Why the Muslim world must protect the Rohingya
The Rohingya refugee crisis stunned the world when the first reports emerged of widespread ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Each new report was more alarming than the last, with stories of property seizures, arson, rape and murder of the Rohingya people, a Sunni-Muslim minority group in a country where about 80 percent of the people identify as Buddhists.
The persecution of minority Muslims in Myanmar dates as far back as the 11th century. The Rohingya can trace their origins to the 8th century. Throughout Myanmar’s history there have been instances in which the Buddhist majority, usually sparked by an alleged rape, theft, destruction of property, assault, or murder by supposedly Muslim antagonists, take to the streets in violent protests and commit atrocities against ethnic minorities.
The 2016-2017 crackdown was sparked by attacks on the Myanmar army and police facilities by a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, thousands of Rohingya were killed by the Myanmar military in the first months of the crackdown. Military forces have used lethal force against fleeing refugees, and in some cases deliberately targeted them by planting land mines at border crossings. The worst outcome is that, with each new attack, tensions increase and continue to fuel resentment in the violent Buddhist/Muslim divide that has inspired many atrocities throughout Myanmar’s history.
As of 2018, the Myanmar government and military forces have moved into former Rohingya villages and settlements, cleared abandoned homes and farmlands to build homes, security posts and bases, and infrastructure such as roads and power plants, solidifying this ethnic cleansing with facts on the ground.
Even more alarming was the initial silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, a diplomat, politician, author, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international icon. As State Counsellor she is effectively Myanmar’s prime minister. After years of political skirmishes, house arrest, threats of exile and more between her and the junta that ruled Myanmar, most of the world expected her to order a stop to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
However, Suu Kyi has chosen silence; she has rejected the invitation to engage in any meaningful dialogue to find permanent solutions to a worsening crisis. For a time, Suu Kyi was the darling of Western media and governments as well as a leading figure in non-violent resistance, thanks to her Gandhi-inspired pro-democracy movement in a country that had endured decades of repressive military rule. However, she has now resorted to denying that the Rohingya are suffering under ethnic cleansing. At times, she has even accused the international community of worsening the Rohingya crisis.
Even more alarming was the initial silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, a diplomat, politician, author, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international icon
Many people believed that the many years Suu Kyi spent under house arrest, and the many instances in which she struggled to overcome a junta that had no intention of giving up power, would embolden her to urge normalization of relations with the Rohingya.
Unfortunately, even though she is the de facto prime minister, Myanmar’s military still wields significant authority. Thus, despite having a civilian government, Suu Kyi cannot order the military to curtail attacks on the Rohingya. Given the predominantly Buddhist population in Burma, it would be politically difficult for her to urge her political party or government to push through reforms that would protect the Rohingya or even guarantee them full status as citizens.
In response to the Rohingya crisis, there have been protests in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. However, on their own, southeast Asian countries lack the proper legal framework to address grave humanitarian concerns such as the plight of the Rohingya. In fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a non-intervention clause guaranteeing that member nations will not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs.
In the rest of the of the Arab and Muslim world, widespread support for the Rohingya in Friday prayers, news coverage, and social media is common. For most Muslims around the globe, this issue transcends all regional divisions, nationalities, and ethnic and sectarian religious divides. Sadly, beyond condemnations and public statements, very little is being done at the official levels. The only exception I can see is the response of Saudi Arabia, which has offered resident status to tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and granted them access to public education and services.
The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as individual countries, must follow up on this strong public outcry by taking a strong and united stand against Myanmar, politically and economically. It is imperative that the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya not be allowed to become a precedent that would empower other unsavory regimes to engage in ethnic and religious cleansing of the Muslim minorities in their countries. Saudi Arabia, without question, is the natural leader in preventing this from happening.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell