Rohingya, the world's most persecuted minority
The Rohingya are often said to be the world's most persecuted minority. They are an ethnic Muslim group in a majority Buddhist country, Myanmar, and make up around one million of the total 50 million population. They hail from the country's northwest and speak a Bengali dialect; almost all live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states, with a population of three million. About 140,000 Rohingya live in ghetto-like camps that they cannot leave without gaining government permission. They are not regarded as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups, and are denied citizenship under Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law, which essentially renders them stateless.
To get citizenship, they need to prove they have lived in Myanmar for a long period of time, but the paperwork is often unavailable or simply denied to them. As a result, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services are heavily restricted. They do not have the right to vote, and even if they are able to jump through all the citizenship hoops, they have to identify as "naturalized" as opposed to Rohingya, and strict limits are placed on them entering certain professions like medicine, law or running for office.
Prior to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis, and the military crackdown in 2016 and 2017, the Rohingya population in Myanmar was around 1.1 to 1.3 million. They reside mainly in the northern Rakhine townships, where they make up 80–98% of the population. Many Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, to areas along the border with Thailand, and to the Pakistani city of Karachi. More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar live in camps for internally displaced persons and are not allowed by authorities to leave.
Myanmar views of Rohingya
Myanmar, also known as Burma, views its Rohingya population as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. In October 2012, in the wake of violent riots, Myanmar's President, Thein Sein, asked the UN to resettle the Rohingya in other countries, saying, "We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities, and we cannot accept them here." Since 2012, the UNHCR estimates that more than 110,000 people, mostly Rohingya, left on flimsy boats to countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Many first cross the border into Bangladesh, from where they try to get to countries with higher incomes and better treatment—though human rights abuses still exist in Southeast Asian countries in the forms of employment exploitation and discrimination. In short, speaking up for the Rohingya in Myanmar would likely be viewed as going against the Buddhist majority, and, therefore, considered a dicey political move.
International media and human rights organizations have often described Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. According to the United Nations, the human rights violations against Rohingyas could be termed as "crimes against humanity".
The miserable life of Rohingya
Rejected by the country they call “home” and unwanted by its neighbors, the Rohingya are impoverished, virtually stateless and for decades have been fleeing Myanmar in droves.
In recent months, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. They have told horrifying stories of rapes, killings and house burnings, which the government of Myanmar—formerly Burma—has claimed are "false" and "distorted". The UN has accused security forces in Myanmar of committing serious human rights abuses, including gang-rape, savage beatings and child killing.
One mother recounted how her five-year-old daughter was murdered while trying to protect her from rape. In another case, an eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while five security officers gang-raped his mother. Nearly half of those interviewed by the UN said a family member had been killed. Of 101 women interviewed, 52 said they had been raped or had experienced sexual violence from the security forces. Many told investigators that members of the army or police had burned hundreds of Rohingya homes, schools, markets, shops, and mosques.
Tun Khin, from the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, says Rohingyas are suffering "mass atrocities" perpetrated by security forces in the northern part of Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s reply to the claims
The Myanmar government has vociferously denied alleged abuses; but UN officials have told that the Rohingya are being collectively punished for militant attacks, with the ultimate goal being ethnic cleansing. At the same time, the Myanmar government denies them citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—a common attitude among much Burmese. The predominantly Buddhist country has a long history of communal mistrust, which was allowed to simmer, and was at times exploited, under decades of military rule. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya already live in Bangladesh, having fled there over many decades. Bangladesh has summoned the ambassador of Myanmar to express "deep concern" at a military operation that has forced thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims to flee border villages and to stop the influx of people from Rakhine State. But Myanmar denies reports that its soldiers have burned down villages and killed those who return.
Earlier, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which it said showed that hundreds of homes had been razed in Rohingya villages. Myanmar denied the claim, saying that the Rohingya were setting fire to their own homes to attract international attention. Some Rohingya who has arrived in Bangladesh say women are being raped, men killed and homes burned. Myanmar denies this. Reports cannot be independently verified as the government blocks international journalists and aid workers from the area. A Rohingya community leader, speaking on condition of anonymity have said, "We have information the Myanmar army is killing those (Rohingya) people who are being pushed back from Bangladesh; that anyone sent back could be killed”. Attacks on Myanmar border guard posts in October last year, by a previously unknown insurgent group, ignited the biggest crisis of Aung San Suu Kyi 's year in power, with more than 75,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in the ensuing army crackdown. The Myanmar military has denied the accusations, saying it was engaged in a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.
Facilities for Rohingya
According to a report by UNHCR, only 50 percent of refugee children worldwide are enrolled in primary school, 22 percent in secondary and one percent in tertiary education. For Rohingya children in Malaysia, the outlook is even worse. As of December 2016, just over a third—39 percent—of school age children have access to any education, while the remainder is classified as being out of school, according to UNHCR’s education unit in Malaysia. What education they receive is in 120 informal learning centers throughout Malaysia, run by the refugee community or faith-based organizations, with support from UNHCR. Many struggles with limited funding, overcrowded classrooms, and few resources. “Any support towards education access to refugee children will enable UNHCR to gradually phase out the informal parallel education system that it currently supports, and channel the resources towards programs that mutually benefit the refugee children as well as those from the host community,” said Mimi Zarina Amin, head of education at UNHCR Malaysia.
How can Muslims help?
South East Asian countries generally do not criticize each other about their internal affairs, which is a key principle of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). However, the current situation has seen some strident criticism from Myanmar's Muslim-majority neighbors, along with protests. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, questioned Aung San Suu Kyi's Nobel Prize, given her inaction. "The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place. The world cannot just say 'look, it is not our problem'. It is our problem," he added; where there are 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, refugees do not have legal status. Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees. Indonesia's ambassador said an investigation with regional participation should be launched and that his country stood ready to participate if any such commission was to be formed.
Rohingya in Bangladesh
Two government-run camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara, near Cox’s Bazar, are relying on regular distributions of food rations and relief items such as shelter, clothing, basic water, sanitation and health services that are provided by the government, UNHCR and its partners. Unfortunately, these are only available for some 30,000 registered refugees, a small portion. Besides these, there are more non-registered camps are surviving miserably on poor wages.
They are among 276,000 Rohingya people living in camps and informal settlements in and around Cox's Bazar, according to estimates by the UNHCR. Of the thousands of people now crammed in camps in Bangladesh, only 12% are registered refugees with access to education, which means most of these children will only play until they are strong enough to be put to work, perhaps breaking bricks or planting rice. And this is if they are lucky enough to stay in the country.
The ruling Myanmar government considers them Bengali, but the Bangladesh government doesn't recognize them as such; and the Rohingya continue to arrive, crowding the alreadyoverpopulatedd camps in Cox's Bazar. In response, Bangladesh has floated the idea of relocating the Rohingya to Thengar Char, an uninhabited—and some unstable—newly formed silt island that emerged in 2006 from the Bay of Bengal. "The government is making arrangements on the island for the Rohingya to provide them with food and homes", said Additional District Controller, Md. Saiful Islam Majumder of the Hatiya local government, which administers the 30,000 hectares island. "We will provide all the facilities they need", he added.
The humanitarian organization, Children on the Edge, has developed a unique model to deliver primary education for Rohingya children living in exile in a large makeshift refugee camp in Bangladesh. Here, there are 45 classrooms in the camp. These enable 2,700 children to come to a safe, child-friendly environment and gain a full primary education. The situation here is desperate, with refugees pouring over the border to flee from the current violence. Our work here is more vital than ever.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has called for more opportunities for Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh, alongside direct action to improve conditions back home to support sustainable returns. The High Commissioner wrapped up his visit to Bangladesh after meeting with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar where Rohingya refugees told him that after spending 26 years in exile, they had very little hope left. The country's government, and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has previously dismissed claims of rights abuses and insisted that the security forces follow the rule of law.
A UN spokeswoman described the Rohingya as "probably the most friendless people in the world". The UN human rights office has recently called for an investigation into the recent allegations of human rights abuses, as well as for humanitarian access to be given.
The UN's refugee agency says Myanmar's neighbors should keep their borders open if desperate Rohingya, once again, take to rickety boats to seek refuge in their countries. Separately, former UN-Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is heading another advisory commission currently looking into the general situation in Rakhine state, after being asked by Ms Suu Kyi in August. But some have questioned how useful this commission will be, given the exhaustive number of reports that already exist. Its report, in any case, will not be released until later this year.
News Editor, Rajshahi University Graduate in Bangladesh