“No-one wants them.” Across the plethora of reporting of the plight of Myanmar’s tortured Rohingya community, no single phrase summed up the plight of a people so precisely as that employed by Pope Francis on February 8. During his weekly General Audience, the Pontiff chose to make the despised Muslim minority community the subject of a prayer amid horrific dispatches from their home state of Rakhine in the nation formerly known as Burma.
Pray, he urged pilgrims to Rome, “for our Rohingya brothers and sisters who are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them.
“They are good people, they are not Christians, they are peaceful people, they are our brothers and sisters and for years they have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith.”
Numbering about one million, the Rohingyas have long been figures of contempt in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, denied rights and even citizenship – for many, the Rohingyas are mere interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh (from where some arrived during that country’s war for independence in 1971).
Contempt turned to outright violence, however, in early October, after attacks on a number of border checkpoints in Rakhine resulted in the deaths of nine police officers. Blame was quickly levelled against Rohingya activists – from a group called Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) – and the military was ordered into the region to undertake a clearance operation against terrorists.
According to reports emerging since then, the military crackdown has become an exercise in the worst forms of brutality and torture as soldiers deal with a dehumanised enemy.
Video footage of military personnel meting out summary justice to prisoners in the backwoods of Rakhine does little to illustrate the extent of the alleged crimes against humanity. For this, one must turn to testimonies gathered from displaced Rohingyas by the United Nations and human rights groups.
In addition to “thousands” of deaths, communicated by UN representatives in Myanmar, a report by the body (see: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56103#.WJ2LIRJOl7E) alleges “devastating cruelty” inflicted on Rohingyas as they fled to Bangladesh, from rape to the murders of infants and the deliberate confining of people inside dwellings which were then set alight.
“What kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this?” the UN demanded. “What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
These are questions Myanmar leadership has been unable – unwilling – to answer when presented with the UN findings this month. Indeed, despite a verbal pledge by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to launch an investigation into the issues raised by the UN, this came with the caveat that she “would require further information”, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein reported.
Whether through a personal indifference to the plight of the Rohingya, or an insecure political position in a country where the military holds one quarter of parliamentary seats, any hope that Aung San Suu Kyi can offer a concrete response is not helped by a report – from the ABC network – that her office has called independent reports of sexual violence against Rohingya women “fake rape”. (An earlier government-backed investigation into Rohingya suffering fell flat when the politician leading it dismissed rape reports as he deemed Rohingya women “too dirty” to rape.)
In the absence of anything but platitudes to the UN, the mass displacement of Rohingya continues, with anywhere between 60,000 and 65,000 having fled across the border into Bangladesh, a result that must surely please the more extreme voices.
But this is far from sanctuary or relief for the Rohingya themselves.
No more willing that Myanmar to accept or recognise the rights of the minority people, Bangladesh has come up with the novel suggestion that it will press ahead with a plan to relocate the entire Rohingya refugee community to the flood-prone island of Thengar Char in the Bay of Bengal.
At the time of writing, the Muslim-majority nation of Malaysia has distinguished itself in answering to the Rohingya situation. Last week, a ship containing badly needed humanitarian assistance docked in Yangon, Myanmar. Less distinguished was the protest against its arrival staged by Buddhist monks who argued that the supplies are not needed as ‘there are no Rohingya here’.
A clear obfuscation, given the ongoing actions of Myanmar’s military in Rakhine.
What the monks really meant of the Rohingya was “no-one wants them”.