Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya ethnic group is a deeply distressing injustice. A Muslim minority in a majority Buddhist country, they are perceived as ‘illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’ by the government, and continue to face discriminatory policies despite International Court of Justice (ICJ) rulings.

Prevented from voting and completely stripped of citizenship, they are denied the right to exist in a land that has been their home since the 15th century, when thousands of Muslims migrated to what was then the Arakan Kingdom. In 2017, the situation reached a brutal crescendo, when a military crackdown destroyed Rohingya communities and prompted a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. Intervention is needed to avert further misery.

The events of 2017 were precipitated by a Rohingya militia known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacking army and police infrastructure in Rakhine State, a region that prior to the crackdown. The ensuing retaliation saw hundreds of Rohingya villages burned to the ground, caused thousands of civilian casualties and prompted the displacement of over 740,000 people, who are now either housed in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or seeking asylum overseas.

According to Doctors Without Borders, the first month of violence caused around 6,700 casualties. The military indiscriminately targeted the fleeing Rohingya- it was reported that they fired at civilians and planted landmines near the border of Bangladesh. Beyond the harrowing experience of fleeing conflict, a UN fact-finding panel found that the Myanmar military subjected Rohingya women and girls to sexual abuse. The crackdown as a whole has been the subject of intense condemnation from the international community, with the Gambia bringing a genocide case against Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former human rights icon, was once heralded as an ‘example of the power of the powerless’. Today, the State Counsellor of Myanmar Suu Kyi defiantly rejects the allegations that Myanmar has committed genocide. Suu Kyi has attempted to put a positive spin on the tragic situation. Before the ICJ in December 2019, she went as far as showing the court photographs of a football match in Maungdaw as a demonstration of reconciliation between communities.

There is an obvious disconnect between the Myanmar government’s assertion of events and what the international community has uncovered. While the Myanmar Independent Commission of Enquiry insists there is no evidence of genocide, UN investigators have published reports accusing the military of mass “killings with genocidal intent”. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has called the situation, “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. However, this is not the first time Myanmar has faced challenges with internal conflict.

The country’s history has long been beset by both conflict and the mistreatment of non-Buddhist people within its borders. Myanmar was set on being a dictatorship when the country came under direct military rule after the 1962 Burmese coup d’etat. Under General Ne Win, the government stripped the country of numerous democratic institutions, ushering in an era of unrivalled turmoil and uncertainty.

Even though the course was set for a more democratic Myanmar in 2010, the country is still mired in conflict, and the intense persecution of the Rohingya persists. Nationalist and openly anti-Muslim groups like Ma Ba Tha and the 969 Movement consistently show contempt towards non-Buddhist people, pushing for boycotts of Muslim businesses and openly hurling slurs at members of the Muslim community. The Myanmar government has not done enough to reign-in anti-Muslim movements, making it difficult to bring an end to a devastating refugee crisis and a prevailing culture of repression and discrimination.

Most refugees have fled to find sanctuary in nearby Bangladesh. Some could not complete the journey and perished at sea, while states in the region have resisted taking action. Bangladesh itself is ill-equipped to manage and care for vulnerable refugees in large numbers. However, there are currently over 900,000 Rohingya refugees residing in crowded camps in the country.

Most of them can be found in Cox’s Bazar district, home to the world’s largest refugee camp. While international agencies have tried to support this camp, there are social, security, hygiene and health concerns that must be addressed.

According to Reuters, up to 60% of the water supply is contaminated. Due to the poor sanitation, the refugees face challenges with diseases- organisations warn of outbreaks of measles, tetanus, diphtheria and illnesses like acute diarrhoea. Every year they also have to fight against landslides and heavy flooding in the area.

Over 400,000 children reside in the refugee camps across Bangladesh. On top of sanitation, security, and health concerns, these children have no access to education. They are unable to learn the local language and are prevented from enrolling in schools as refugees. Despite this nightmarish reality for Rohingya refugees, it remains the lesser of two evils for many.

The refugees may be unwelcome in Bangladesh but returning to Myanmar would place them in a worse situation. Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities agreed to repatriate several thousand Rohingya despite concerns that genocidal actions may reoccur. Rohingya leaders rejected the agreement as they still have no citizenship rights.

What’s more, an Amnesty report showed that efforts to reshape northern Rakhine State are already underway. Rohingya villages that were burned to the ground are being bulldozed and cleared for new security bases and other infrastructure, meaning that even if the Rohingya were to return, it would be to a land that bears little resemblance to that which they fled.

As things stand, the Rohingya will remain homeless, stateless and vulnerable unless nations of the world come together to find an urgent and lasting solution to the ongoing quandary.

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Athiei Ajuong

Athiei Ajuong is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that helps asylum seekers and undocumented migrants with their legal status.

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