As the terrible saga of the persecuted Rohingya people in Burma continues, the Burmese government should be called to account for its deplorable policy of genocide.
In a world where billions of dollars have been raised to save the polar bear and pandas, there is very little being done to save an entire community of Burmese Muslims from extinction. The systematic persecution and violent resettlement of the Rohingya people is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, yet the world and Burma’s own leaders are turning a blind eye to the situation.
One of the most egregious examples of the government’s actions recently was in the threat of an approaching cyclone. The UN had called for urgent evacuation ahead of the storm, warning that many areas where around 140,000 displaced Royhinga people are now living in camps are low-lying areas at risk of flooding or tidal surges. In Myanmar’s state of Rakhine, many Rohingya Muslims made homeless by communal bloodshed last year said they were too scared to move, reflecting their deep mistrust of the authorities and of local Buddhists. The Burmese government response was to acknowledge the problem but there was nowhere for the people to go when ordered to “pack and go.” Several boats left ahead of Cyclone Mahsen but capsized, drowning at least 50 Rohingya Muslims.
The British-based aid agency Oxfam welcomed the government’s evacuation efforts, but said “swifter action is needed to ensure people are moved before the storm hits.”
Mercifully the cyclone weakened and veered towards Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, sparing the refugees further life-threatening misery, but leaving them still in appalling conditions. The last cyclone to hit Myanmar was devastating — Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008, killing 140,000 people. An independent report into the disaster revealed that international aid for cyclone victims in Burma had been deliberately blocked by the military regime.
The report After the Storm: Voices from the Delta was prepared by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Burmese volunteers, and outlined how the Burmese authorities failed to provide adequate food, shelter or water for the over 2 million survivors. Supplies of overseas relief materials that were eventually allowed into Burma were confiscated by the military and sold in markets. With such willful disregard of their own people, it does not look hopeful for relief for the Rohingya people, already marginalized, persecuted, dispossessed and stateless.
Physician Nora Rowley was recently in Burma, as Cyclone Mahasen was approaching. In a recent interview on Chicago’s WBEZ program World View, she said that Islamophobia in Burma is rife and that the only help in evacuating people in the area had been for local Buddhists. The government’s attempt to drive the Rohingya closer to the ocean towards impending danger she said, was a grotesque reminder of Nazi extermination methods. The Rohingya she said, are gentle peaceful people and there is a great danger that the Burmese government’s policy of ethnic cleansing will destroy them all.
The recently released Human Rights Watch report, “‘All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State,” is a graphic indictment of the Burmese government’s role in the persecution of the Rohingya.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch makes it clear in the report, that all of the state security forces operating in Arakan State are implicated in failing to prevent atrocities or directly participating in them, “including local police, Lon Thein riot police, the inter-agency border control force called Nasaka, and the army and navy.” One soldier told a Muslim man who was pleading for protection as his village was being burned: “The only thing you can do is pray to save your lives.”
No wonder the Rohingya are becoming an endangered species — the pity is that people still seem to care more for pandas and polar bears. Perhaps the United Nations will stir the world’s conscience to act before Burma’s Muslims are wiped out. In the meantime, “An entirely predictable and preventable humanitarian crisis is just weeks away when the rains fall and camps flood, spreading waterborne diseases.”
It would certainly help if Burma’s passive and silent democratic leaders developed a conscience and in speaking up for the Rohingya people, would galvanize international aid and support to prevent a preventable genocide.
Correction: This post incorrectly identified Nora Rowley as a “Human Rights Watch physician.” Rowley does not work for Human Rights Watch.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is a supporter of Dr. Anwar Ibrahim who has aided Dr. Ibrahim during his travels abroad. He is not paid for these services, nor is he officially affiliated with Dr. Ibrahim’s campaign or any other political activities in Malaysia.