Sub-human—this is essentially the category that the Rohingya people of Myanmar have been thrown into. Forsaken by their country, hunted by their military, and shunned by their people, the Rohingya are the most persecuted population in the world at the moment, facing an ethnic cleansing right before our eyes—a genocide in the 21st century that we can no longer play deaf, dumb, and blind to. A genocide that the international community has allowed to happen.
When we think of genocide, the first thing that comes to mind are the gas chambers of Nazi Germany or the mass slaughters of Rwanda—rarely do we think that genocides are actually years in the making, because that would make us liable for letting it get this far. And we are.
Only recently has news of the 600,000 Rohingya exodus made it to the international community’s priority list. For those who aren’t a hundred percent sure of what’s happening in the small Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Muslim minority population of Rohingya are facing a state military offensive by the Buddhist majority population in Rakhine state on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United Nations’ Zein Hussein calls the event a “textbook ethnic cleansing” that has resulted in countless stories of the use of rape as a weapon against the Rohingya women, videos of police and military brutality making their way online, and satellite images of burned villages engulfing the Rakhine state. Although the Myanmar government refuses to acknowledge these facts, the evidence still speaks for itself.
The big question remains: Why is this happening? The answer: as with many things concerning social unrest, it all boils down to intolerance. Currently, there are 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar with majority residing in the Rakhine state—at least, before the exodus began. However, none of these people are considered citizens of Myanmar after the Burmese Citizenship Act of 1982 omitted the Rohingya from the 135 recognized official ethnic groups of the country, essentially rendering the Rohingya stateless. Let that word sink in for a moment because it might the heaviest word you’ll ever encounter. Without a state supported by the law, the Rohingya’s rights to study, work, travel, marry, religious practice, and healthcare is perpetually restricted. Add insult to injury, the paperwork of certain Rohingya label them as Bengali as the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Our silence is complicit.
But this couldn’t be farther from the truth as the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation says, “Rohingyas have been living in Arakan (Rakhine) from time immemorial.” It’s hard to pin down when the unrest began, but a good place to start is 50 years ago during the Burmese military coup of 1962 which rid the country of their constitution and formed a military hunta. Following this, fierce nationalism singled out the Islam Rohingya community, made worse after the Buddhist and Islam side of the country were on opposite sides during World War II and the Burmese government proceeded with intolerant racial Operations Dragon King in 1978 and Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991.
In 2012, four Muslim men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman, igniting enraged citizens to burn down Muslim villages and drive out Muslim neighbors. And in 2016, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army allegedly launched an attack on border police stations, prompting a brutal crackdown from the government in retaliation to the disproportionate threat. Since then, 210 villages have burned to the ground according to recent reports. Al Jazeera also reported that landmines have been placed along the Bangladesh border to prevent the Rohingya from returning, forcing them to find shelter in the primitive refugee camps in Bangladesh or try their luck elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Yet after hundreds of thousands have been systematically driven out of their homes, persecuted, disenfranchised, and left stateless, de facto leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the genocide, further downplaying the crackdown and ethnic cleansing. Following the same narrative, Myanmar has systematically rejected allegations, blatantly saying that “There is no ethnic cleansing and no genocide in Myanmar.” But the stories of the Rohingya and the simple hard facts cannot be erased by Myanmar’s attempts to cover up. Even Suu Kyi, once a symbol of peace and democracy in the world, can’t hide the Rohingya genocide—or her complicit role in the crisis for staying silent and rejecting accountability, failing to fulfill her duties as a duly elected leader of the country.
However, it begs to question if we are any different from Suu Kyi for letting the first act of killing even begin. Now the genocide has developed momentum near impossible to stop. Our silence is complicit. After more than 50 years of denial, we can no longer be quiet. International diplomacy may prevent us from doing much to help these people almost halfway across the world, but Suu Kyi once (hypocritically) said it so herself in an editorial in 1997: “The policy of non-interference is just an excuse for not helping.”
It’s time to contribute the Filipino voice to the international community. As Atom Araullo, acclaimed journalist and advocate for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), stated, as Filipinos, we should be more willing to offer our support and solidarity for those suffering from this ethnic cleansing, “Dahil alam natin ‘yong pakiramdam nang walang-wala.”