The international community must act to save the Rohingya Muslims

By Alex Bryan

One year since anti-Muslim violence broke out in Burma, the blood still flows and the deaths rack up. The Rohingya minority, stateless, discriminated against by virtue of their constitutional status as outsiders, remains the target of one of the most vicious series of ethnic attacks in the world at the the moment. The authorities have at times joined in these attacks; more often, the facilitate them or simply sit back and allow the killings to continue. Sadly, although the Rohingya are officially classed as ‘illegal migrants’, they have no homeland to which they can return. Nor can they simply flee; those that do risk rejection from other countries as well as the potential for bad weather conditions. Those who make it to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia are often ‘pushed back’ from the borders, detained en masse, or arrested.

The discrimination in Burma has a long and inglorious history. It existed long before independence in 1946, and the Citizenship Act of 1982 defined Burmese citizenship in such a way as to exclude the Rohingya. Perhaps even worse than this is the refusal of the Burmese authorities to class the Rohingya as asylum seekers, instead condemning them to the lowest strata of society – the illegal migrant. The violence directed at Muslims in Burma for the last year has happened in a context of exclusion, of seeing the Muslims as ‘not fully human’. This can be seen not only in the violence, but also in the two child policy recently introduced.

The international attention on the violence has increased with time. The UN Human Rights Council President has voiced ‘deep concern’ about the killings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also questioned the regime’s decision not to prosecute those who have enacted the attacks (indeed, it is often Rohingya themselves arrested after suffering terror attacks against them.) Unfortunately, this had had little to no impact on the regime’s course. In fact, the one piece of international intervention which could be seen to have altered the course of history was President Obama’s visit and meetings with President Thein Sein. Obama said he hoped the violence would stop. It has not, and his trip may been seen to have legitimised the regime.

International action is necessary to stop the systematic murder of the Rohingya people. Inside Burma, the figure those who protested against the regime, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now a member of the government, and has stayed shamefully silent on the issue. Attempts to stop the killings by foreign forces will almost certainly attempt to reach out to her first. Unfortunately, her tight-lipped attitude to the massacres bodes ill for any who do so.

One of the reasons for the relatively small pressure being exerted on Burma is that, nationally, this does not fit into the narrative the media have presented over the past few years of a Burma moving towards democracy, liberalising their economy, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to walk the streets again. Hence, viewers (on the rare occasion such stories are run on major news bulletins) tend to see them within a wider narrative of progress rather than one of discrimination, thus underestimating the problem.

The international community and national governments cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. The central foreign policy focus for the majority of major nations at the moment is the Syrian civil war and the ongoing power struggle in Egypt. As important as these two events are, they must not take up all the foreign policy political space. The attacks on the Rohingya have been persisting for the last 12 months. They show no signs of stopping organically, nor of being stopped by the Burmese government or ASEAN, the regional international group. The UN must act now to ensure that the Rohingya population can be liberated from this ethnic hatred and to ensure that Burma does not collapse.

Campaign group Avaaz has launched a campaign to get citizens of Western nations to pressure their governments to stop Burma from becoming ‘The next Rwanda’. The story of Rwanda is not only one of genocide and racial hatred but also one of an international community failing to fulfil its promise to those at risk of genocide. If the UN and the wider international community does not act now, the word ‘Burma’ might begin to be said in the same dark way we say ‘Rwanda’; as a synonym for the worst depths of humanity.

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