The Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have had their share of discrimination and persecution at the hand of radical Buddhists and the government of Myanmar. Their plight however, has remained under the global radar for many decades. Not anymore. The brutal Myanmar's military junta that allowed these abuses to take place with impunity, has been replaced by a civil government. The de facto Myanmar's leader, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, still widely seen as a moral compass, is under international pressure to guarantee the Rohingya's rights. So far failure to do so has attracted terrorist groups like ISIS and Buddhist extremists like Ashin Wirathu – referred to as the Burmese bin Laden – to further their agendas. Clearly Myanmar cannot downplay this crisis anymore. Aung San Suu Kyi must act now or be forced to act.
According to United Nations' estimates, there are 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar and they form 40% of the population in the Rakhine state which is situated in the Western part of the country. Other countries with a significant Rohingya population are Saudi Arabia (400,000), Bangladesh (300,000) and Pakistan (200,000). The Rohingya people are generally Sunni Muslims whilst Myanmar(est. population 54 million) has an overwhelming Buddhist majority. They have been subjected according to Amnesty International and the United Nations (UN) to 'systematic deprivation of their basic human rights' leading to many revolts and killings in the past. The Myanmar's Rohingya have by law been denied citizenship, rendering the majority stateless even though it has been widely acknowledged that they have been living in this area for hundreds of years. Contrary to the UN Conventions on Statelessness, they do not enjoy the basic human rights regarding education, employment, housing and free movement. This has made the Rohingya among the most vulnerable, poor and disenfranchised group within the Myanmar society.
The current escalation of violence that started in October 2016 in Rakhine has claimed the lives of at least a hundred people according to credible reports. The army has been blamed for using deadly force, raping of Rohingya women and setting civilian houses on fire as a response to attacks by a small group of crudely armed Rohingya carrying guns, knives and spears. Providing little proof, the army has blamed foreign Islamist terrorist groups as those responsible for the series of recent attacks in Rakhine. It even claims that the Rohingya have set their own villages on fire in order to worsen the crisis. Scores of Rohingya have so far fled to Bangladesh. But, Bangladesh does not want more refugees and has called on Suu Kyi's administration to assume its responsibility.
Aung San Suu Kyi however, has remained largely mute especially regarding allegations of human rights violations and rape. Also baffling to many leaders in Europe and the US where she is still seen as a pro democracy icon, is her administration's censorship of reporting on the situation of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi, herself a victim of censorship by the former military junta, has yet to deliver on her promises as a human rights advocate. On the streets of many Asian cities protesters want her Nobel Peace Prize revoked. The world is growing weary of her “we will take care of it” answer. In Mrs. Suu Kyi's defense, it is not clear how much power her civilian government has over the army that was used as a political tool by the military junta for decades. Old habits die hard. Mrs. Suu Kyi must however realize that she cannot keep sweeping this problem under the proverbial rug.
First and foremost, the Myanmar government must recognize it has miserably failed the Rohingya. It must rapidly take steps to address the stigma and marginalization of these people. Path to citizenship for the Rohingya as the Obama Administration and other foreign officials have been advocating, should not be a top priority. Figures show that the Rohingya who do have the Burmese nationality do not fare any better than those without nationality. These people should get civil rights, access to government services and especially the rights of all children to enroll in school must be reestablished. International donors must work together with government to ensure that these basic needs are met. It is not only the right thing to do, but it has to be evident that terrorists organizations feast on young disenfranchised men. It may be an attractive option because the terrorists are able to offer the recruits money, a sense of belonging and a life purpose. The Indonesian terrorist group linked to ISIS and known for the Bali bombings, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid and the al-Shabaab in Somalia have asked Myanmar Muslims to 'be saved by the savage Buddhists'. While the ISIS and its affiliates could be using the Rohingya's plight to advance their own radical agendas, there is real concern all over the region that these alienated Rohingya can be easily radicalized and militarized which would give the current crisis a whole new dimension. Protests last month in Jakarta (Indonesia) are calling for Indonesia to break off diplomatic ties with Myanmar. In Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) the Malaysian president not only was present a large rally of the opposition against Suu Kyi's government, but called on Southeast Asia and the world to step up the pressure to put an end to 'genocide of the Rohingya'. It is expected that this time the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) will not shamefully stay silent over the Rohingya crisis as it did over the human rights abuses by Thailand's military junta. Not acting this time will look bad for all Asean members and will certainly compromise its capacity of handling serious security challenges like the dispute in the South China Sea. Another challenge for the Su Kyi's government is the nationalistic, anti-Muslim Buddhist group(s) antagonizing the Rohingya and inciting violence against them – not unlike what happened before the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda two decades ago. The charismatic leader of the 969 Movement, Mr. Ashin 'the Burmese bin Laden' Wirathu who vows to 'protect Myanmar and Buddhists the world over from Muslims' probably feels emboldened by the same rhetoric used by many of Myanmar's government officials and Suu Kyi's silence so far. Not long ago Mr. Ashin struck a pact with the Sri Lankan anti-Muslim organization, Bodu Bala Sena, to 'prevent the end of Buddhism in the world'. Meantime, the government and army continue to block all access of aid organizations and the free press to report from the affected areas. Left to its own devices, we may soon see a genocide unfolding in Myanmar. The Rwandan genocide has taught us that mass slaughters are not prevented by not taking sides; by not upsetting the sitting government and by having endless diplomatic meetings in the victims hour of need. The time has come for the international community to assume its responsibility. It may be very well the only real hope for the Rohingya.
Alex Rosaria is from Curaçao and writes about world events. He was Member of Parliament, Minister of Economic Affairs. Before that he worked for the UNDP in Africa and Central America.
Alex Rosaria is from Curaçao. He has a MBA from University of Iowa. He was Member of Parliament, Minister of Economic Affairs, State Secretary of Finance and United Nations Development Programme Officer in Africa and Central America. He is an independent consultant active in Asia and the Pacific.
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