Urgent attention needed for the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar

  • My EMEL column from September 2012

    One of the world’s most persecuted minorities needs our urgent attention: the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

    The Rohingya number about 800,000 people, mostly Muslims, In 1982, the military junta stripped them of citizenship, leaving them stateless. Regular victims of violence, rape and forced labour, their marriages are controlled, and they are only allowed two children.

    Myanmar’s consul general to Hong Kong described them as “ugly as ogres” and mocked their “dark brown skin” in a speech in 2009. That same year, Thailand’s then prime minister admitted that 1000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat had been pushed back to sea and abandoned.

    But the persecution, harassment and killing are not the end of the story. Those charities who are making efforts to send humanitarian aid are saying that it is being blocked, sometimes by Buddhist monks.

    The response of the government of Bangladesh in particular has been outrageous: not only are they not offering refuge within their borders, they are actively stopping others from offering humanitarian assistance. At the time of writing this article the government ordered three charities be prevented from distributing aid; and this during Ramadan, from a country that is almost entirely Muslim.

    But the shame is not just upon Bangladesh: the entire international community bears responsibility.

    Myanmar is going through an enormous transition from military to democratic rule. It’s most famous daughter is Aung Sang Suu Kyi, feted for remaining under house arrest during the military dictatorship in order to protest against the horrific. For this, she was awarded a Nobel peace prize twenty years ago, but only this year – when transition in Myanmar has begun – did she come to the West to accept the prize. But when asked about the Rohingya, she has avoided any clear statement, only saying that citizenship rights needed to be looked at.

    Suu Kyi follows in the footsteps of protestors like Nelson Mandela who have become global icons for their staunch pursuit of justice and freedom for their peoples. But her lacklustre response tells us how deep is the crisis of the Rohingya when even someone who is supposed to be a beacon of fairness refuses to make clear her support. We must hold her to account for her ambivalence on this subject, and also influence her to establish a clear acceptance of the Rohingya and their rights in Myanmar. There are those who argue that she has to proceed cautiously at this time and not alienate those who can influence a peaceful transition to democracy. But I say this: what kind of peace and democracy can there be when a minority are openly abused and persecuted and those in power do nothing, or through their lack of action seem to tacitly approve of it?

    Surrounding governments must also do more and not just shrug their shoulders. We must do more.

    First and foremost there must be pressure on the Myanmar government to address the issue of the citizenship of the Rohingya sharpish. There can be no true democracy nor justice in the country if a minority is abused in this fashion. Before they are welcomed into the international fold of nations, they must resolve their status. Figures with increasing political power like Suu Kyi must have political as well as moral pressure applied on them.

    Whilst diplomatic pressure is being enforced, surrounding governments must open their way to offer assistance to refugees who are fleeing for their lives. They must not prevent any aid reaching refugees. Refugees must not be turned back to certain persecution and death. We can protest outside embassies, send petitions,  and send aid.

    Here are some key things you can do: sign the petitions being presented to the UN to escalate the plight of the Rohingya. Write to your Prime Minister or President highlighting the persecution of this defenceless stateless people. Get in touch with your local member of parliament. Send aid through charities who are serving the Rohingya. And of course remember the Rohingya Muslims in your prayers.

    A Muslim is not a Muslim if he or she fails to remember the suffering of others. As the traditions of the Prophet remind us, let us act if we can; if we cannot, let us speak out, and if we cannot do that, let us feel their pain in our hearts. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world – are waiting for humanity to reach out, protect them and restore their rights.

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