In the past month, a humanitarian catastrophe has been unfolding in western Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, have been forced to flee from the Myanmar military and armed Buddhist mobs into neighboring Bangladesh. The violence unfolding in the region “brings back memories of the genocide in Rwanda in terms of the level of hatred and extreme violence shown — especially towards women and children,” stated Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch
Who are the Rohingya?
Sometimes called the world’s most persecuted people, the Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority living in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be outsiders brought to the area during British rule, but the Rohingya claim to have been in the region for centuries. Since 1982, they have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. This latest spate of violence in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya began after attacks by a small Rohingya militia against police posts in August, killing twelve. What the Burmese government has been calling a counter-terrorist operation, the UN has declared to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
What’s happening now?
Since the beginning of August, over 409,000 of the total 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar had fled across the border into camps in Bangladesh. Over 60
percent of those crossing are children, according to Human Rights Watch. Those hoping to reach the camps in Bangladesh have to cross the Naf River, swollen by the monsoon season. Hundreds have died in the crossing when their boats capsized, including sixty people in one night.
Myanmar has limited access of journalists to the region, but satellite imagery has shown hundreds of Rohingya villages reduced to ash. The government has confirmed 176 Rohingya villages have been “cleared.” Survivors in Bangladesh describe massacres, rape and torture by the Myanmar military and Buddhist mobs.
The de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung Suu Kyi, has faced significant criticism for failing to stop the violence or condemn the military. Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was silent on the issue until a speech on Sept.18th in which she failed to denounce the atrocities against the Rohingya. In the speech, she stated that the Myanmar government must take time to determine “what the real problems are.”
In Bangladesh, aid agencies are overwhelmed and stretched thin by the mass exodus of the Rohingya. “It’s on a scale that we couldn’t imagine,” Kate White of Doctors Without Borders told The New York Times. Over 800,000 Rohingya are now taking refuge in these makeshift camps, struggling to survive with dwindling supplies as the monsoon season turns the area to mud. Bangladesh is one of the few nations not to have ratified the U.N. convention on refugees and has insisted that the Rohingya must return to Burma. It is not clear when the Rohingya will be able to return home- or if they will even have a home to return to.