History has a funny old way of coming back around. It’s as though there’s a cycle we cannot escape until we learn our lesson. And the crisis of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is no different.
900,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. 100,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar have been “internally displaced” in camps. There have been reports of rape and sexual violence towards Rohingya women and children by the military, and evidence of whole villages being burned to the ground. The United Nations has called the treatment of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority, in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Or, as we should be calling it, genocide. The government of Myanmar is killing its own people. And all we’ve done is sit and watch it happen, tip-toeing around State Counsellor (the equivalent to Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, avoiding the word ‘Rohingya’ on diplomatic visits.
For over a century Burma was under British colonial rule. During that time, Burma was a province of India, and the migration between these two countries and their neighbour Bangladesh was huge. Many of the immigrants were labourers and were not favoured by the majority of the native Burmese population.
Once Burma, which became Myanmar, gained its independence in 1948, it began to change its policy towards citizenship. The government believed that the immigration which took place during British rule was “illegal” and so they “refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya” on that ground, according to a 2000 Human Rights Watch report. Consequently, many Buddhists – who are the religious majority in Myanmar – believe that the Rohingya are actually Bengali and, for lack of a better expression, view the term ‘Rohingya’ as ‘fake news’.
A 1962 military coup meant all citizens of Myanmar had to have national registration cards. The Rohingya were given foreign identity cards, limiting their access to career and education opportunities. This discrimination has only worsened throughout the history of the country and Rohingyas cannot vote, practice their religion or officially identify their ethnicity as ‘Rohingya’ in the limited cases where some have passed the citizenship test. Even then, they are not allowed to run for office or enter the medicine or law professions.
Now, in 2018, we are seeing Sky News’ fantastic war reporter, Alex Crawford, head to Myanmar, uncovering torture, rape, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces as a reaction to what the government claimed to be an attack from an armed Rohingya group on nine border police officers in October 2016.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said little about this issue, staining her Nobel Prize-winning reputation. She has even gone so far as to deny that any ethnic cleansing is taking place. While she does not have direct control over the military, her failure to condemn the forces and her silence speaks volumes. As does the West’s failure to directly confront her about it.
If Suu Kyi was truly the peaceful inspiration we thought she was, we would be able to have a dialogue with her. But she clearly isn’t. Instead, Suu Kyi’s office has accused aid groups of helping “terrorists” and continued to ignore the Rohingya’s plight.
Seeing as she is clearly going to continue to ignore this very real horror, why isn't Britain stepping up and doing anything to help the Rohingya Muslims?
It may seem far-fetched to say that the persecution is Britain’s fault, but it's hard to shake the feeling that because we controlled Myanmar for so long, we’ve played an integral part in the country’s history. And since we exploited it from 1824 to 1948, we have an obligation to help the country as it attempts to forge some kind of a future.
We owe the Rohingya Muslims a safe future in their country. We cannot just leave them in the lurch following our intense involvement in their affairs. We did that with Iraq, and look what happened there. Our history of going into countries with no real strategy cannot continue, and Myanmar is no exception. It’s not too late to change things, but there also needs to be international cooperation on this issue. Every civilised country in the world should be putting pressure on the Myanmar government to stop the persecution of this ethnic and religious minority. We failed to do this during the Rwandan genocide and have regretted it ever since.
It’s not a matter of foreign aid. It’s a matter of genocide and standing up for the same principles of freedom we did in the Second World War.
The horror of the Holocaust is taught in all our schools. We teach them to be appalled by genocide, so it’s time we practice what we preach and help the Rohingya Muslims before it’s too late.