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The plight of the Rohingya: The problem that won’t go away

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
May 18, 2015

The plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar has once again been highlighted in the last couple of days by a handful of reports in the global press, the BBC and the Independent to name a few, about boats of Rohingya migrants trying to escape the persecution they face in Myanmar being turned away by Thailand and Malaysia.

But even as the plight of these people bubbles up to the surface of our collective awareness every once in a while, it will likely be just as easily forgotten as the 24-hour news cycle washes it away, moving on to the next topic. And just like we moved on from Libya obscenely quickly after the we stopped bombing the country, only to find that the situation got both much worse and directly relevant to us, so we will find that the plight of the Rohingya will come back to haunt our conscience if we choose to ignore it yet again.

The Burmese authorities and Buddhist religious leaders, as well as community leaders of other ethnic groups, deny the very existence of the group

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The Rohingya, not many people know, are a minority Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar. It used to number well over 1.2 million people in that country out of 51 million inhabitants in total, but as of 2013, there are less than 750,000 left. This after decades of persecution at the hands of the various regimes of Burma / Myanmar that started very soon after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Periodic massacres

The Burmese authorities and Buddhist religious leaders, as well as community leaders of other ethnic groups, deny the very existence of the group, and claim that they are an illegal migration wave from Bangladesh. “Illegal”, note, because they are supposed to have come to the areas where they now live in Arakan State after what we today know as Myanmar became a British colony in 1824. As a consequence, the Rohingya in Myanmar are normally denied citizenship in the country of their birth, rendering the overwhelming majority of the group stateless – in direct contravention of U.N. legislation on citizenship.

There are frequent pogroms against the group, and since 2012 there have been periodic massacres, abated by state law enforcement agencies, every year at the rate of two to five each year. Within Myanmar at the moment there are over 100,000 of these people living in “displaced persons camps”, in atrocious conditions, but those outside of these camps live in permanent fear of violent assault and death. According to the human rights group United to End Genocide, the Rohingya are currently the group most at risk of becoming victims of outright genocide anywhere in the world.

No wonder then that tens and hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya try to flee Myanmar every year. No wonder also that neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia are finding it difficult (not least politically) to continue to take in refugees even in those cases where they do genuinely show humanitarian concern for the refugees – though it should be said that those cases are nowhere near as frequent as one might hope. If Europe wants to see what a migrant crisis looks like and what happens when refugees are denied basic humanitarian consideration, it could learn a few lessons from the plight of the Rohingya before things get even worse in Libya.

Denied a voice

And the travesty of it all is that the Rohingya are largely denied a voice – not just in the internal politics of Myanmar, which is quite predictable given the animosity that other Burmese show towards the group, but also on the international scene. Particularly noteworthy is the silence of pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose silence on this the most oppressed group of people in her country amounts to complicity to pogroms.

But of most consequence is the silence of our own Western political leaders. Since a move towards a democratic constitution and elections in 2008, Western countries have been eager to welcome Myanmar into the fold of the global trade system. Our companies are eyeing great opportunities for investment and growth in the region, and our political leaders have been bending over backwards to “foster dialogue” and “build strong links” with Myanmar’s complicit political elite.

Foreign aid naturally followed, and the UK is the biggest donor in Myanmar. Our politicians have the leverage to do something about the oppression of the Rohingya. They have it within their power to alleviate the human suffering, as well as the migration and refugee crisis. But the political calculation seems to be that it is not worth potentially risking economic interests over the plight of the Rohingya. Nor do the rest of us seem to feel very strongly about what is happening, beyond a resigned “oh dear”. How much worse do things need to get before we assume responsibility for the inevitable consequences of our indifference?


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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