FOR the Rohingya, whom the UN has referred to as “the most persecuted minority in the world”, the wounds of Aug 25, 2017, are still fresh. This was the date on which the Myanmar military launched an offensive targeting the community settled in the country’s Rakhine state after Rohingya militants reportedly attacked police units. The response from the Myanmar forces was brutal: hundreds of thousands were displaced, with many taking refuge in Bangladesh next door, while independent observers, such as Doctors Without Borders, say nearly 7,000 Rohingya were killed in the first month of violence, including hundreds of children. Moreover, if the murders and mass displacement were not enough, there are horrific accounts of Rohingya women being raped by Myanmar troops. In fact, it is these atrocities that led the UN to label last year’s violence “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
While relations between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist majority in Myanmar had been strained for years, last August’s violence did indeed have the distinct colour of a state-sponsored pogrom against a persecuted minority, whatever the spark that ignited it may be. Perhaps that is why tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh observed the grim anniversary: it is a crime too horrific to forget. There was one demand on the protestors’ lips: justice. While the Myanmar government has said Rohingya can return to their abodes in Rakhine, many are simply too afraid to do so, fearing that conditions are not conducive for their return. While the Rohingya claim they have been settled in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for generations, the military-controlled state refuses to acknowledge them as nationals, referring to them as ‘Bengalis’ instead. Denied nationality rights, they are cut off from all the benefits citizenship brings. What is more, a resurgent Buddhist nationalism has made life for Muslims in Myanmar difficult, with the Rohingya particularly targeted. Fire-breathing monks have railed against the community and have often incited violence against Muslims. Through all of this, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has barely spoken out in defence of the Rohingya, perhaps afraid of the generals who still wield considerable power, as well as the Buddhist clergy. For Myanmar to show it is serious about respecting human rights, it must punish all those responsible for the rape and murder of the Rohingya, while the community must be assured that its rights will be protected in the country.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2018