The Rohingya of Burma are on the edge of disaster. Why won't the world act?

The international community has been shamefully unresponsive to this crisis


The news last week that around a hundred refugees from Burma had slowly starved to death after 25 days at sea may have shocked those unfamiliar with the current state of affairs in Asia’s newest ostensible democracy. The harrowing  reports more recently of mass rapes, involving torture, in the country’s western Rakhine state will likely have had a similar impact.

But to those who have been keeping up with the daily reports of intimidation, harassment and violence directed at ethnic minorities in Burma news of these latest horrors was heartbreaking, but unsurprising.

It was likewise grimly un-startling to read that in both cases the victims were from the most vulnerable of all ethnic groups in the country, the imperiled and desperate Rohingya minority.

This is because the Rohingya are perhaps Asia’s most vulnerable race, who for months have lived on the edge of disaster.  Effectively stateless in their own country, regarded as illegal immigrants by the Burmese government and denied basic civil entitlements including the right to education, healthcare, employment or land ownership, they have few options to improve their lot. Most subsist on minimal supplies, unwilling to leave their communities for fear of violence apparently perpetrated by organised local agitators and the border security apparatus, known as the NaSaKa.


Yet despite their proximity to catastrophe, the plight of the Rohingya is little known. The international media, with a few honourable exceptions, has shown scant interest in conveying the suffering of this persecuted people.

Western politicians have made concerned noises about the Rohingya issue but have done little with their newfound influence within liberalized Burma other than to send enthusiastic trade delegations. News that businesses owned by tycoons associated with the former ruling junta have made profitable deals with US banks are as depressing as they are predictable.

It is fair to say that both the international community and the global media have been shamefully unresponsive to the Rohingya’s plight. This is something they may regret in the coming months. Indications are that the Rohingya face a triple threat from starvation, violence and disease that will result in a devastating but preventable humanitarian crisis; a calamity of such proportions that it will make their previous travails look minor by comparison.

The signs are already there. At present the threat of mass starvation due to confinement is growing by the day in the towns of Maungdaw, Min Pya and Mrauk , according to a source within Burma. Those that have tried to flee or collect food and goods by boat were drowned by hostile ethnic Rakhine locals, I was told. Similar reports were shared with me by Dougal Thomas, a western photojournalist who came across evidence of a massacre at sea in which dozens of refugees, including whole families, were murdered.  

Survivors, bearing the wounds of the incident told him that "they were stopped by a large fishing boat and... people from the village came out and capsized the Rohingya boats... 97 people were killed that day" he recalled. Needless to say, this incident did not make the UK papers.

Those living in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) Camps, where access to aid is reportedly restricted or entirely denied by the authorities are even more vulnerable. A western visitor to the unregistered camps - those not recognised by the government- in Rakhine state provided photos (see above) of the conditions she saw. In one image you can see a small cup, used to measure out the rice allowance afforded to each person due to the limited nature of the goods brought in by outsiders, their only supply. It was the first delivery of this kind for nearly a month, and may be the latest for far longer. Each person was given three cups of rice to last them indefinitely.


“These people are utterly vulnerable. I fear that once the monsoon starts not too long from now, they will die in their thousands” she told me, adding “if the storms [and the subsequent spread of disease] don't get them the they are caged prey for the cauldron of anti-Muslim aggression coming to another boil in the area.”

So what can the international community do to help? I put this question to Matt Smith of Human Rights Watch who advised that “the leverage that the international community has now needs to be used” to ensure “immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to all populations in need… and [to address the issue of Rohingya] citizenship.”

“I think the Burmese government needs to understand that its citizenship law, which has in effect rendered the Rohingya a stateless population, is unacceptable. That law needs to be brought up to international standards… this is something that the international community should be pushing for as a matter of upmost importance” he continued.

For even a single one of these objectives to be realised, Burma’s government and its President - currently enjoying a tour of Europe - need to be placed under sustained and unrelenting political pressure.

Yet when even Aung Sung Suu Kyi won’t speak out in favour of such urgent measures, it is hard to be hopeful about seeing real action from the world until total disaster occurs.

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