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  • Mayar Abdelsaid

The Rohingya genocide: A Tragedy hushed for decades

Burma is the largest country in South-East Asia., It is home to 135 officially listed ethnic groups, with a majoritarian Bamar ethnic group accounting for over 70% of the population. Around 90% of the population, including the Bamars, is Buddhist, 6% are Christian, and 4% are Muslim.

The Rohingyas are a minority of Muslim Birmans who live in the northern part of the state of Arakan, close to the Bangladeshi border. This tribe is regarded by the UN as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world due to intense conflicts with Buddhists that have been reflected in ongoing bloodshed for more than 50 years. The conflict between Muslims and Buddhists is pervasive in Burma and dates back far in history. It has been likened to the Apartheid on numerous occasions.

Everything can be traced back 200 years to the British colonial era when many Rohingyas and Muslim workers settled in Burma. More than a century later, during the Second World War, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists emerged. On one hand, Muslims paid tribute to the United Kingdom and the Allies, and on the other, Buddhists supported Japan and therefore the Axe.

This rivalry, which became increasingly bitter over the years, would intensify in the second half of the 20th century under a military dictatorship that would result in ongoing atrocities. In fact, the coup d'état orchestrated by General Ne Win resulted in the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Burma in 1962, 14 years after the country gained independence from the British Empire. The Bamars profited from the natural resources being plundered from Myanmar's border regions, escalating ethnic animosity in the process. The Arakans' requests are the most direct; they demand a more equitable and equal distribution of wealth. In response, the dictatorship blames the crisis on "unchecked Muslim immigration" and the "high fecundity rate" of Muslims.

The Bangladesh Liberation War, in 197, also led to a new inflow of Muslims entering Burma. In response, the Birmans will condemn the Muslim communities, particularly the Rohingyas, for all of their inconveniences. This marginalization reached a climax in 1982 when the junta passed legislation granting Birman nationality to 135 different ethnic groups, none of which include the Rohingyas. They are then treated by the law as illegal immigrants who must return to their home country, Bangladesh, which no longer recognizes them.

Consequently, The Rohingyas become stateless, without any nationality. When faced with ongoing persecution, Rohingyas frequently attempt to flee to Bangladesh, but many are ultimately turned away and return to Britain. Two significant waves of migration—in 1978 and 1991, when respectively 200.000 and 250.000 Rohygyas were split between the two bordering countries—have marked this historical marginalization. Upon their return to Birmanie, the Rohingyas find themselves ostracized in precincts without running water, electricity, or even public facilities. Between 1992 and 2013, the Rohingya people were persecuted by the NA SA KA, a unit of the country's border guards that operated in the state of Arakan's northern region, or, in other words, a lawless military that operated with complete impunity. With a strong connection to the 1982 law, they control the Rohingyas by denying them access to employment, private property, and even education.

From the perspective of Buddhists, the rhetoric against Rohingyas is being spread more widely and is being spoken more harshly in contrast to the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and tolerance. Under the leadership of a group of extremist monks, a generalized hatred of Muslims is fueled by calls for the boycott of Rohingyas. According to Ashin Wirathu, one of the most prominent propagators of hatred, Muslims are "like catfish in Africa, they reproduce very quickly and eat each other" while Buddhism is “an army from which fighters are born. It must act as a bulwark against Islam”. In 2011, a democracy that many believed would put an end to Rohingya persecution overthrew the military regime. Unfortunately, this democratic transition is not accompanied by an improvement in the Rohingyas' conditions.

In May 2012, an Arakanese woman was raped and beaten by three Muslim men near Kyauk Ne Maw. This event would spark new hostilities between Arakans and Muslims, spreading all the way to Sitwe, Arakan's capital. With greater cohesion and organization, the Arakans took the lead in this conflict which will later result in 78 deaths, 87 injuries, and 100.000 people displaced. As a consequence, all ties between Muslims and Arakans have been severed: Arakans no longer have the right to employ Muslims or maintain any relationship with them. The anti-Rohingya propaganda is louder than ever and every Muslim is "cruel by nature".

These outbreaks of violence inexorably resulted in the formation of the ASRA, a Rohingya army, in 2013. This rescue army began operations in October 2016 when it orchestrated some offensives. In August 2017, ASRA conducted coordinated attacks on several Birman border posts, killing 12 police officers. The response of the army was heartless, as it conducted a campaign of reprisals throughout the region, killing about 10,000 people. Only two humanitarian organizations are permitted access to this area, and the Rohingyas are cut off from the rest of the world. The only voices that can be heard are those of the refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh and are testifying about the atrocities they have had to endure. Massacres, terror, the annihilation of more than 200 villages by fire, the actions of the Burmese soldiers in uniform all fit the definition of an ethnic purge. The military's involvement reveals that they are subject to orders, to a structured hierarchy that must be pursued before international tribunals. This extremely vicious conflict, comparable to the Rwandan genocide, holds the most tragic stories.

Meanwhile, with almost a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the country lacks the resources to accommodate these people in acceptable conditions. Indeed, the camps that await these refugees in Cox's Bazarre, near the border with Bangladesh, the world's largest refugee camp with over a million Rohingya on 30 square kilometers, resemble prisons and infuriate numerous humanitarian organizations around the world. In addition to being the most densely populated camp, it is also the most dangerous camp, as the Rohingyas had to deforest the hills to build shelters, which caused floods and terrible blazes with more than 151 fires recorded in the year 2021. Furthermore, new immigration routes to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia emerged, particularly following the 2012 unrest. Unfortunately, migrant trafficking is a rampant problem, with refugees being crowded into ships bound for camps where they are kept in exchange for ransoms provided by their families in Burma.

Faced with worldwide condemnation, Burma rejects all calls for a cease-fire. Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and de facto leader during the 2011 democratic transition dismisses any claims of ethnic cleansing leveled against the Burmese army. This figure, who aroused enormous hope and whom the Rohingyas saw as a savior, delivered a speech facing the entire world before the International Court of Justice denying the genocidal accusations, a betrayal by the one who was once the nation's dream that adds to the tragedy of the Rohingyas. In early 2021, a further turnaround took place, and Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted by the military while serving an additional seven years in prison for corruption, making a total of 33 years in jail.

With everything that has been occurring in recent years, from the global Covid crisis to the Ukraine war, the world seems to have forgotten about one of the most heinous crimes against humanity known in modern times. This hushing of the Rohingya emergency calls into question today’s international news media aims.

Mayar Abdelsaid

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