The Rohingya, an ethnic minority located in the Rakhine State region of Myanmar (or Burma), have arguably become the world’s most persecuted people under the wrath of a Buddhist leadership.
Over the past week, world leaders and members of the United Nations have discussed in length the human rights abuses directed at this governmentally unrecognized group. On Sept. 11, according to the New York Times, the United Nations high commissioner of human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, found Myanmar’s military culpable for the violations of human rights in the country. These blatant offenses against the Rohingya include a history of arson, rape, mass exoduses, and almost daily genocide, all carried out by the military.
While official statements from Myanmar’s government continue to cite the Rohingya as responsible for the violence and crime taking place in their villages, al-Hussein refuses to entertain the accusations. Focusing on the continual falsehoods spread by the persecuting Buddhist leadership, al-Hussein and other UN members recognize a clear example of “ethnic cleansing.”
Ethnic cleansing involves the mass expulsion of a documented, or in this case “undocumented,” ethnic minority. The Rohingya have been considered non-citizens within their own country since British colonialism ended in Southeastern Asia in the 1940s. According to like Al Jazeera, the Rohingya represent the Muslim population in the Rakhine State and have faced no actual recognition from their government as an “official ethnic group,” of which there are more than 135 in Myanmar alone. Since this colonial liberation, the Buddhist majority have continued to deny the existence of the Muslim population within their borders. They also have publicly denied any rights associated with citizenship, such as travel and voting rights.
Despite these past grievances against the Rohingya, why are there still cases of ethnic cleansing occurring? Without the proper intervention of the government leaders in Myanmar, the minority will be dominated by the majority. And, many could argue, the reason for the military intervention against the Rohingya is being enacted by government figures. Even with the clear signs of power abuses by the military, official statements from the leaders claim the Rohingya represent a violent, terrorist organism.
In reality, the persecution of this group is nothing new. Since the 1970s, Rohingya refugees have sought protection from Myanmar’s abuses and fled to the surrounding countries of Malaysia, Thailand, and the largest numbers today are continuing to move into Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh has allowed large scores of refugees to enter, more recently they have had to turn the refugee population away. Since this most recent outbreak, Al Jazeera has documented more than “370,000 have fled the violence, with thousands trapped in a no-man’s land between the two countries, according to the UN refugee agency” or have been forced to return to Myanmar.
The term “ethnic cleansing” has been thrown at Myanmar’s government leaders throughout their history, but have not been taken seriously by those responsible. Refugee accounts and world responses have generated more interest over the week as new coverage grows and more light is shed in this social media-driven universe.
In terms of better understanding and helping this struggling ethnicity, what can people do? How can nations enact a change or hold Myanmar’s leaders accountable when these abuses have continued for decades?
If Aung San Suu Kyi (State Chancellor and Nobel-Peace Prize recipient) and Myanmar’s government and military continue to deny the existence of “ethnic cleansing” and denounce the idea of the Rohingya as an ethnicity in the Rakhine State, then nothing will change. Despite the conflicting ideas of culpability, there is a clear line between government intervention into terrorism and straight persecution of an identity. This could reflect the need for a new leader, and even the redaction of Aung San Suu Kyi’s award.
The UN seems on the right track to aiding the Rohingya. However, this group is displaced, with few travel options and even fewer resources necessary for survival. If a nation can band together to help fellow citizens during natural disasters, then the major world leaders should consider this (and all examples) of ethnic cleansing as a natural disaster. A number of people are being wiped out due to backward thinking and the denial of an inclusive reality.