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Usaid Siddiqui

All eyes on Trump while Rohingya ethnically cleansed

This Rohingya family fled Myanmar for Bangladesh [NurPhoto via Getty]

Date of publication: 21 December, 2016

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Comment: The minority Muslim community is facing an intense campaign of violence at the hands of the state, yet the world remains distracted, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
As President-elect Donald Trump hogs the newspaper columns and television airwaves, a violent onslaught by Myanma security forces in the province of Rakhine has resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands displaced.

On December 8, the United Nations called upon Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to listen to her "inner voice" and protect the local minority Muslim Rohingya population in Arakan, who have faced a fresh wave of violence at the hands of Myanmar's security authorities since October 9, when several border checkpoints were attacked.

The situation was recently described by a UN official as "ethnic cleansing" being carried out by Myanmar's government.

While state officials are repeating the old mantra of "Islamic Terrorism", the conflict between the Rohingya and the government has been brewing for years, spearheaded by Buddhist nationalist groups that have come to personify a terrifying rise in xenophobia against Muslims in Buddhist-majority nations, especially in Myanmar.

The world's most oppressed minority?
 
The Rohingya have been present in modern day Myanmar since the 15th century, according to some scholars. In the 19th century, British colonisers brought more Rohingya from neighbouring Bangladesh to work on fertile lands, at which point the animosity between Buddhists and the Rohingya began.

Throughout the 20th century, tensions continued to exist culminating in the military junta declaring the minority Muslim Rohingya "illegals" in 1982, a decree under which they continue to live today. As a result, the Rohingya have been confined to apartheid-like conditions with no voting, property or reproductive rights.
As the skirmishes between the Rohingya and the army continue, thousands more have since been displaced


The plight of the Rohingya came to the limelight in June 2012, when a Buddhist nationalist movement captured world headlines after heading a widespread Islamophobic campaign against the Rohingya and the minority Muslim community in Myanmar. Since then, clashes between the Rohingya and the state have left hundreds dead and thousands displaced, with an estimated 200,000 living as refugees today.

As the skirmishes between the Rohingya and the army continue, thousands more have since been displaced. Since the October attacks, the army has led a brutal crackdown in Rakhine province that has now led to the deaths of more than 100 Rohingya.

Over the past few years, the UN, which has provided relief to most of the Rohingya refugees driven out by the ensuing violence in Rakhine, has seen their work hampered as the government enforced a ban on aid reaching the refugees.
 
A protest in Kuala Lumpur in solidarity
with the Rohingya in Maynmar [AFP]


According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Myanmar government suspended aid to some 160,000 people in the aftermath of the October 9 attacks.

"We are urging the government of Myanmar to ensure the protection and dignity of all civilians on its territory in accordance with the rule of law and its international obligations," said UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to reporters in Geneva, at the UNHCR headquarters.

While Myanmar's government is justifying its actions - threatening the lives of thousands in the alleged pursuit of Islamic militants - this claim is suspect at best. Groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have said the government has consistently denied independent analysts and journalists access to the affected areas.

"After six weeks of violence with virtually no aid reaching tens of thousands of highly vulnerable people, the government needs to act decisively to assist them," said Brad Adams, the Asia director of HRW. "A government with nothing to hide should have no problem granting access to journalists and human rights investigators."

Yet in today's post-9/11 era, the government's claims are not surprising. With the ongoing "War on Terror" now in its 16th year, governments around the world have often invoked fear of "Islamic terrorism" to distract from their own controversial actions against their minority Muslim populations.

Moreover, the rise of Islamophobia in Myanma society in recent years has been unprecedented in the country's modern history. Buddhist nationalist groups like the 969 movement have called for the boycott of Halal stores, condemned the building of mosques and demanded outright expulsion of Muslims, especially the Rohingya.
 
International response
 
As the catastrophe facing the Rohingya continues to unfolds, the international community remains distracted.

While the Obama administration has periodically condemned the treatment of the Rohingya, the outgoing US president has been cautious in his condemnation of the Myanmar government, considering the role his administration played in helping Myanmar move towards a parliamentary democracy, with their liberal hero Suu Kyi at the helm.
Any hope that the incoming Donald Trump administration may exhibit any heightened concern around the issue is highly unlikely


The former political prisoner and now the country's de facto leader, Suu Kyi has been consistently panned by critics for her lacklustre efforts to end the oppression of the Rohingya.

Any hope that the incoming Donald Trump administration may exhibit any heightened concern around the issue is highly unlikely. In fact, Ashin Wirathu, the monk leading much of the anti-Muslim charge, has praised Trump, calling him "similar to me".

"Public security is the most important consideration. Donald Trump is the real leader. People love him so much. Nationalism is the priority," Wirathu wrote on his Facebook account.  

"May US citizens be free from jihad. May the world be free of bloodshed," he added.

With the crisis in places like Syria and Yemen worsening by the day, and the Middle East a key foreign policy arena for world powers, the Rohingya crisis is likely to remain under the radar of international concern.

Yet at a time when scholars and academics are debating human migration being a defining issue of the 21st century - whether to escape poverty, war or fanatical regimes - the world's indifference to the catastrophe facing the Rohingya people will further entrench nationalist views.


Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 

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