2018 has been a year in which our news has been dominated largely by domestic issues. Namely, Brexit.
There has been little time in the news to address other, perhaps more pertinent, global issues such as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Britain being complicit in genocide in Yemen, or even the ongoing civil war in Syria.
This is why when, in February this year, I wrote a piece asking why nobody was helping the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, I was not surprised with the responses I received. A lot of people shared the piece on social media, and people I knew were quick to tell me they had no idea that the atrocities in Myanmar, formerly Burma, were even taking place.
To recap for those who need to be refreshed, the Rohingya crisis has been stirring for many years and dates right back to the end of British colonial rule in Burma. The foundation of what has been described by the UN as “textbook ethnic cleansing” was laid in 1962 when the independent nation changed its approach to citizenship following a military coup. Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, made it law that each citizen had to possess a national identity card. Those of Rohingya Muslim origin and belief were given foreign identity cards, and were thus made out at the very point of identity to be ‘different’. The first seeds of discrimination had been sewn.
Though the national identity cards came in ’62, the prejudice Rohingya Muslims faced existed long before this. When the country gained independence in 1948, the new government believed that the mass immigration that occurred under British rule was illegal, and that anyone who identified as a Rohingya was actually Bengali and not a citizen of Myanmar.
Leading up to 2018, the policies enforced by the government have allowed feelings of hatred towards one ethnic minority to be fostered and encouraged. There are restrictions on their marriage rights, property rights, employment rights, family planning, education and freedom of religion. For the Rohingyas in Myanmar, life is not free. It is a shallow, terrifying existence, and it is no wonder – especially during this period of ethnic cleansing – that many of the Rohingya Muslims are fleeing the country they know as home.
In 2018, all of this has meant that the Rohingya Muslims have been effectively declared stateless. They have nowhere to go and no country willing to claim them. Nearby Bangladesh, though it has accepted 900,000 Rohingya refugees, is not keen on being the new home of the Rohingyas, due to a population increase of their own. Some of the refugees head to Malaysia and Thailand and Indonesia, though their journeys are arduous and dangerous, and can often lead to families being separated, with some members captured by the Myanmar security forces.
2018 itself, then, brought a shocking report on the Rohingya crisis from war correspondent Alex Crawford. She exposed the rape, torture and beating that Rohingyas have faced at the hands of the Myanmar military. No human is spared – even children experience the trauma of losing their home, being raped, tortured and watching the murder of loved ones. Land is also perceived as fair game for the security forces, evidenced by whole villages being burned to the ground. This leaves physical trails of destruction and devastation along the path of genocide as the Rohingyas flee their own country, too afraid to return for fear of what might happen.
Bangladesh, overwhelmed with the number of refugees, offered to repatriate the Rohingyas for free. They had four trucks and three buses ready to take volunteer refugees back. Nobody came. The Bangladesh government admitted that its offer of repatriation had failed. The Rohingyas who managed to escape Myanmar are in no hurry to go back – at least not when the risk to their lives and safety is so great. But who can really blame them? If nobody is going to help the Rohingya Muslims, then they will have to help themselves, even if it means placing a strain on Bangladesh.
Caption: Rohingya wade through the Naf River after having just crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh
So, you might be wondering what has actually happened in 2018 in response to the crisis. The answer, unfortunately, is very little indeed. Aside from international condemnation of the treatment of the Rohingyas, and the offer of repatriation from Bangladesh, nothing has really been done by anyone to help.
When politicians meet with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, they avoid using the word ‘Rohingya’ to avoid upsetting her in talks. Even the Pope failed to ask about the Rohingyas when he visited Myanmar this year. In addition to this, Suu Kyi has done nothing to prevent the genocide and torture of the Rohingyas. Instead, under her leadership, some 100,000 Rohingyas have been “internally displaced” in camps. This chilling fact would, one would think, be warrant to strip Suu Kyi of the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. Instead, 2018 brought the news that she would not be stripped of the prestigious prize she won for creating peace in Myanmar.
It seems that as 2019 approaches, the turmoil the Rohingya Muslims faced this year is not letting up. It seems that it will long continue, and will do so right in front of the international community’s eyes.
Lauren White is an Editor at Backbench