In 2012 the United Nations called for more than $30 million in aid for the minority Muslim Rohingya population living in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar. It called the Rohingya there the world’s most persecuted minority.
The massive, yet underreported, Rohingya diaspora in Southeast Asia suffer perpetual shunning and violence from the wider communities within which they settle – Bangladesh, Malaysia, and their ancestral homeland, Myanmar.
The Myanmar government, as well as sections of the Western media, has in the past justified their underreporting and indifference towards the Myanmar atrocities by connecting the entire Rohingya population to terrorist activity.
These efforts involved citing a single, small, armed militia of Rohingya’s that arose in the 1980s called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). The RSO was a militant organisation founded after the then-Burmese military launched violence operations within the Arakan State that pushed 250,000 Rohingyas over the border into Bangladesh. The RSO sought to secure greater rights for the Rohingya people, launching a series of attacks that resulted in the group’s label as a terrorist organisation by both the Myanmar government and wider international community. Associated with other forms of Islamic extremism throughout the world, the mainstream media has come to demonise the Rohingyas for its involvement with the RSO. However, according to the International Crisis Group, this group is now defunct, and has been for some time. Yet many from Myanmar, Southeast Asia, and the broader West, continue to draw on this example.
Currently, the Rohingya population are not recognised at all by either the Myanmar or Bangladesh states. In Bangladesh, there are an estimated 30,000 Rohingya refugees living in UN camps with restricted access to food, water, and medical aid. The Bangladeshi government has also previously ordered a number of particular charities to stop providing aid all together.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya population are not recognised as citizens under the country’s Citizenship Law of 1982, despite the fact that many Rohingyas have lived in the territory since the 16th century. This citizenship law denies the more than one million Rohingya throughout Southeast Asia any form of statehood in their ancestral home and forces tens of thousands of them into what are essentially – as some commentators and experts have called them – concentration camps.
In these camps, which the Rohingya are forbidden to leave, medical and food services are stretched so far beyond capacity that children commonly die from treatable diseases like Hepatitis A and tetanus.
A study from Yale University indicates that the Rohingya persecution and abuse throughout Southeast Asia may amount to genocide, while the UN Security Council has indicated that it may constitute crimes against humanity under international law, at least.
The cycle of poverty, illness, and isolation suffered by the Rohingya in these camps, situated in the western Rakhine State, have bred an intense animosity between them and the majority Buddhist locals. Violent clashes, rape and murder are commonly alleged from both sides.
Four years ago, it was reported that dozens of people were killed in a conflict that was sparked by the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men. Nearly 80,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes as a result of the ensuing violent clashes. In instances like these, the Rohingya have fled to nearby Malaysia. It is estimated that around 150,000 Rohingyas are currently settled in Malaysia, but conditions there are really no more favourable.
Like Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingyas in Malaysia are not recognised as citizens either, despite the fact that Malaysia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention, alongside Malaysia’s own federal constitution, dictates that children born within Malaysia’s borders should be granted citizenship if, within 12 months of their birth, they are unable to attain citizenship of another country. Despite this constitutional provision, Rohingyas born in Malaysia are not granted citizenship, and therefore are not entitled to healthcare in any form or access to the government-funded education there. This means that the Malaysian Rohingya refugees are unable to enrol themselves or their children in even the most basic government funded schools and education programs, making the prospect of future meaningful employment and housing a significant problem, if not impossible.
Tridib Deb, the co-chair of the Bangabandhu Lawyers Council in the UK, has described the current Myanmar government’s attitude towards the Rohingya as an intention to “force the Rohingya out of their ancestral homeland”, adding that “in order to have a solution we have to first democratise [Myanmar]”.
Now, with the election of Myanmar’s pro-democracy hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, the question of the Rohingya persecution has once again begun to make global headlines. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept to an internationally celebrated victory in the recent elections, it did not nominate a single Muslim candidate. Despite the greatest efforts to democratise Myanmar, many Muslims were still barred from running in the November elections due to the country’s citizenship law, and it was reported that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya’s were unable to vote as the government curbed to the nationalist population’s demand to bar them.
Some commentators have argued that perhaps the exclusion of the Muslim Rohingya population from voting in this election was a necessary short-term evil for a long-term gain, insofar as the action to ban Muslims from voting appeased the nationalist Buddhist population and thus helped to secure Aung San Suu Kyi’s election. If this is indeed the case, then her new government’s agenda must take swift action in righting the wrongs of Myanmar’s gross historical persecution of the Rohingya community. Only time will tell.