Rohingya refugee crisis escalates


Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Hannah Lin, News Editor

Described by the UN human rights chief as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group has drawn global attention after recent eruptions of violence.

The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority group who live in the Rakhine State on the western coast of the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar. Rakhine, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, is one of Myanmar’s most underdeveloped states. Deep-seated tensions between the Rohingya and the government have persisted through decades. They have been denied citizenship since 1982, as authorities do not recognize them as one of 135 ethnic groups residing in the nation, rendering them stateless, illegal immigrants. Numerous legal restrictions press down on them, including limitations on marriage, travel, study, and access to health services.

Authorities in Myanmar have continually forced the Rohingya from their homes and into neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Thailand. Targeted in decade-long cycles of violence, the Rohingya have been described as “the world’s most persecuted minority.”

A recent outbreak of violence has sparked a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. On Aug. 25, Rohingya militants, part of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked police posts in the northern part of the state, prompting troops to retaliate by torching their villages and attacking and killing civilians. However, the government blames the Rohingya for burning their own homes, eliciting a call from the UN to “stop pretending.”

The UN reports that over 400,000 Rohingya have fled from Rakhine since the August attacks. Due to the lack of media access in the region, accurate death tolls are not available, but mass graves have been reported on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. Many are arriving in Bangladesh with injuries sustained in the attacks, and many are facing illness and starvation in crowded, temporary camps.

Sophomore Holly Chvoy believes the violence and destruction taking place in the region is shocking, and the steps the government is taking are undermining the rights of the Rohingya.

“It’s surprising to know that things like this are still going on in the world today,” Chvoy said. “The actions of the government of Myanmar shouldn’t be happening, and those people should have rights and protection.”

Myanmar’s leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn international criticism for not protecting the ethnic group. In a speech to the country on Sept. 19, she said she felt “deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict,” but stopped short of condemning the military, which is not under her control, likely in the interest of keeping peace in the government. Earlier in the month, she had said that a “huge iceberg of misinformation” was promoting the interests of terrorists, blaming fake media for blowing the crisis out of proportion. However, the government is not allowing media access to affected areas, so the only information people outside of the conflict can rely on is the government’s and the refugees’. In an effort to look into claims of human rights violations in Rakhine and Bangladesh, UN investigators are demanding access to the region.

Junior Trent Mueller believes Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis is uncharacteristic of a good leader, especially from a Nobel Laureate.

“It’s a real tragedy that she has this great award, yet in this time of crisis, she is doing almost nothing,” Mueller said. “A leader should always care about their people, and when they don’t, it shows that there is a huge disruption between the people and their leader.”

Myanmar’s neighboring countries are also facing harsh criticism for not doing more. Amnesty International accused Bangladesh of sending Rohingya back to Myanmar and refusing to recognize them as refugees. Last month, India threatened to deport the 40,000 Rohingya residing in the country, promising to support Myanmar’s fight “against terrorism.” Thailand’s prime minister told reporters that his country was preparing for the arrival of the Rohingya, providing shelter and sending “them back when they are ready.”

Neighboring countries are fearful of what this crisis will mean for them- conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar are flaring similar ethnic tensions in Indonesia, Malaysia, and India.

World history teacher Michael Brown has a hopeful outlook on future cooperation to solve similar issues.

“Refugee crises have increased recently as also demonstrated in Europe, and it can be a really difficult situation to solve,” Brown said. “Let’s hope the UN, Myanmar, and its neighbors can help those who need it.”