When considering their plight, it is important to understand the historic realities of the Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan people settled in Rakhine state in Myanmar. There is a record of these Bengali-speaking communities living alongside Buddhist villages since at least the 15th century. However, they are denied citizenship by law, and have no freedom of movement, state education or government jobs. There is a history of persecution, and they have faced military crackdowns in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016-2017.
Their current situation is particularly worrying; of the original one million who lived in Myanmar, about half have been forced to flee. Their circumstances are such that the UN has referred to them as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
International responses have been varied. After decades of military rule, many are keen to foster the fledging democratic movement even if that requires turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. After the visit of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Washington in 2016, the US lifted many of its sanctions. Myanmar’s access to trade benefits for poorer nations had been suspended in the 1980s over human rights abuses. However, President Barack Obama argued that it should now be allowed to benefit from preferential tariffs “as it emerges from decades of military rule.” However, the US must now throw its weight behind the plight of the Rohingya.
As the rest of the world watches, apparently indifferent to the plight of a persecuted minority, Islamic countries must stand up and be counted.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Myanmar’s main trading partners are China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Germany and Hong Kong. It is a member of the World Trade Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These countries should be singled out for continuing to trade with the regime in Myanmar, and its membership of international trade bodies should be suspended.
European countries have led the way in supporting the Rohingya cause. The EU has renewed its sanctions against Myanmar until April next year. These sanctions include an embargo on providing Myanmar with arms and any goods that might be used for internal repression. This decision, taken in light of the crimes committed by the government, are a return to the status quo before April 2013, when the EU also had trade, financial, and targeted sanctions in place.
Members of the UK Parliament have also voiced concern that the international community is looking upon a humanitarian situation of the proportions of Srebrenica and Rwanda, and that intervention to prevent further escalation is overdue. A fact that is representative of the tardiness of the Islamic world to support the Rohingya is that the UK is the largest single donor in Bangladesh, supporting displaced refugees and the vulnerable communities that host them, having allocated £20.9 million ($2 8 million) for humanitarian aid.
Islamic countries have a duty of care toward the Rohingya community, a people who are only small in number and whose humanitarian needs can be met by neighboring countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has highlighted the collective responsibility Muslim states have toward the Rohingya and said Turkey would raise the issue at the UN General Assembly in New York this month. As current head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Erdogan has discussed the violence with about 20 world leaders. Saudi Arabia has also extended support to the community, offering residency to some of those seeking refuge. However, for this crisis to be resolved humanitarian support must be supplemented by intense lobbying and diplomatic efforts to bring about pressure on the regime in Myanmar.
Nobel Peace laureate and now Myanmar State Counselor Suu Kyi has been a cherub of the international community owing to her years of campaigning for democracy in Myanmar and her very public period of house arrest. Silent in condemning the crimes of the military in Myanmar, she has borne the brunt of criticism from human rights campaigners who have begun to question her right to the most prestigious international peace prize.
There is a case that she may not want to empower the military, through giving them cause to target her. Following questionable statements on the crisis, in reality it seems she is actively endorsing the prejudices against ethnic minorities in Myanmar for political gains, maintaining the narrative that the Rohingya are “illegal squatters.” It is clear that she will never concede that the Rohingya Muslims are being subjected to ethnic cleansing, not even when hundreds of thousands are being burned alive amid widespread reports of killing and sexual violence.
Suu Kyi’s deliberate silence on the conflict should be used to raise awareness of the violence; her notoriety in this regard grows as humanitarian giants Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai highlight her moral irresponsibility.
The international community and the Muslim world in particular have a responsibility toward the Rohingya, a duty that should they ignore, history will remember them unfavorably for.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council.