The Rohingya or Arakanese Indians as they are sometimes known are Muslim minorities living in the Northern Rakhine State of the predominantly Buddhist country of Myanmar.
According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted people on earth. They are a people without a country and are therefore stateless. They could not even get a job nor go to any public school in the country where they live. In 1982, Myanmar passed the Myanmar Nationality law that excluded the Rohingya as one of the 8 ethnic national indigenous races. This law also restricted the freedom of movement of the Rohingya. They are constantly being harassed by Myanmar and sometimes Bangladesh, two countries that refuse to give them political rights.
The persecution of the Rohingya has been going on for a long time, even when Myanmar and India were still colonies of the United Kingdom. But at least, up to about 1962, just before General Ne Win mounted a coup in Burma and established military rule, the Rohingya were represented in the then Burmese parliament with two representatives. The democratic government even started a process of trying to resolve the Rohingya problem.
When the military took over, however, the persecution of the Rohingya as we know it today started in earnest.
The problem therefore is complex especially because the problem is not attracting enough world attention that would in a way force Myanmar and to a certain degree Bangladesh to address the issue squarely.
The word Rohingya is not even allowed to be mentioned in official communications in Myanmar. The Rohingya are considered immigrants and are referred to as Bengalis even if the word Rohingya has been used in official government communications before. The de-facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, in one of her very rare press conferences referred to the Rohingya as Bengalis. She of all people—a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the darling of the international community admired by all due to her long years of detention by the military. She was somehow likened to the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
Now she has lost all that. She is now detested by all those who used to admire her for refusing to lend her voice to the plight of the Rohingya. Many are now calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be recalled. She cancelled some overseas trips to avoid demonstrations against her which were bound to have taken place. The Freedom of the City award bestowed by Oxford in the United Kingdom was in fact already recalled. So was her Human Rights Award given by the United States Holocaust museum.
What could be the reason why this so-called icon of democracy refuses to even speak out or least try to start a genuine and honest process to find some kind of solution to the Rohingya problem? The complexity of the problem could be one reason. Another is the fact that the military is in control of the government and her hands are still tied.
Still another reason which is quite important is that there seems to be no support coming from the general Myanmar population with regard to the plight of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi might be the de-facto leader but she still a politician. She might be thinking that she is not politically strong enough to push for the needed reforms. Forcing reforms on the people might lose her a lot of support which probably is what the military wants in order to weaken her position. It could be a combination of all and more that is not known to the public.
Whatever it is, her apparent inaction has lost her and her country many friends in the international community and a lot of prestige. Gone are the adulations heaped on her. It is now replaced by scorn. Other than the United Nations relief organization and other non-government organizations that are trying to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya, there are no concerted efforts by governments to provide decent housing, sanitation, and medical services so that the Rohingya will not be living in abject squalor. Right now, they are living under appalling conditions. Out of the estimated 1.25-million Rohingya that were living in the Rakhine state, about 625,000 have fled Myanmar and are now in refugee camps in Bangladesh, a country too poor to provide decent living conditions. With the monsoon and cyclone season just around the corner, the Rohingya will be hit hard if they are not moved to a more suitable location where livable and safe housing can be set up.
The implementation of the so called repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh is too slow and might not even push through any time soon because some satellite photos that have appeared in some media outlets showed Rohingya villages totally obliterated. Even if the Rohingya are allowed to go back to Myanmar, they would have no place to stay.
These and many other things may have caused one United Nations based court in Bologna, Italy to label what is happening to the Rohingya as genocide and a crime against humanity which Myanmar strongly denies. Surely, Myanmar, the only country in the Southeast Asian region to produce a Nobel Peace prize winner, a Secretary General of the United Nations in the person of U Thant and a glorious history is fully capable of changing course and at least consider treating the Rohingya as human beings entitled to fundamental human rights.