The crisis beyond the west: Rohingya’s exodus
by Ana Maria Ortiz Larrea
For the 800.000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar this is, most likely, the last image they have of their village: smoke, the sound of bullets and thousands of people running to an uncertain safety. The feeling of fear and horror is not new and sadly, but undeniably, has been exacerbated this past year.
Historically, the problems faced by the Rohingya in the Rakhine State have been the consequence of decades of armed violence and authoritarian rule, where they have been victims of a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination, persecution and violent repression. Consequently, they have lived for most of their lives in a culture of pervasive prejudice and resentment, where “center-periphery tensions, intercommunal and inter-religious conflicts” are just some factors that have caused that, throughout the years, they commence their journey into indefinite exile. A few months ago, I saw a video that was titled “The world’s fastest humanitarian crisis” (ABC News Video). Thinking it was about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, I clicked on the video and was surprised to see families who fought their way through a clearly unforgiving river, children who cried for their long-lost siblings and women who showed the scars that were meant to be their death wounds. Refugees, victims, but not Syrian. I wondered how, in such a digitalized and interconnected world, did the exodus and genocide of an entire ethnic group go unnoticed? How were we unaware of the existence of a humanitarian crisis? I just sat down and wondered how many kilometers was close enough for the West to acknowledge the suffering beyond their confined bubble of privilege.
I searched for coverage in the media, aware that their role in conflicts of this scale is crucial. It was scarce. Although some western media outlets like The New York Times had covered the problem and reports such as “Caged without a Roof” by Amnesty International were available, the blockade imposed by Myanmar’s government made it difficult to report on it. But why? In this post, I will attempt to explain the complexity of the Rohingya, who they are and why are they fleeing for their lives.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority that resides in the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine State, in Myanmar. Before August 2017, they used to account for nearly a third of Rakhine’s population. Because they differ from the Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically and religiously, they have been systematically discriminated against and inhumanly abused by their own anti-Muslim state. Part of this segregation is the fact that the government has denied the group’s historical claims to the region and essentially dismissed their whole existence by not even recognizing the label “Rohingya”. This apartheid was exacerbated by the 1948’s Citizenship Law in which the Rohingya’s temporary residence card was revoked, and they were denied access to citizenship, making them stateless. With no identity or state, the Rohingya were reduced to the all too common narrative of “the Other”. During the 2014 UN-led census, they were even forced to identify themselves as “Bengali”, a derogatory term which alludes to their supposed status as foreigners, or else remain unregistered. The state’s xenophobic impositions not only encouraged decades of systematic human rights violations and perpetuated racism, but it helped fuel the sectarian violence that climaxed in the Rohingya genocide and exodus.
On August 25th, 2017, after a militant group known as the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 30 police posts and killed a dozen of its members, the government declared the ARSA a terrorist organization and began a brutal ethnic cleansing operation disguised as a counterterrorist campaign. 6,700 Rohingya were killed and more than 200 Rohingya villages were burned just in the first months of attacks. The slaughter of children, indiscriminate shootings, mass rape and arson forced the surviving members of the community to flee the country and cross the border to Bangladesh, where most of the refugees are finding sanctuary, or risk their lives at sea to head into Malaysia or Thailand.
Although the United Nations condemned this as “ethnic cleansing of a minority”, the Myanmar government denied all the abuses, including the genocide altogether. This is not just a campaign of silence, but one of systematic disinformation powered by local media to diminish a grave situation. It is our duty to advocate for the Rohingyas so that these crimes do not go unpunished. They might be stateless refugees, but we can make sure they do not remain nameless. We have the power to raise awareness of the persecutions and violence that torment these people beyond the West, so a solution can be executed.
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