WHILE clashes between Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya population and its Buddhist majority have occurred off and on for the past several years, with the former community usually at the receiving end of the state’s brutality, this time the scale of violence and the world’s response to the situation have been unprecedented.
Thousands of Rohingya refugees have been entering neighbouring Bangladesh since the latest crisis erupted after Rohingya militants reportedly killed a number of Myanmar security officials last month. As per the UNHCR, around 270,000 members of the community have crossed the border after perilous journeys; a number of boats have capsized, killing scores. As the UN’s refugee agency puts it, those fleeing Myanmar are “exhausted, hungry and desperate for shelter”.
There are reports of attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar by the security forces as well as Buddhist mobs, with international media outlets reporting the torching of Muslim villages. Moreover, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights has said 1,000 people — mostly Rohingya — may have been killed in Myanmar. While many Rohingyas have fled the immediate threat of violence in Myanmar, their situation in Bangladeshi refugee camps is only slightly better. As reported on Saturday, there is shortage of food and water in the camps, while the threat of epidemics looms large.
This upsurge of violence, and the Rohingyas’ miserable condition, has sparked protests across the world, including in this country.
There has been widespread criticism of Myanmar State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her high-profile critics include fellow laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. Perhaps what is most disappointing for Ms Suu Kyi’s supporters across the world is the fact that while she struggled for democracy against Myanmar’s generals, her attitude towards the Rohingya is cold, almost indifferent. She has said there is a “huge iceberg of misinformation” about what is going on in Rakhine, the Myanmar state in which the Rohingya are concentrated.
While it is true that social media is flooded with concocted items and disinformation, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been uprooted is undeniable. Ms Suu Kyi needs to clarify what is fuelling the exodus of Muslims. While indeed the military establishment still pulls many of the strings in Myanmar, Ms Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human rights champion will suffer irreparably if she fails to raise a voice for the Rohingya.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2017