Photo via BBC
Time and time again, world leaders have promised that there would never again be another genocide.
But yet again, the world has broken that promise.
Myanmar has long been a majority Buddhist country. However, throughout the years, a small Islamic minority has persisted in this country. Known as the Rohingya, they have always been one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.
Now, they are the victims of an ongoing ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948, under the name Burma. According to Azeem Ibrahim, a professor at West Point Academy, the new country enjoyed relative peace until 1962, when General Ne Win took over the country. Win tried to introduce a plan to turn Burma into a communist state, which failed miserably. He blamed this failure on the Rohingyas, and the split between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar has only grown wider.
In 1974, the Burmese government introduced the Emergency Immigration Act, which stripped all Rohingya of their citizenship. This was followed by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which states that the Rohingya are all actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should all go back to Bangladesh.
This historical divide has only been worsened by Myanmar’s radical Buddhists.
Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu earned himself a Time magazine cover in July 2013, with the caption “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” If that sounds like an oxymoron, that’s because Wirathu himself is one. According to New York magazine, Wirathu has diamond-studded watches and flies on a private jet- despite the fact that Buddhist monks are supposed to withdraw from the world. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and Wirathu has exploited that to dehumanize the Rohingya. According to him, the Rohingya are just reincarnated snakes and beetles and ticks. So if you kill them, it’s no worse than stepping on a bug.
The Rohingya have always been persecuted in Myanmar. But a couple of Rohingya fought back against local Buddhists last month, believing that they were helping their people. Instead, they may have ensured the destruction of every Rohingya man, woman and child, as Myanmar’s military forces have begun killing every Rohingya they can get their hands on.
The Rohingya have also been almost completely helpless. According to Ibrahim, barely half of them are literate. They are forbidden to marry. They have no healthcare. They are forbidden to have children unless they have a license to do so. They have been placed in makeshift concentration camps. According to al-Jazeera, Buddhist extremists have been surrounding the remaining Rohingya villages in Myanmar, chanting “Leave or we will kill you all!” Rohingya houses have been burned down, with the Buddhists maintaining that the Rohingya did it themselves. This obvious falsehood has been accepted as fact by the people of Myanmar. Even the Rohingya who have been lucky enough to escape into Bangladesh have had insane restrictions placed upon them. According to the BBC, Rohingya are not allowed to travel anywhere outside of their allotted refugee camps. The few Rohingya with internet access who have posted on Facebook about their plight have had their accounts suspended.
Bangladesh is also the only country willing to accept Rohingya refugees. India has steadfastly refused to accept Rohingyas, claiming that some have ties with terrorist groups in Pakistan. Those already in India will most likely be deported back to Myanmar. Other countries are simply too far away from Myanmar’s Rakhine province, where most Rohingya live, for refugees to travel to. Bangladesh is already the most overcrowded country in the world (ranking 8th among the entire world in population but only 92nd in land area) and have been dealing with extreme flooding not unlike what the United States saw in Houston in late August. The Rohingya are slowly beginning to have nowhere to turn to.
All of this begs the question- Where is Myanmar’s government? In recent years, Myanmar has transitioned from a dictatorship into a democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Why hasn’t she done anything?
The answer to this question cannot confidently be answered. However, Suu Kyi’s supporters have claimed she has no power to do so, while her detractors say she is simply prejudiced against Muslims. Both sides of this argument have a valid point.
Although Myanmar has become more free since Suu Kyi took over, moving up from “Not free” to “Partially free” in Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom in the World report, the military still holds a lot of power in the government. Myanmar’s military completely controls their media, and holds a quarter of the seats in Parliament. If Suu Kyi were to speak out, it could result in a complete overthrow of her government and the loss of all of the progress she has tried to make for her country.
However, it’s impossible to not put any of the blame for this terrible situation on Suu Kyi’s shoulders. She has taken a Donald Trumpian approach and blamed “both sides” for the violence in Rakhine. She has steadfastly refused to use the term “Rohingya,” even when pressed by the BBC. According to New York Magazine, when she was interviewed by Mishal Husain, she was caught on a hot mic saying “No one told me that I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” For those reasons, it can be assumed that even if she had the power to do something to stop the violence against the Rohingya, she might just choose not to act.
According to CNN, it’s not just Buddhists from the rest of Myanmar killing the Rohingya. CNN interviewed Omar Ali, a Rohingya man who escaped into Bangladesh. From his vantage point, he could see “so many bodies in the water, they were floating down the river like pieces of wood.” That wasn’t what frightened him the most, however. After seeing government helicopters give out weapons to non-Rakhine civilians, he noticed one bone-chilling thing in particular- old friends of his. “I saw these friends of mine put on uniforms and holding weapons. We used to be childhood playmates.”
The violence in Rakhine state is far from over. According to NPR, less than a month after attacks against the Rohingya began, over 270,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee into Bangladesh. Even they’re not safe. Repeatedly throughout the week of September 10, Bangladeshi officials have accused Myanmar of violating their airspace. On the morning of September 19, Bangladesh confirmed explosions near their border with Myanmar. NPR says that the World Health Organization is working overtime, as vaccinations are being planned. A cholera outbreak seems to be their biggest fear, as makeshift refugee camps like the ones in eastern Bangladesh have little to no access to clean water.
However, the Rohingyan plight has gained more and more attention recently. Angelina Jolie, Malala Yousafzai and the UN have all spoken out against this genocide. So has the Dalai Lama, telling the mostly Theravada Buddhist Myanmar that Buddha “would have helped these poor Islamic refugees.” Theravada Buddhism, however, doesn’t recognize the Dalai Lama’s authority. And so the ethnic cleansing continues.
Years from now, people will look back on the Rohingyan genocide going on today and compare it to genocides in the past, such as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide, the Bosnian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide. Hopefully, when these people say that an event like this will never again happen, they will be correct.
This was my first major non-sports story to make the paper. It also proved to be one of my most successful, winning a New England Scholastic Press Association Special Achievement award as a bylined column. Sadly, Rohingya persecution has continued in Myanmar since September 2017.
The murders were covered in greater detail by Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in this article, who were both imprisoned by Myanmar’s government following its release. After pressure from groups such as Amnesty International, the two were finally freed in May of 2019.