They are branded as one of the most persecuted communities in the world by the UN and referred to as the Palestine of Asia, yet nobody knows their name.
The Rohingya people have been subject to a programme of state sponsored ethnic cleansing by the Burmese government. Despite their existence in Burma dating as far back at the 8th century, Rohingyas are condemned as ‘non-citizens’ and ‘illegal immigrants.’ Targeted as a result of their religion and race, the Rohingya suffer oppressive levels of discrimination in face of the Rakhine Buddhist majority. Land confiscation, forced labour and denial of very basic human rights including education, marriage and healthcare are characteristic of everyday reality for the Rohingya people.
The injustice the Rohingya face is one of institutionalisation; rooted in Burma’s infrastructure and governmental systems. This can be seen in the 1982 Citizenship Law introduced by the Burmese junta which recognises the 135 national races in Burma but specifically excludes the Rohingya. This legislation has received widespread condemnation for its discriminatory nature and incompatibility with international human rights standards including the right to a nationality.
This systematic denial of human rights is premised on the Burmese government’s refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya people. Rendering them stateless in their own state. The denial of citizenship is being manipulated as a tool of ridding the Rohingya people of their identity, their right to being and their very existence.
This severe marginalisation and restriction of basic fundamental rights and freedoms has forced the Rohingya to flee their homes, in search of a life capable of living. As such, between 1978 and 1992, approximately 200,000 Rohingyas left Burma to escape the tyranny of the Burmese military. Most escaped to Bangladesh where they remain as refugees. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world and with prevailing attitudes of discrimination towards ethnic minorities life in Bangladesh has proved little improvement. Similar to the Rohingyas living in Burma, the Rohingya refugees are restricted in their movement and subject to exploitation. In refugee camps, the Rohingya women are victims of sexual violence and basic resources are heavily limited. Hostility in Bangladesh has also led Rohingyas to seek refuge in other countries including Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia; however have faced similar antagonism.
The role of Bangladesh with regard to the Rohingya plight has resurfaced in light of recent ethnic clashes beginning in June 2012 in Burma. The escalating violence has displaced 90,000 Rohingya people. Villages are being burnt, people are being abducted, concentration camps are being created, women are being raped and children mercilessly killed. Survivors are desperately trying to escape persecution and seeking refuge in Bangladesh. However, the Bangladeshi government seem to be forgetting their own struggle for existence and have adopted a closed border policy. Boats of starving, injured and dying men, women and children are being turned away forced to make a choice. Return to death in Burma or wait for death on open sea. It is true that Bangladesh as a nation faces its own difficulties and also that it is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. However it remains bound by customary international norms, primarily that of ‘non-refoulement;’ a principle which forbids the return of a victim of persecution to their persecutor.
Bangladesh’s obligations aside, it remains the primary responsibility of Burma to address not only this current humanitarian catastrophe but the context of which this has been born. Reality dictates that despite Burma’s move towards ‘democratisation’ the rights of the Rohingya will continue to be absent from the new agenda. Thus this is no longer just a national issue. Nor is it just a regional issue. This has become an issue which demands international concern, condemnation and action. The persecution against the Rohingya can be described in no other terms but that of ethnic cleansing and genocide; worthy of the same recognition of some of the darkest times in history including Rwanda and Bosnia.
The plight of the Rohingya people is yet another stark demonstration of the impotence of the UN and the international community to act, when action is truly necessary. It is the inaction in the international arena with regard to the silent massacre in Burma which exposes the saturation of politics and power which rests at the heart of our global governance systems. In light of these failings, hope can only be found in grassroot movements, civil society and in the spirit of those courageous enough to say; no more.
Restless Beings is a grassroot international human rights organisation taking the lead in championing the Rohingya issue and thus is an embodiment of this hope. We are currently delivering an international campaign; ‘Voicing the Rohingya.’ We have adopted a multidimensional approach in order to broadcast the realities on the ground to as far and wide an audience as possible. We have lobbied the Bangladeshi government via sending a letter and petition via the High Commission in London. This petition received 2640 signatures in just five days from people spanning 90 countries across the world. This action was coupled with a demonstration outside of the Bangladeshi High Commission in London on Monday 2nd July 2012. This demonstration marked the beginning of an intense, highly pressured strategy where we are currently mobilising students, professionals, academics, community leaders, charities, artists, activists and alternative press to join us in supporting the Rohingya community and demanding direct change. We have initiated this by starting a new petition this time to the UK, calling for diplomatic action and human rights compliance. At the time of writing this petition has received 4672 signatures, with our target being 10000. Following this, we are looking to organise a follow up protest and engage in a programme of active MEP lobbying in order to achieve some recognition of this issue on an international level.
Whilst the powers that be refuse to act, it is the responsibility of individuals on the ground, to unify in solidarity with the forgotten. It is with this unity and solidarity that collective change becomes a real possibility, strong enough to topple the inaction of the powerful; passionate enough to break new ground. This is a call for action, a call for change. Not because we are Rohingya and these are our people, not because we are Muslim and share their faith, not because we are Bangladeshi and feel we owe a duty but because we are humans and thus bound by a common humanity and the ability to feel. To feel love, loss, suffering and despair.
Please join us in our quest for justice for the forgotten Rohingya people and sign our petition. Let the world know, that this stateless, silenced injustice is not in your name.