Rohingya shelter in the world's largest refugee camp

Rohingya in a refugee camp, Bangladesh (Tasnim)Rohingya in a refugee camp, Bangladesh (Tasnim)A refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of southeastern Bangladesh now holds more than 700,000 Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military has been accused by the United Nations of genocide (an intentional action to destroy an entire people) in Rakhine State, northwestern Myanmar. The UN report said it found evidence of mass extermination and expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims. It said that the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, in Rakhine “undoubtedly amounted to the gravest crimes under international law”. The military were “killing indiscriminately ... assaulting children and burning entire villages”, all of which constitute "crimes against humanity".

Rohingya people

Rohingya women (Tasnim)Rohingya women (Tasnim)Until 2016, around 1.1 million Rohingya people lived in Myanmar (previously called Burma), chiefly in the northern part of Rakhine State in the far northwest of the country, near the border with Bangladesh. Mostly Muslim, the Rohingya speak a language similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong in Bangladesh. The Rakhine (once called Arakanese) people, another of Myanmar's many ethnic groups, are Burmese-speaking Buddhists. They form the majority population in all parts of Rakhine State except the north. 

The Myanmar government regards the Rohingya as "illegal immigrants" and refuses to grant them citizenship of Myanmar. Tough restrictions have been placed on the Rohingya’s freedom of movement, access to medical care, education and other basic services.

Rohingya people in Rakhine State (PANONIAN)Rohingya people in Rakhine State (PANONIAN)

History of the Rohingya

The Rohingya people trace their ancestry to Persian and Arab traders, who settled in Arakan (the old name for Rakhine) from the 9th century AD. In the late 18th century, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan were forced to flee persecution by the Burmese to neighbouring Bengal, then part of British India

In the early 19th century, the British rulers of Bengal encouraged Bengalis to migrate to Arakan (which, since 1824, had, like the rest of Burma, come under British rule) to work in the rice paddies of that fertile region. By the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis—most of them Muslims—were living in Arakan (as well as many other regions and cities of Burma), boosting the Rohingya population.

Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village (VOA)Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village (VOA)

Outbreak of violence

For decades, tensions between peoples have simmered in Rakhine State, with frequent outbreaks of violence. In 2016, around 87,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh and government troops stepped up their presence in the state. The UN and human rights groups accused the Myanmar government of seeking to rid the country of Muslims, which it denied.

Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar (Tasnim)Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar (Tasnim)Violence broke out in northern Rakhine State on 25th August 2017, when Rohingya militants from the the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked the Myanmar armed forces. In response, the army launched a “clearance operation”, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Refugees have since spoken of massacres in their villages, where they say soldiers raided and burned their homes. So far, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya people have been killed. The Myanmar government claim the Rohingya burned their own homes and killed local Buddhist people. They say they are targeting the ARSA because they are "terrorists".

More than 700,000 Rohingya have since fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Those who made it to the border walked for days, hiding in forests and crossing mountains and rivers.

Rohingya boy in a refugee campRohingya boy in a refugee camp

Refugee camps

Most Rohingya refugees are now living in established camps or shantytown settlements along the border, or are sheltering in Bangladeshi villages. Aid agencies warn of a growing crisis in the overstretched camps, where supplies of water, food and medicines are running low. Thousands of children are suffering from malnutrition. Lack of sanitation puts all camp-dwellers at risk of disease. Many shelters, made from tarpaulin sheets fixed to bamboo poles, have been built on steep slopes of unstable earth. This makes their inhabitants vulnerable to floods and mudslides during the monsoon season, which runs from June to September. Meanwhile, the camps have merged to form the world's largest refugee camp.

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar (DfID) Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar (DfID)

Rural scene in northern Rakhine State (DYKT Mohigan)Rural scene in northern Rakhine State (DYKT Mohigan)

Rohingya in Rakhine

There are also fears for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people who remain in northern Rakhine State. UN aid agencies have reportedly been blocked from supplying food, water and medicine to the Rohingya. Forbidden to work or to go to school or college, the Rohingya must apply for permission from the government if they want to travel, even just to another village. The Rohingya also suffer from discrimination and mob violence by other peoples in Rakhine State. Meanwhile, the army has bulldozed their abandoned, burnt-out villages.

Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi 

When Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in Myanmar as head of the civilian government in 2016, many expected the Nobel peace prize winner to help calm tensions and end the violence between Myanmar's ethnic groups. But she has been accused of failing to condemn the violence being committed against the Rohingya. Both the military and the civilian government have stated that the actions of the armed forces were an appropriate response to “terrorists”.

The UN report criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue. It found that while she had no power over the generals it named as responsible, she “had not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state.”

Myanmar police patrolling in Rakhine State, 2017 (VOA)Myanmar police patrolling in Rakhine State, 2017 (VOA)

War of words

After the UN report was released, Facebook removed 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with the Myanmar military, including that of Min Aung Hlaing, its commander-in-chief. The Tatmadaw have often used their Facebook pages to spread anti-Rohingya feeling. “We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” Facebook said.  A spokesperson for the Myanmar military denied the claims. “The Facebook page of the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is publicizing true and confirmed information for the public.” 

The authorities in Myanmar have not yet convicted anyone for carrying out the massacre of Rohingya villagers. Instead, they have handed out seven-year jail terms to two Burmese journalists working for a news agency who had been investigating the killings of Rohingya men found in a mass grave.

A solution to the crisis?

Rohingya protesting against repatriation (VOA)Rohingya protesting against repatriation (VOA)Since late 2017, the UN, along with Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials, have drawn up plans for the repatriation (sending home) of Rohingya refugees. Resettlement sites have been selected in Myanmar. But Rohingya leaders have strongly criticized the plan, saying it fails to address the concerns of their community. Human rights groups are concerned about the safety of Rohingya returning to a hostile environment in Rakhine State.

The refugee crisis, meanwhile, shows no sign of ending.

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