The Rohingya Horror

The Rohingya, whom most of us had probably never heard of before their plight began to be shared via TV and newspapers around the world, are “the world’s most persecuted minority,” according to  Al Jazeera. They are an ethnic group, largely Muslim, that has lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, but have been denied citizenship since 1982.

During the 100 years of British rule (1824-1948) in India, Myanmar (Burma) was administered as a province of India and the migration of laborers from India and Bangladesh to Myanmar was common, although never approved of by Myanmar natives. After independence was granted to Myanmar, citizenship for the majority of Rohingya, who were among such laborers, was denied, although those whose families had lived in the country for two generations were permitted to apply for identity cards. Many were given such cards, some were granted citizenship and some actually served in government.

Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh. (Photo by John Owens, VOA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by John Owens, VOA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Following a 1962 coup that brought the dictator U Ne Win, a military general, to power in Myanmar, things got worse for the Rohingya. By 1982, under a new citizenship law, they were rendered stateless — not recognized as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. To qualify for basic “naturalized citizenship,” Rohingya had to produce proof that their family had lived in the country before 1948 and to be fluent in one of the national languages. If they failed to qualify, and most did, their rights “to work, study, marry, practice their religion and access health services” were and still are restricted, according to the Al Jazeera report.

Crackdowns on the Rohingya carried on throughout the 1970s and resulted in hundreds of thousands of them fleeing the western coastal state of Rakhine, where nearly all of them live, for neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries to escape “reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.” The flow of refugees stepped up after an October 2016 attack on border police which the Myanmar government blamed on an “armed Rohingya group” resulting in Myanmar troops attacking their villages. In November 2016, a United Nations official said Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. According to Al Jazeera, it was “not the first time” the government was accused of such crimes.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the latest crisis is that it is unfolding under the nose of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist.

Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo by Claude TRUONG-NGOC, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo by Claude TRUONG-NGOC, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Myanmar in 1945, her father was the “pro facto prime minister of British Burma” who was assassinated in 1947. In 1960, her mother was named ambassador to India where Suu Kyi completed high school before going on to study at Oxford. She married and had two children in England before returning to Myanmar to look after her dying mother in 1988. By that time, U Ne Win, although he remained active behind the scenes, had handed power over to a military junta.

Very soon, Suu Kyi began to speak out publicly about issues of democracy and human rights, and by 1989, the military government had placed her under house arrest where she would spend much of the next two decades. Although the generals offered to allow her to leave the country, she vowed to remain until the military rulers relinquished power to a civilian government. It was during her time under house arrest that she won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2011, the generals finally gave way to a civilian government, although — significantly — they retained control over the security forces. In 2012, Suu Kyi ran for and won a seat in parliament. In 2015, her party won national elections and although she herself was barred from assuming the presidency, her longtime adviser Htin Kyaw was chosen for the post in 2016 and the position of “state counsellor” was created for Suu Kyi.

When word of the attacks on the Rohingya began to surface, Suu Kyi came under great criticism for her lack of response to the horrific situation. Soon, the various groups that had honored her persistence in bringing about democratic elections in Myanmar began to revoke those honors, including the Freedom of the City of Oxford award and, most recently, the Elie Wiesel Award presented to her by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There have been calls to revoke her honorary Canadian citizenship, but Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, says he does not see that as “a central issue that we need to be focusing on.”

Instead, Rae argues the focus should be on the plight of refugees, like those he visited in October 2017 in Cox’s Bazar, a refugee camp in Bangladesh that is home to over 620,000 Rohingya, mostly women and children. Rae told the Toronto Star that while he’d been to refugee camps in Lebanon and Israel’s West Bank and Jordan, Cox’s Bazar was different:

Other camps very quickly become communities in which people can live and do things. This is, right now, very much a stop-gap measure. And we have to recognize it’s not a stop-gap problem. This is an emergency, but it’s more than an emergency. It’s a serious, serious, humanitarian and political issue.

According to Star reporter Fatima Syed:

There are no roads in this camp, no space for toilets. It’s loud, the air full of the music of children singing, laughing, playing games. People are being inoculated for cholera and measles. Diarrhea is a constant problem.

Rohingya refugees in refugee camp in Bangladesh, 2017 (Photo by Zlatica Hoke, VOA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rohingya refugees in refugee camp in Bangladesh, 2017 (Photo by Zlatica Hoke, VOA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rae, who hopes the world will become more aware of the plight of the Rohingya, also believes there must be more focus on returning refugees to their homes and reintegrating them into Myanmar society.

Anyone paying any attention to the daily news stories — the scenes of refugees crowded together in the camp, the homes in Rakhine burned to the ground — must acknowledge the horror that is taking place. But when the refugees are told, as they have been, that they might be able to return to their homes, you have to laugh — or cry — at the thought of them ever resuming their former lives in such a devastated area.

In January, though, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement that would bring about repatriation of the Rohingya within two years, although the Rohingya are insisting on “secure resettlement and a path to citizenship.”

But Claire Mallinson, National Director of Amnesty International Australia, said her organization has released satellite imaging showing that since January, (perhaps while the signatures were still drying on the agreement):

[T]he Myanmar military – the very people who burned villages, shot, raped and starved Rohingya – have in a matter of weeks done a dramatic land grab.

They’ve started bulldozing down what is left of their homes and places of worship, building military bases on those homes and mosques.

There’s nowhere to return to in a safe and dignified way.

So how are the world’s religious leaders responding to the crisis in Myanmar?

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama (Source: Wikipedia)

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama (Source: Wikipedia)

The exiled Dalai Lama, according to the Irish Times, spoke out very early on about the Rohingya situation, begging his fellow Buddhists “to remember Buddha” and what he taught. “I see [what’s happening to the Rohingya] but I can’t do anything about it,” he said, and criticized any “killing in the name of religion.”

Meanwhile, Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo, on the eve of Pope Francis’ November 27th visit to Myanmar, warned the Pope against any mention of the term “Rohingya” as they are not recognized by most of the Buddhist majority as “an ethnic group.” Pope Francis had previously denounced and strongly condemned “the persecution of our Rohingya brothers” and called for them to receive “full rights.” But Cardinal Bo told the Associated Press that Suu Kyi “constitutionally has no voice to say anything to the military. And she is in her own clever way trying to negotiate with the military so there will be cooperation between the government and the military.” Bo also suggested that Suu Kyi is “trying to implement recommendations by a commission of experts headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities,” which would include Christians. Very recently, the government announced that were “considering the recommendations.”

Bo refuses to accept terms such as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe what is happening in his country, saying that the world should give the situation more time before “using such extreme terms.” But on Facebook, as reported by Reuters, even Buddhist monks are apparently inciting violence against the Rohingya. A hard-line Buddhist monk, Wirathu, after being banned from preaching for one year, emerged recently to state that his anti-Muslim rhetoric had “nothing to do with violence in the Rakhine state.”

Closer to home, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has, to its credit, decided that this year’s Share Lent collection, taken up in all Catholic parishes during the Lenten season, will go entirely to assist the Rohingya, whose plight seems likely to get worse, especially as the monsoon season approaches, before it improves.



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.