The World Must Act to Save the Rohingya

This woman was among thousands of protesters who marched on Parliament in support of the Rohingya people. Picture: Marvin Charles/Cape Argus

The photographs from Rakhine state are reminiscent of a war epic, villages and fertile land razed to the ground, beheaded and drowned babies, mutilated men and raped naked women’s’ bodies that no one was able to cover or bury. The images that stick in your mind are those of the never-ending lines of starving, exhausted refugees carrying their children and elderly in cloths tied to sticks between the shoulders of young men, as they flee the military operation.

To date almost 400 000 refugees have left their homes due to the atrocities being perpetrated by the military assisted by Rakhine Buddhists. Another 400 000 Rohingya are in need of urgent humanitarian aid, over 2000 people have been killed and more than 40 villages have been burnt as the military implements a scorched earth policy. 

Perhaps the questions we ask are wrong. Who are the Rohingya? Where did they come from? Why are they despised? Maybe the questions should instead begin with ‘how’? How is it possible that in 2017 with all the hashtags, resolutions, treaties and high-level meetings a minority can undergo ethnic cleansing? How is it that apartheid-like policies remain in force? And how is it that repressive regimes are still supported by western powers?

The cruel reality is that the Rohingya have been forced to leave their homes due to the state and their neighbours enlisting a pogrom to rid the country of a minority they claim does not exist. 

Having unrestricted access to information means that we get to sit back and watch while ultranationalist Buddhists continue propagating hatred for the Rohingya unabated. In the past, they have lobbied the government to pass laws related to population control, interfaith marriage, religious conversion and monogamy. They have even gone as far as to protest the usage of the word ‘Rohingya’ and have asked shops not to sell food to Rohingya in a bid to create a religiously or ethnically homogeneous society, something South Africans know all too well. 

Fleeing refugees tell stories of Rakhine Buddhists assisting the military by looting Rohingya homes and burning down villages yet the government persists that the Rohingya are burning down their own homes. As the propaganda machine turns it becomes apparent the government would have us believe the Rohingya are slaughtering their own children.

There are murmurs that the affected parts of Rakhine have been slated for a new economic zone proving once again that profits are more valuable to governments than people. 

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, he also cited reports of Myanmar authorities laying landmines along the border with Bangladesh and requiring returnees to provide “proof of nationality,” an impossibility given that  Myanmar revoked their citizenship in 1982. 

Last year a group of 23 activists and Nobel Laureates wrote to the United Nations Security Council criticising the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi for a bloody military crackdown on the Rohingya and warning of a tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Just last week Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out of retirement to reprimand the de facto leader. He wrote that it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead a country that allowed such atrocities.” He went further to say, that if the political price of her ascension to the highest office in Myanmar was her silence, then the price was too steep. 

In her first public comments since the violence began on 25 August, Suu Kyi said that sympathy for the Rohingya was being generated by “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.

By labelling the Rohingya terrorists, Myanmar has adopted the War on Terror narrative. Recent history has shown repeatedly that once that happens, oppressive regimes have free reign to unleash shocking and awful brutality on a civilian population without being questioned. 

To be clear, the Rohingya are not asking for their own state, they want only to return home and have their rights to citizenship, movement, education, marriage, livelihood and land reinstated.

It could be a consequence of the depravity evident in the images or the ‘Never Again’ commitment that has made the international community respond to this slow burning genocide with condemnation. Thus far only Turkey has urged Bangladesh to open its border offering to foot the bill while the Maldives has elected to cease all trade ties with Myanmar, until it takes measures to prevent the atrocities.

It seems practical steps towards the protection of the Rohingya are few and far between but now is the time for acting because our talking has allowed ethnic cleansing and genocide to happen over and over again.