ON Thursday, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ordered Myanmar to protect its long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim population and “take all measures within its powers” to prevent a genocide from taking place against them. By all means, this judgement is necessary — even if it is delayed. After all, ‘genocide’ is not a word thrown around lightly in such proceedings. And it would not have been possible without the efforts of Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, who said that the events of recent years — the mass slaughter, rape and displacement of the Rohingya, carried out by the Myanmar military between August 2016 and October 2017, while the government of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi looked on in silence or offered apologetics when pushed to answer — gave him flashbacks of the Rwandan genocide. No genocide can be committed without extended dehumanisation campaigns preceding it. For instance, amidst allegations of rape and sexual violence used by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya women, one Rakhine State minister callously retorted: “Look at those women who are making these claims — would anyone want to rape them?” There is a long history of maltreatment towards “the world’s most persecuted minority”, but most significant was the decision to strip the Rohingya of all formal citizenship in the 1980s. This move essentially rendered them Citizens of Nowhere, with no country to call their own and no rights to speak of. The ambiguity surrounding their identity has not only deprived them of higher education, travel and trade — essentially, making them prisoners in their own land — it has also made them vulnerable to violence which is rooted in Islamophobia and justified using the language of fighting terrorism. For decades, the Rohingya have borne the brunt of state oppression and deep-seated societal prejudice, culminating in the recent brutal campaign which resulted in approximately 800,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar and settled in mostly Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Even in their new lands, where they are relatively safe from physical harm, their lack of formal status continues to trouble them. For instance, in Pakistan, Burmese Muslims are routinely harassed by the police and forced to pay extortion. Without formal citizenship, they also face great hurdles in pursuing higher education and accessing health facilities, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020

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