In November 2012, President Obama became the first serving US President to visit Burma. In a historic speech in the presence of President Thein Sein and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi at Rangoon University, he addressed the need for an end to sectarian hostilities between Rakhine Buddhists and the mainly Muslim Rohingya. “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” Obama stated, adding; “National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country’s future, it is necessary to stop the incitement and to stop violence.”
It was a welcome and much needed statement that brought media attention, albeit short-lived, to the western state of the Rakhine, where the little acknowledged plight of the Rohingyan people was highlighted. Despite evidence to suggest that they have been living in the state of Arakan since the 8th century, the stateless Rohingya are not recognised as citizens of The Union of Burma, and they are instead wrongly considered as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; it is this excuse that has been used to fuel hatred from the Rakhine and to justify their discrimination. Forced labour and the stealing of agricultural land, for example, are extremely common. Whilst many media channels may lead us to believe that this violence is due simply to ethnic tensions alone, there is mounting evidence of a determined government campaign to continue the demonisation of the Rohingya. Human Rights Activists say that leaflets and posters have been widely distributed which highlight the perceived threat of economical-strain propaganda which has, as expected, directed further revulsion towards the Rohingya.
I spoke to Jamila Hanan, an activist who is in direct contact with a Rohingyan man living in the Arakan state and writing discreetly, at considerable risk to his own personal safety, to communicate continuing atrocities of the Rohingyan people to the outside world. Jamila explained, “They have been dehumanised. There is strong evidence to suggest genocide - a plan to wipe out this population comes from a high level. In the summer of 2012, state security forces made house to house searches to confiscate digital equipment, and then participated in the violent and forced removal of thousands of Rohingya from their homes, as over 3000 buildings were burnt to the ground.” Jamila told me that not all of the equipment was found however, and some images of the violence did get recorded but in October 2012, prior to a second wave of thousands more homes being burnt, there was a further and much more thorough confiscation. According to the Human Rights Watch website, witnesses in the state capital Sittwe said that “government forces stood by while members from each community attacked the other, razing villages and committing an unknown number of killings”.
Thousands, on both sides, have now been forced to live in camps; whilst the Rakhine areas have working sanitation and regular supplies of food and water, the Rohingya are piled into camps that have little or no food and water and no effective sanitation or medical aid. Rohingya children are now regularly dying from starvation and those that do attempt to leave this squalor to find food, risk being attacked and beaten or killed. Thousands of families have attempted perilous river journeys to Bangladesh in a desperate attempt to escape Burma, but hundreds of them have drowned. The 200,000 or so Rohingya that have crossed into Bangladesh over the years have found that there too, they are unwanted. Aid agencies that were previously providing medical and food relief to these refugees have been forced to leave by the Bangladeshi government.
Jamila says that she had never planned to become a campaigner; “I just got so sick of seeing injustice in the world, I decided to start speaking out and doing what I could to help people, which has led me here.
Individuals can make a difference. Politicians are influenced by both public opinion and business interests”. Jamila emphasises the urgency of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding and the huge significance of bringing about awareness; she suggests that “the public email or phone their MP’s, make an appointment to see them if possible and raise this issue in parliament”. Furthermore, she stresses that “There should be no business with Burma”.
It would appear that ‘business interest’ may be a key underlying motive for the removal of the Rohingya from villages in strategic areas. Jamila tells me that “By 2013, a new oil and gas pipeline will be open; beginning from the Arakan, through to the Kachin state, it will take resources from the Bay of Bengal and the Middle East up to China. A deep sea port is also being built in Sittwe in preparation for the oil carriers. China, India and Korea have already invested in this pipeline as Burma grows increasingly geopolitically and economically powerful; the Burmese military also stand to profit, with a majority stake in the development.
Restrictions already imposed upon the Rohingya have included limitations on the number of children they can have and the lack of freedom to move between villages. But in November 2012, Human Rights organisation ‘Restless Beings’, brought to attention reports of a disturbing and even more extreme plan to diminish the Rohingya population; the sterilisation of Rohingya women under the age of fifty.
In the last year alone, the UN says that over 100,000 have been forced from their towns and villages in the Arakan state. With very little media coverage and no mainstream appeal for international support, the voices of the tortured Rohingya people remain unheard. Worse still, human rights violations and reports of systematic abuse committed against them are effectively being ignored whilst their perpetrators are instead being rewarded with impunity. Those who have witnessed atrocities against the Rohingya risk imprisonment, and Burma’s prisons currently hold both UN and humanitarian workers. Since my initial contact with Jamila, this list of atrocities has become longer and ever-more alarming; ponds that supply drinking water are alleged to have been poisoned, and there has been further destruction of camp shelters in what are already the most rudimentary of living conditions. These are examples of what has been reported; unreported crimes may forever remain silent. The rape of Rohingyan women is common. Jamila’s source has informed her that in December 2012, twenty young women, some younger than fifteen, had been arrested and taken away by Burma’s Border Security Force (Nasaka) - their whereabouts are unknown.
The Rohingya people do not live; they barely exist. As starvation and disease are allowed to plague this hunted community, and as their cold nights without shelter become more harsh, they are being mercilessly discarded and forgotten. I recollect President Obama’s words; that the Rohingya hold “within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do” and indeed that all human beings have the full right to. The reality, and wholly preventable tragedy however, is that for the dwindling number of Rohingyan men, women, their children and babies, for too long and for no justifiable reason, dignity is just one of the many civil liberties that they continue to be denied. I am reminded of the Hadith:
"When any one of you sees anything that is disapproved (of by Allah), let him change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his heart, though that is the weakest (kind of) faith." (Muslim)
You can learn more about how to fight against the injustices committed on the Rohingyan by following @JamilaHanan for updates on twitter and visiting the following websites: Save the Rohingya blog and the Humanitarian Relief site.
This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Sisters magazine.
Khurshid Khatib loves writing, particularly articles relating to ethical issues or transforming personal journeys. Her educational background is in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicinal Chemistry and she has previously worked as Scientist, Broadcast Assistant and Researcher. She has recently started writing flash fiction and is currently studying with the Open University on a creative writing course