they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Subjected to rapes, massacres and landmines, the Rohingya Muslims have been systematically victimised by the Burmese for decades now. Burma’s powerful Buddhist monks do not want them in the country and the Burmese military wants the land inhabited by them to further their economic interests.
The latest outburst of crisis, however, is a result of an attack launched by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on the Burmese military. The ARSA, an armed rebel group that is fighting for an autonomous Muslim State for the Rohingya, is led by Ata Ullah, a Rohingya, who is a Saudi-raised militant born in Pakistan.
The ARSA, classified as a terrorist group by Burma, launched a brutal attack on the military on August 25, killing at least 25 personnel. The military hit back with a massive clearance operation forcing the Rohingya to flee the region. With whole villages being burned down, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called the attacks on the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has put Myanmar “at the top of global concerns,” along with North Korea. “Grievances that have been left to fester for decades have now escalated beyond Myanmar’s borders, destabilising the region. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic,” he pointed out.
But Myanmar’s envoy to the UN has blamed the Rohingya insurgents for the violence in the Rakhine State and said that his country would never tolerate such atrocities. Later, government spokesman Zaw Htay admitted that 176 Rohingya villages, more than 30% of the total in northern Rakhine, are now empty.
According to UN reports, 3,89,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the violent crackdown in Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh since August 25. Most of them are now living in sordid conditions there.
Home to over 160 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. For now, the small yet populated nation has welcomed the sudden outpour of Rohingya refugees. People from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar and Teknaf, which have received huge numbers of Rohingya, have been helping and giving them aid. But with limited resources and people continuously pouring in in large numbers, it will soon be an enormous task for the Bangladeshi government to handle the resultant crisis.
Keeping the upcoming hardships in view, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina while on her visit to the refugee camps called upon the Burmese government to take back the Rohingya. However, the plea went unheard by Myanmar, raising tensions in Bangladesh.
Even as the refugees make their way into several South Asian nations, most of these countries and especially Bangladesh, are looking up to India, which they consider as a regional power, to intervene and remedy the situation. Though India has traditionally been a good support for Bangladesh, it did not immediately act or condemn the Burmese military’s atrocities, which led to the unabated mass displacement of Rohingya.
Rubbing salt into the wounds were Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s comments on the refugees in which he described them as Illegal immigrants, who are a national security threat to India. However, a top aide of the Bangladesh Prime Minister claimed that the Indian Foreign Minister, in a phone conversation with Sheikh Hasina has expressed solidarity over the crisis and promised to push Myanmar to take back the Rohingya.
According to Hasina’s Deputy Press Secretary, Nazrul Islam, Sushma Swaraj assured the PM of India’s full support to Bangladesh’s stance over the Rohingya issue. However, there was no official word from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson downright criticised Aung San Suu Kyi saying “the suffering of the Rohingya people was disgraceful”. Johnson pointed out that while he admired Suu Kyi’s fight against Myanmar’s former military junta, “it is now vital for her to use that moral capital, that moral authority to make the point about the suffering” of the Rohingya.
However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played the diplomatic card reiterating support for civilian leader Suu Kyi, who is facing growing pressure to speak out over the military’s conduct.
Several Muslim-majority countries — from Turkey to Malaysia — have condemned the violent persecution of the Rohingya but haven’t engaged in helping solve the crisis. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi recently met Suu Kyi and then visited her Bangladeshi counterpart AH Mahmud Ali, offering to help resolve the crisis.
But neither Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) or Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have stepped up to help mediate a diplomatic solution. The UN and the European Union are working on improving dire humanitarian conditions on the ground, but have made no progress on solving the larger problem that has pushed the Rohingya out of their homes.
This had led to a situation where the Rohingya can call no land their own.