Article by Matt Osche
Children and adults weave in and out of precarious shelters composed of faded tarps, plastic, and gnarled sticks. The myriad of dwellings is scattered across the banks of a murky stream that serves as the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, though no such shelters inhabit the Myanmar side. While a slight murmur of voices can be heard due to the sheer number of residents occupying the area, the refugee camp is relatively quiet. CNN reports the Rohingya people of Western Myanmar are apprehensive and weary.
The Rohingya are an ethnic group native to the Rakhine State of Myanmar. This minority, approximated at roughly one million individuals as of last August, is known for the sect of Sunni Islam that most of them practice.
Many Rohingya are descendants of Muslim settlers who migrated to the Rakhine State (historically known as the Arakan Kingdom) from the Middle East during the 15th century. A second wave of Rohingya migration occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as the Rakhine fell under control of colonial Britain.
However, now the statistic of Rohingya who still dwell in Myanmar is highly underwhelming. As of Oct. 23, 2017, over 600,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar since August of that same year says CNN, most remaining close by at refugee camps in Bangladesh.
But what exactly was the cause of this drastic upheaval? What causes over half of a particular population to flee their homes? The Rohingya exodus occurred as the result of a culmination of factors.
Life as a Rohingya has never quite been easy in Myanmar. The history of this distinct people is one characterized by harsh religious and racial discrimination. When Myanmar became a sovereign nation in 1948, a brief rebellion broke out in the Rakhine State headed by the Muslim Rohingya demanding the same rights as their Buddhist counterparts.
Inequality between the Muslims and Buddhists of Myanmar was present at the country’s inception and still remains a chronic hardship for Muslims. Civil liberties such as national identification cards have been denied to them and in a few places they have been refused access to mosques, breaching their right to religious freedom.
Despite their efforts, the revolution of 1948 was quickly quelled, and hopes of an equal and unbiased Myanmar became an increasingly remote prospect. In 1982, the Rohingya were officially rendered stateless when the government released a citizenship law naming the 135 ethnic groups of the country, a list that deliberately excluded the Rohingya.
Tensions still pervade modern times through the presence of targeted laws restricting the Rohingya in terms of marriage, education, healthcare, mobility, and representation. Currently, it is not legal for a Rohingya to even vote, and the Rohingya were not included in Myanmar’s most recent census.
In recent years, as the Rohingya’s plea for equality continues to be met by silence and inaction, violence between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government has risen to an alarming crisis. In June of 2012, 200 people were left dead in religious clashes and nearly 150,000 were made homeless; the majority of those affected identifying as Rohingya.
Following those violent conflicts, the Rohingya began a mass exodus to Malaysia and Bangladesh, with over 112,000 Rohingya leaving the country by 2015.
In the fall of 2016, over 300 Rohingya men staged an attack on military outposts at the Myanmar border on behalf of the revolutionary group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Nine police officers were killed in the assault. Shortly after the attack, the Myanmar military initiated a crackdown against ARSA and the Rohingya people, sending over 87,000 Rohingya out of the country in an attempt to flee the newly violent military.
More recently, in August 2017, ARSA carried out a second attack, resulting in the deaths of 12 security officers. According to CNN, the military swiftly answered the attack with what it deemed “clearance operations” as it proceeded to burn and pillage villages throughout the Rakhine State. The UN condemned the acts of the Myanmar military, categorizing them as “ethnic cleansing” according to Aljazeera. It was this most recent military aggression that prompted the mass exodus of last fall.
“They burned my house and my whole village. I saw them throw the young children, and the old people who could not run, into the fire. They cut people’s throats and their bellies and left them to die. I cannot go back. What am I going back to?” – Nagumia, an 82-year-old Rohingya refugee.
Hosneara, a young mother currently residing in one of the Bangladeshi refugee camps, said that three of her five children were killed by soldiers, one of whom was thrown into a fire before her own eyes. As she cried and screamed, she says that she was raped by three soldiers as reported by CNN.
Even after the refugees manage to evade the harsh ongoing military campaign, many dangers still persist. Alinnisa thought she was safe from the brutalities of the Myanmar army when she escaped to Bangladesh, but one morning, as she and her children went to use the bathroom, they accidentally wandered slightly past the border back into Myanmar only for Alinnisa to be beaten, and her 15-year-old son to be shot and killed by the soldiers patrolling the border.
The tragic events in Myanmar have garnered criticism from across the globe prompting the government of Myanmar to take action to resolve the conflict. Bangladesh signed a contract with Myanmar in November to return as many refugees as possible, but few details of the deal have been made public aside from their intention to begin repatriation in January.
As one might expect, most the of the Rohingya refugees have no desire to return to Myanmar after the atrocities committed against them leaving them scarred and wary of any future interactions with their former nation according to the BBC.
“If I die here, they can put me in the ground and I can be buried in peace. Back there I will not get that,” a refugee at Moinerghona said.
“I can starve here. But here I won’t be attacked,” said another in an article from The Guardian.
The crisis has not only prompted the Myanmar government to action, but also the international community. Vast amounts of aid is needed, and is being provided, throughout the various refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
Approximately 315,000 children have been treated with a 5-in-1 vaccination to treat illnesses such as whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria, and nearly 22,000 children have been treated for malnutrition.
With regards to foreign governments and organizations, the UN Security Council has condemned the violence, pleading with Myanmar to end the atrocities, but still has yet to issue any sanctions. Despite this, some nations have taken significant actions to combat the catastrophe. The UK has ended all training courses for the Myanmar military in addition to providing £59 million to support refugees in Bangladesh.
Moreover, Norway, Canada, South Korea, the United States, and several other nations have donated to the humanitarian assistance of refugees.
The future for the countless displaced Rohingya refugees is both an unclear and a daunting one. They are faced with the choice of returning home in the hopes that their government will finally seek to grant them equality in the wake of recent chaos, or leave Myanmar permanently and move on to other nations where their rights and liberties are guaranteed. It is undeniably a choice that will define the legacy of the Rohingya people for decades to come.
Feature Image: Rajida Begum, 30, holds her still-unnamed 14 day old baby, who was born in a rice paddy as Begum fled the Burmese army. Tommy Trenchard/ Caritas/ CAFOD.