Forgotten cause: The tragic reality facing the Rohingya

Forgotten cause: The tragic reality facing the Rohingya

Rohingya refugees at Kutupalang refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Reuters)

There is something ironic about the nature of news in today’s information-saturated world. On the one hand, it arrives quickly and repeatedly. It is there for us to consume, whenever we want it, and in great quantity. And yet, on the other hand, despite this information overload, so much news on important and critical subjects is forgotten or ignored.
For proof, look no further than the sad and tragic tale of the Rohingya. This marginalized Muslim community toils on the fringes of society in many nations, particularly in the Muslim world. It suffers from discrimination, repression and displacement — resulting in mass migrations that render the Rohingya even more vulnerable in their new surroundings.
And for the most part, outside the human rights community and other niche constituencies, their plight is ignored by the world. On some occasions, however, the suffering of the Rohingya grows so stark that the world finally starts paying attention.
In August 2017, security forces in Myanmar staged a vicious crackdown on the community after Rohingya insurgents, responding to state repression, launched attacks on police and military facilities in Rakhine state. Homes were burned down, villages destroyed and thousands of Rohingya killed.
In the months that followed, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they were placed in crowded and squalid refugee camps. The conditions were dreadful — but at least they were safe.
The world took notice. International media coverage honed in on the Rohingya and decried their plight in Myanmar. Diplomats and celebrities visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Potential policy responses were pitched at the UN General Assembly. The UN human rights chief described the events in Myanmar as ethnic genocide.
And then, eventually, much of the attention subsided. The Rohingya went back to being forgotten, even though their plight had not, and still has not, eased.
Today, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh — not just the hundreds of thousands who arrived in 2017, but also the 500,000 there before the mass migration — remain in a precarious state. They are in a familiar limbo, not knowing if they will be sent back to Myanmar (a fate that few wish for), or transferred to an island off Bangladesh that has never been inhabited. While Bangladesh’s government has indicated that either step is possible, it is unclear if Dhaka will follow through.

To expect the international community to wage a sustained and effective campaign to help one of the world’s most vulnerable groups is to expect too much.

Michael Kugelman

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Rohingya remain deeply vulnerable. They are frequently denounced as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and contemptuously described as “Bengalis.” Indeed, in a nation where anti-Muslim sentiment can be harsh, a community as vulnerable as the Rohingya will not be safe anytime soon.
Ominously, news reports have emerged that on April 3, military helicopters fired on a group of Rohingya laborers in Rakhine state “for no apparent reason,” killing at least six. Given the entrenched anti-Rohingya bigotry that prevails in Myanmar, coupled with the presence of a powerful and brutal army that operates with impunity, one can’t rule out the horrors of 2017 one day playing out again.
There are other risks, as well. The more the Rohingya suffer, the more prone members of the community are to radicalization. Indeed, while the community is overwhelmingly peaceful, it could prove to be a tempting recruitment target for extremist groups. According to recent research by the Soufan Center strategy group, Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate has expressed solidarity with the Rohingya and called on Muslims to rally to their defense. The threat of militancy, whether manufactured or real, gives security forces in Burma a useful pretext to crack down on the Rohingya community.
Ultimately, the Rohingya must grapple with an unfortunate truth: The world is not about to rush to their aid. It is not only the insufficient media coverage that is troubling. Governments around the world simply are not galvanized by humanitarian tragedies in ways that they used to be — and that is certainly true of the Trump administration, which wants to reduce the US global footprint.
To be sure, the Rohingya will always have allies, from the UN to the intrepid journalists who bravely continue to cover their plight, even after many media outlets have moved on to other things. But to expect the international community to wage a sustained and effective campaign to help one of the world’s most vulnerable groups is to expect too much.
Call it donor fatigue, too many competing priorities, or a lack of moral empathy. Whatever the causes of the international community’s inaction and inattention, the Rohingya will be forced — as they have been for far too long — to fend for themselves.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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