Long Read World

Indifference Kills: How the World Is Failing The Rohingya People

Written by Benedetta Benzoni

“I saw a soldier pour gasoline over a heavily pregnant woman. Then he set her on fire. Another soldier ripped a baby from his mother’s arms and threw him into the fire. I will never forget their screams.” [1]

The pregnant woman, the mother and the baby are all Rohingya Muslims. Their people are descended from Arab traders that have been in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country, since as early as the 12th century. After Myanmar gained independence from Britain, tension between Buddhists and Muslims steadily increased, and government-sponsored violence against Rohingya people became the norm. Even now, with the death toll of the current government crackdown hitting 14,000, the global audience prefers to focus the spotlight on other things. Like Brexit, for example. Or sexist crisps.

Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar live mostly in Rakhine, a coastal western region that shares a small strip of border with Bangladesh. During British colonial rule of Myanmar, 1824 to 1948, Britain allowed a significant number of workers from Muslim-majority Bangladesh to enter Myanmar, an event that was regarded with resentment and hostility by the native population. Rohingya Muslims are often portrayed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and since Myanmar achieved independence from Britain, the Rohingya people’s treatment by both Buddhist nationalists and the government has steadily been worsening.

First, in 1948, their eligibility for national identity cards was restricted. In 1962 they could only receive foreign identity cards, which affected both jobs and education. In 1982 they were essentially stripped of their citizenship, which could only be earned back upon production of non-existent or inaccessible 70-year-old paperwork. It affected everything from their access to health services to their right to marry, travel and work. They cannot vote. They cannot become lawyers, doctors, or members of parliament as easily as other ethnicities. Rohingya people have been victims of mob killings by Buddhist extremists, and extrajudicial killings by security forces, for decades now. In 2016 and 2017, relatively small-scale attacks by the Rohingya’s liberation army were used as an excuse for Myanmar to pour even more of its military into the Rakhine state, start indiscriminately burning Rohingya villages and systematically raping and murdering its inhabitants. These horrors continue today: the Myanmar government has been accused of ethnic cleansing continuously since 2011.

The few survivors tearfully recount their stories to international media – or rather, recounted; in December, Myanmar started arresting journalists that cover the topic. The Associated Press recently released a video showing five mass Rohingya graves and the site of a massacre. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who previously described the campaign of violence as ethnic cleansing, now warns the world that it’s starting to look a lot like genocide. This is after another UN report published last year that said that Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya in October 2016 had “very likely” constituted crimes against humanity.

Some try to escape. Refugees have been fleeing Myanmar since persecution properly kicked off in the 1970s, but finding somewhere to go keeps getting harder, as surrounding countries are either extremely reluctant to accept refugees, or simply don’t have the resources to. Around 700,000 Rohingya people currently live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, in addition to the hundreds of thousands that came during previous crackdowns in Myanmar, and the situation seems bleak. The camps are crowded and resources are often short; refugees have no possibility of integrating into Bangladeshi society, partly because they lack essential documents, partly because Bangladesh doesn’t want them to; and as if that weren’t enough, Bangladesh and Myanmar recently signed a China-approved repatriation deal which involves handing the Rohingya people right back into the hands of their persecutors, which some EU officials even had the gall to celebrate. Thankfully Bangladesh has agreed to delay this, citing concern over the Rohingya people’s safety, but with the refugee camps costing it around $1 billion a year and a quarter of Bangladeshis already living in poverty, it is clear that Bangladesh will not be able to maintain the refugees for very much longer.

By contrast, developed nations, the ones in arguably the best position to help the Rohingya people, haven’t done much other than issue some rather wishy-washy, generic statements that neither acknowledge the scale of the problem nor do anything to solve it. The silence from the British government, whose migration policies during colonial rule significantly contributed to the sectarian tensions in the country, and who therefore has the biggest responsibility to act, has been deafening. The European Union’s “efforts” to tackle the problem have been pathetic, to put it kindly: the most significant action it has taken so far has been throwing money at Bangladesh to help it cope with the influx of refugees. It’s clear, therefore, that Europe doesn’t truly care what happens to the Rohingya people, as long as they stay where they are: tucked away in another continent where we can’t see them.

In the lead-up to the crackdowns, Rohingya people were gradually shut out of society in a way strikingly reminiscent of the start of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jewish people and minorities. Jewish people, too, were banned from being lawyers and doctors, stripped of their right to vote, and subjected to violence before the most gruesome and visible part of the genocide kicked off. It’s not exactly a secret that the process of wiping out a race of people starts with isolating and demonising them; and division among ethnic lines has never brought any good, either. Why exactly is it that every schoolchild is taught about the Holocaust, and every year we dedicate a day or even a week to an in-depth discussion about genocide and humanity’s crimes – as we should – but then when it’s developing and happening in front of our eyes, we hide it behind a curtain and pretend not to see?

Media coverage of these events has been poor to say the least: the European press seems to have tacitly agreed to ignore this mass genocide, and politicians certainly aren’t in a rush to point out yet another humanitarian tragedy they aren’t solving. These factors all link into each other: the media doesn’t report it, so people don’t pressure their MPs and MEPs to do something about it, so countries like Britain and organisations like the EU don’t do anything. So why isn’t the Rohingya crisis plastered on the front page of every major newspaper in the country?

In my eyes, the biggest reason is that people don’t want to read about it. We have become desensitised to hundreds and thousands of innocent people being murdered – after all, it can no longer be called a rare occurrence – so stories about genocide no longer sell. And with the loss of the shock factor and the decrease of media coverage comes complacency. I’ve tried not to throw statistics around in this article, especially because Myanmar has blocked international access to Rakhine state, so it’s difficult to work out total deaths and disappearances, but the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is equal to almost 1/5 of the population of Scotland. A conservative estimate of the death toll puts it at around 14,000, just under the whole population of Penicuik. It’s not a number that sits easily on the conscience.

So, what next? Just about every major human rights charity and organisation in the world, from Save the Children to Amnesty International, has denounced the massacre. The Rohingya crisis is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. After the Holocaust and after Rwanda, we promised ourselves we would never let a genocide unfold in front of us ever again – what of that promise? There is plenty that could be done in Myanmar, from exercising pressure on the government through diplomacy or trade sanctions, to funding the refugee camps and keeping victims alive another day. So let’s do something, before it’s too late. And when you think about the 1,000 Rohingya toddlers and children under five that were shot, burned or beaten to death in the most recent crackdown, remember: indifference kills.


Featured image credit: Rohingya refugees scuffle as they wait to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

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Benedetta Benzoni

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