By Jessica Weiss
Mass exodus and claims of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar have bore little fruit in media coverage, as a refugee crisis arguably escalating faster than the one in Syria unfolds before the world’s eyes. In an environment where we are so engaged with the political world around us, particularly when it comes to the U.S. government’s mishandling of crises both domestically (Puerto Rico) and internationally (North Korea), perhaps a look at important events elsewhere will benefit our understanding of the international landscape today.
The average one million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar trace their roots in the area back to the 15th century, however, governments in Myanmar do not recognize their inclusion as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country.
The dominant religion in Myanmar is Buddhism, thus even in the state where the majority of the one million Rohingya population resides (Rakhine), they still remain a minority due to their religion, ethnicity, and language. Their identity is not recognized by the state and they are refused citizenship, setting up a foundation for the crisis at hand.
The group faces stringent restrictions on marriage, employment, religious practice and movement, further fueling the community’s battle to exist in Myanmar.
Buddhist nationalists consistently attack Rohingya communities, with the most recent clashes happening in August of this year. This particular incident involved a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which the government in Myanmar designated as a terrorist organization, despite claims by the group that they were defending their civilian populations. Counter-offensives by the military have burned over 200 Muslim villages in Bangladesh, revealed by satellite images.
The violence has led to a mass exodus out of Myanmar into other countries, particularly Bangladesh which has been feeling the pressure of the immense number of refugees. According to the latest report from the Inter Sector Coordination Group in Bangladesh, at least 480,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since clashes began in August.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called upon Myanmar authorities to stop the violence. “They have absolutely nothing,” he said. “Evidently they had to flee from a very urgent situation, from very sudden violence — so they need everything.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human RIghts, denounced the actions of the authorities in Myanmar as well, describing the situation as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and calling on the government to end its operations and take accountability.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister stated, “Bangladesh is not a rich country, it is true. We have 160 million people in a small geographical land,” she said. “But if we can feed 160 million people, another 500 or 700,000, we can do it. We can share our food. We are ready to do it. And our people are already doing it.”
All of this calls into question the motives of the government, especially with an esteemed Nobel peace prize-winning Prime Minister known for her work fighting for democracy in Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has described the Rohingya groups as “terrorists” who set fire to their own homes to provoke response, overlooking the criticisms of the international community and claiming that there is “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”
These are not new criticisms of the Prime Minister, as Suu Kyi’s attempts to fulfill her role as a fighter for the people seem to have fallen short.
While many other problems rage much closer to home, the issue of the Rohingya in Myanmar is one not to be ignored. We look at what happened in Syria and a common view is that we have forgotten them. Here, we are confronted with a problem growing immensely in scale, yet not focused on enough due to the extensive coverage of our own country’s problems. Our lack of interest in an incident of possible ethnic cleansing is terrifying, and we must work to tailor and improve the coverage we receive so that we are better equipped to discussing and being outraged about these issues.