Revelations of widespread violence against ethnic minorities in Burma’s north-western Rakhine state fleetingly drew the eye of the world’s media last week. Headlines and op-eds reflected the shock felt by the international community at the slaughter of the local Rohingya population and other predominantly Muslim groups, such as the Kaman.
And shock there should be, despite the fact that the enduring suffering of the Rohingya has long been ignored by the international press. It seems that the severity of the latest assault, involving the razing of entire blocks of houses and dozens of deaths, has finally hammered home just how brutalised and vulnerable Burma’s forgotten people are.
With the news of the massacre the world seems to have taken note of their pain; the alarming scale of the violence being made plain by NGO-released satellite imagery (which clearly shows an entire neighbourhood in one town blanched by arson). It is reported that over 20,000 people have been displaced as a result of recent events- most left without any shelter or access to food.
The destruction, believed to be perpetrated by Buddhist locals hostile to Rohingya Muslims (some survivors were quoted by Reuters as claiming that police also took part in the attacks), is the latest outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in Burma since the collapse of the absolute rule of the nation’s military junta last year.
Of all of the country’s many imperiled minorities, the Rohingya have perhaps experienced the greatest brutalisation and repression; in June, dozens were killed in similar circumstances, while past examples of murder and abuse stretch back decades.
As a result of such mistreatment many have simply fled en-masse to bordering countries, living in the squalor of crowded refugee camps to avoid the threat of further violence. Most remain effectively stateless, officially unrecognised by the government of Burma (who consider them “illegal immigrants”) and by many of the surrounding countries that receive the flows of their displaced.
World's most persecuted
The UN regards the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. This is surely an accurate judgment: while the 800,000 present in Burma face “systemic discrimination” (according to Amnesty), refugees fleeing abuses suffer from extreme insecurity in nearby nations.
Even the government of Muslim Bangladesh have shamefully disregarded the suffering of the Rohingya; last year they callously refused to accept an aid offering from the UN to assist the refugees. This summer Al Jazeera obtained letters from Dhaka to the three NGOs operating in Rohingya refugee camps, demanding that the agencies cease their relief programmes. Around 300,000 Rohingya live in Bangladesh in such camps without access to electricity, medical assistance, clean water or even enough food to eat.
Desperation has eroded the dignity of this devoutly religious people. In the Bangladeshi camps, young women and girls are forced to sell their bodies in order to feed their children as malnutrition worsens and a near-total absence of available employment confronts each family.
But the Rohingya need more than just food and money. They also need protection against the increasingly plausible threat of near-annihilation. If the present state of affairs continues, there’s a risk of worse massacres in future.
And what has the otherwise noble Aung Sung Suu Kyi have to say on this issue? Very little, it seems - perhaps because of a new-found cautiousness that seems to have come with political office.
The United States and her western allies, always ready to trumpet the cause of human rights when it suits them, may not be able to wield enough influence over Damascus to persuade Assad to desist from murder. But the US surely has the ability to press Burma's President for compassionate action on the Rohingya issue. After all, Washington has been credited with having persuaded the regime in Rangoon to embrace democratisation and reform. Surely pressure commensurate with the severity of the suffering of Burma’s Muslims and the Rohingya could be directed at President Thein Sein?
One thinks of all the fine words spoken on the anniversary of Srebrenica this year, and those poignantly intoned in its immediate aftermath. “Never again”, they said. But then Sudan happened. Sri Lanka. Syria. And now in the age of the “responsibility to protect”, the Rohingya people crawl toward a humanitarian catastrophe with little hope of succour.
Burma’s government cannot be granted legitimacy by the international community if minorities continue to be subjected to murder and mistreatment on their watch; moreover, the world must assist the Rohingya- or share responsibility for the terrible, preventable consequences.