In recent weeks, world attention finally has focussed on the desperate situation of the thousands of Rohingya refugees stranded on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea, the horrific remains of staging camps in Malaysia and Thailand and the unbearable conditions at home in Burma that forced them to flee in the first place.
Their plight is by no means a new story, but it has been ignored by those wishing to paint a rosy picture of the new democratic Burma, ripe for foreign investment and support.
Rohingyas in exile, and their supporters, have for years been documenting the increasing abuse. Their status and rights as one of Burma’s formally recognised ethnic groups have been stripped away – to the point that they are labelled “Bengali immigrants” and forced into squalid and overcrowded refugee camps.
The majority of the country’s Rohingyas are not in camps, but in neighbourhoods that have been described as “vast open prisons”. Their movement severely restricted by armed guards. The government says that this is “for their own protection”. George Soros, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944, visited one of these neighbourhoods. He described it as “a ghetto”.
Rejected and oppressed by the Burmese government, about half the Rohingya population, more than one million people, have fled to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Some also have made it to Canada, the UK and Australia.
Successive military governments since the 1970s have demonised the Rohingyas – the only Muslim community with its own ancestral geographic pocket along Burma’s colonial borders – as “a threat to national security”.
While earlier generations often found acceptance in other countries, such possibilities are becoming ever more remote, as countries in the region adopt the barbaric anti-refugee policies instituted by both Liberal and Labor governments in Australia.
Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian governments have now taken minimal steps to allow for the temporary settlement of those Rohingya currently at sea. But they are doing nothing to challenge the Burmese government to address the horrific conditions that continue to force Rohingyas to risk their lives fleeing the country by boat.
In Oslo, Norway, on 26-27 May, a major international conference called this crime by its name: genocide, an intentional destruction of a people as an ethic group
In a pre-recorded address, Desmond Tutu, a leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, called for an end to the persecution.
Tutu’s appeal was amplified by six other fellow Nobel Peace laureates: Mairead Maguire from Ireland, Jody Williams from the USA, Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, Shirin Ibadi from Iran, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel from Argentina.
They said: “What Rohingyas are facing is a textbook case of genocide in which an entire indigenous community is being systematically wiped out by the Burmese government”.
The evolution of this genocide was described in chilling detail by representatives of the Rohingya community and was further analysed by scholars Penny Green, Maung Zarni and Amartya Sen and by Tomas Ojea Quintana, former UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country (2008-14).
The conference called on the Burmese government immediately to end its policies and practices of genocide; to restore full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas; to institute the right of return for all displaced Rohingyas; to provide the Rohingyas with all necessary protection; and to promote and support reconciliation between communities in Rakhine state (which is home to the majority of Rohingyas).
During the conference, three leading monks who have saved Muslim lives in Burma and opposed Islamophobia were given awards by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a 120-year-old interfaith organisation. “These extraordinary monks challenge the widespread perception that all Buddhist monks clamour for violence against the Rohingyas”, said the parliament’s chair, Imam Malik Mujahi.
The Dalai Lama now has added his voice to those of a number of speakers at the Oslo conference calling on Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to come to the defence of the Rohingyas.
She apparently has decided that her electoral fortunes will be aided by staying silent on this issue, thereby retaining the support of racist anti-Rohingya voters. Many who came to her defence while she was under persecution and house arrest by the Burmese government are dismayed by the moral bankruptcy displayed by such electoral calculations.