The most persecuted minority of our time is a people most of us have never heard of before this year. Though it is arguable many other groups hold claim to this title, very few fear extermination as the stateless Rohingya do. Upwards of 1 million have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh and other neighboring countries as government troops marched into Rakhine province, where the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya live, to carry out atrocities that have roused alarms of ethnic cleansing. This growing exodus has been characterized as the greatest outpouring of refugees from a country since the Rwandan genocide, likewise a striking parallel in the level of barbarity and human rights abuses, such as arson, murder, and rape en masse. Yet, in the face of this ongoing tragedy and worsening refugee crisis in South Asia, very little attention is paid to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya by mainstream media, on what is becoming an invisible genocide.
The first recent cries of ethnic cleansing arose in October of last year, when Myanmar’s military began widespread attacks on hundreds of Rohingya villages, killing unarmed civilians and raping women and girls; these attacks were a response to the deaths of nine border police officers at the hands of an unknown Rohingya militant group. Other nations promptly accused Myanmar of committing human rights violations, which the government firmly denied, defending their campaign as a means to restore stability to the region. Yet, more clashes broke out earlier this year when a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks on police and army posts in March and August 2017; more than five hundred people were murdered while nearly half a million fled the country following the systemic “clearance operations” the Army launched in pursuance of Rohingya terrorists. However, these clearance operations were merely excuses for committing mass atrocities on a religious minority that have been considered an inferior class for decades. Over and over again, mass suffering is inflicted on the voiceless, while the media ignores their cries and world nations sit idly by.
Yet, these brutal campaigns are only the most recent in a long history of hostility between the Muslim Rohingya people and Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population. Today, the religious minority in the country all live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states in the country, in “ghetto-like internment camps” with no freedom to leave without government permission, according to Al Jazeera. Other restrictions on employment, education, marriage, and family planning have made clear that the government has institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya, who have been viewed negatively and considered illegal immigrants since the country’s independence. Matters worsened following the military coup of 1962, when their educational and employment opportunities dwindled, and a new citizenship law rendered them stateless. Since then, several reports of ethnic cleansing have been brought forth against the Myanmar government, all of which have been firmly denied.
However, Burmese soldiers haven’t been the only perpetrators of human rights abuses against the Rohingya; Buddhist mobs are also reported to have committed acts of violence towards the religious minority. In fact, the majority of the Buddhist population would rather see the Rohingya gone as well, believing that the preservation of the religious and national integrity of Myanmar and the prevention of an Islamist revolution is the duty of a good Buddhist. Extremist Buddhist monks have advocated for the extermination of the Rohingya for years, deeming them reincarnated vermin and the crimes against them more akin to pest control than a crime. Consequently, this widespread mistrust of the Muslim Rohingya is consistently exploited by the military to systematically attack the ethnic minority. Bearing all this history in mind, genocide is no surprise; it has always been the aim, in light of the “dehumanization and paranoia” that has propagated for decades, like that which led to the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust.
Every modern genocide has followed this pattern of unceasing and coordinated dehumanization campaigns, that have always culminated into extermination in the end. Nevertheless, the international community is hesitant to call Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya a genocide, in spite of the 1948 Geneva Convention’s definition as “any acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, an ethnical or religious group.” All eyes have looked to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, to end the violence and hold the military accountable, however the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been wary of speaking out against the government, for fear of threatening the military’s power and alienating Buddhist nationals. Of late, Myanmar and Bangladesh have brokered a deal to allow the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya back to Rakhine, where Aung Sun Suu Kyi has recently pledged to promote its economic development, although concerns brought forth by present aid agencies express unease about their forced return. Where is the assurance that the Rohingya won’t be targeted again seeing as there has been zero accountability for such widespread human rights abuses?
Caught between several countries, and welcome in none, the Rohingya have no rights or access to employment and basic amenities, yet they are neglected by the media and everywhere else. Whether it’s the media’s bias against Muslim people of color, or our persistent shortcomings to act in the face of genocide, the world is permitting the mass suffering of a defenseless people, and once again, because of lack of awareness. After the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and countless other atrocities, we vowed to protect the powerless, yet when the threat arises, we turn away and hope it fixes itself. These crimes won’t end on their own, therefore urgent and collective action is needed before more atrocities arise.