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What You Need to Know About “The Most Persecuted Minority in the World”

Rohingya refugees leaving Myanmar in search of a new home. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Rohingya refugees leaving Myanmar in search of a new home. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

By Edmund Zhen

Published: March 14th, 2018

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar today is one of the worst that the world has ever seen in the history of mankind. The persecuted have been deemed “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations, and the matter is not recent. This crisis is an accumulation of conflicts that have persisted for over 70 years. Before we can fully understand what is happening today, there is a lot of history to cover about the oppression and persecution of the Rohingyas.

In 1886, the country of Burma was colonized by the British Empire after 60 long years of war and conflict. The British Empire began to weaken the Burmese culture by positioning its own. As a result, the economy flourished, and the country also saw a series of technological advances, thanks to the influence of the Industrial Revolution. This economic and technological boom attracted a large wave of migrants, specifically a large group of Muslims from India, called the Rohingya, to tend to the agriculture.

Fast forward to World War II, Japan began to invade Burma in Dec. 1941. By that time, the Rohingya population had grown substantially, so in an effort to increase their might, the British Empire asked  the Rohingya people for assistance in exchange for a “Muslim National Area” after the war. The land would establish an autonomic rule for the stateless minority However, when the war finally ended on Sep. 2, 1945, the British Empire failed to deliver. This draconian issue paved the way for more conflicts to come.

The British rule finally came into an end when England relinquished its power to the cabinet of a Burmese leader named Aung San on Jan. 4, 1948. Upon achieving independence from Great Britain, Burma struggled with political instability, opposing parties, and violent ethnic groups rising to challenge Burma’s newfound authority. Tensions brewed when Burma refused to recognize the Rohingya people as citizens, and when talks with the government failed, Rohingya militants, who called themselves “mujahid” or “one engaged in jihad,” rose and began an insurrection against Burmese authorities in 1950.

In 1952, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, under the leadership of General Ne Win, seized control of the government and immediately put an end to the rebellion. From there on out, the Burmese government continued to ostracize and label Rohingyas as foreigners while enacting harsh rules to govern them. Under General Win, the Burmese army committed inhumane acts against the Rohingya population such as rape, murder and general injustices.

Today, Burma has changed its name into Myanmar, but the sufferings and the history of the Rohingyas are no different. Around 1.3 million Rohginya people were restricted in internment camps and denied citizenship and education, health care, and employment – basic human rights. They are now more vulnerable than ever to the unceasing persecution by the Myanmar government. Recently, on Aug. 25, 2017, Rohingya militants attacked multiple police posts as reprisal to the ongoing abuse, and the Myanmar security force retaliated by fighting fire with fire. The Myanmar government forces executed armed attacks, arson and rape, starting what the United Nation deems as “the textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The United Nation High Commission for Refugees reported that since 2012, an estimated of 168,000 Rohingya people have left Myanmar seeking a safer environment. Around 75,000 people tried to enter the neighboring country of Bangladesh but were faced with resistance as Bangladesh is already having trouble with the previous influx of refugees. Others trekked the perilous journey to other countries such as Saudi Arabia, India, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of whose doors are opened to them.

Bangladesh is currently hosting over 800,000 refugees and is going underway with clearing reserved forest lands to create space for more refugees to come.

According to UNICEF’s Humanitarian Situation Report:

“Existing basic services for refugees and host communities have been overwhelmed due to the sudden and massive increase in population. The high population density in the settlements has increased the risk of disease outbreaks and 1.2 million people urgently require water and sanitation services. More than 17 million liters of clean water per day are needed and approximately 50,000 latrines with semi-permanent structures need to be constructed or maintained. Vaccination coverage amongst new arrivals is very low and deadly outbreaks of communicable diseases (measles and diphtheria) have already occurred. In the densely-populated settlements, with poor sanitation and hygiene conditions, an outbreak of cholera or acute watery diarrhea (AWD) is a risk that is being addressed in the rainy/cyclone season preparation plan. Urgent nutrition needs have been prioritized for children under five (including infants), pregnant and lactating women (PLW) and adolescent girls, with 3 per cent of children suffering from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in the biggest settlement (Kutupalong). An estimated 400,000 Rohingya children are also in need of psycho social support and other protection and education services.”

But as if the killings and persecution aren’t enough, another issue threatens the Rohingya population.

Monsoons.

In Bangladesh, seasonal monsoons bring 20 to 30 inches of rain, creating torrential floods that can destroy temporary shelters setup by the Bangladeshi government and the UN. Because of global warming, the number of inches are susceptible to rise. Also, with the soil dug up and vegetation stripped off from constant digging to find woods to burn, experts also see landslides as a major potential threat in the future.

The weight of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh creates more than just environmental stress. The Bangladeshi economic and social issues are becoming more problematic, even with the help of international humanitarian relief. The Bangladeshi government is struggling to cover the staggering $1 billion (USD) cost to continue sheltering asylum seekers and strengthening security. The United Nations is also calling for a total of $434 million to continue supplying aid and services to the Rohingya people.

In the midst of countries and organizations working hard to ameliorate this humanitarian crisis, the State Counselor of Myanmar (equivalent to the role of a Prime Minister), Aung San Suu Kyi, is denying any allegations of a genocide. “I’m not saying there are no difficulties,’’ she told Singapore’s Channel News Asia in December 2016, “but it helps if people recognize the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is.’’ Reports have said that Kyi had also prevented international humanitarian relief and journalists from setting up help.

As of now, a solution has not been proposed on how to end this. Many organizations and countries are still trying to raise money to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees. Death tolls are rising, and the violence is unending. Maybe one day the Rohingya people will finally get the land they were promised, and the history of the suffering and persecution they faced will remain history.

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