We Have Failed The Rohingya

A family of displaced Rohingya people
A family of displaced Rohingya people. Credit to United to End Genocide under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Not since the atrocities of Rwanda has the world seen widespread ethnic cleansing equal to that of the Rohingya in Burma. And just like Rwanda, the international community has failed to intervene as a widespread genocide continues.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been ongoing since the military takeover of Burma in 1962. While not on the current scale of violence, the Rohingya have always been subjugated in Burma whether through their assets and homes being seized by the Burmese government or their lack of political recognition by the Burmese government. Due to their Bengali heritage and Muslim faith, the Rohingya have long remained on the outskirts of Burmese society, alienated.

Only recently has this structural violence evolved into the current ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. Attacks on Burmese border guards in October of 2016 by unidentified insurgents were blamed on the Rohingya, despite the insurgents being unknown. These border attacks were utilised by the Burmese government to portray the stateless Rohingya as being “violent Muslim terrorists” that have no right to reside in Burma. The border attacks helped the Burmese military establishment consolidate its power by rallying the majority Buddhist population against Muslim Rohingya.

The genocide of the Rohingya by Burmese nationalists is on a scale unlike any in modern history. Encouraged by the government, local police in the Rakhine region have jailed hundreds of Rohingya, some as young as ten years old, accused of “terrorism.” According to Médecins Sans Frontières, over 6,700 Rohingya have been killed in August alone (730 of which were children). Hundreds of homes have been burned down by the Burmese military. The government recently admitted to using helicopters to attack Rohingya villages accused of being armed. Hundreds of women have been reportedly raped by Burmese soldiers. Over 3,000 children are currently suffering from malnutrition. In total, more than 640,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee Burma.

What is most concerning is that the mistreatment of the Rohingya has been known by the international community for years. The first indications of mass ethnic cleansing began in 2012 when fears of the Rohingya developing into a demographic majority triggered mass rapes and killings of Rohingya by Buddhist extremists, with government endorsement. A suppressed internal UN report revealed that the UN had failed to adequately respond to the violence against the Rohingya beginning in 2012. Another BBC report revealed that the head of the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) in Burma, Renata Lok-Dessallien, had reprimanded and isolated staff who warned of mass ethnic cleansing. The damning BBC report also exposed the UNCT for blocking human rights activists from investigating the claims of the Rohingya.

It increasingly appears that in the case of the Rohingya, just like that of the Rwandan massacre, the UN failed to properly warn of and condemn the persecution of the Rohingya. While the UN is now openly defending the Rohingya, it is too little too late. The responsibility to intervene has now shifted from the UN to the international community. Despite the UN publicising the Burmese government’s direct involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, no governments have actively implemented economic sanctions against Burma.

If we want to end to the abuse of the Rohingya, the international community must act against the Burmese government. With no economic sanctions, and the US State Department refusing to classify the persecution as genocide, the Burmese government continues to face no consequences for its actions. The international community has a moral responsibility to not only condemn instances of ethnic cleansing but to actively punish state actors that participate in such atrocities.

We, the international community, have failed the Rohingya. We failed the Rohingya by not acting following the 2012 riots against the Rohingya. We failed by not acting when numerous human rights activists warned of a possible genocide. And we continue to fail the Rohingya every day that the Burmese government and those responsible face absolutely no consequences for their horrific actions.