The World's Blind Spot: Shedding Light on the Persecuted

By Phillips, Alexandra | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

The World's Blind Spot: Shedding Light on the Persecuted


Phillips, Alexandra, Harvard International Review


Children starve. Young girls sell their bodies to eat. There is no clean drinking water. There are no doctors. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps. As the rainy season approaches, waterborne diseases will spread like wildfire. This is the plight of the over 200,000 Rohingya who survive in makeshift refugee camps along the Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. Although their situation is dire, they are better off than the Rohingya being slaughtered back in Myanmar. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are the world's most ignored and persecuted minority. They have faced decades of neglect and dehumanization while the world stands by; it is time for the response of the international community to change. The situation in Myanmar has reached a tipping point and the country is a tinderbox, ready to ignite into violence. The inaction of the international community has allowed the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority to escalate into state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and a spreading humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

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The Rohingya Muslim minority, a group of roughly 800,000 people residing in the western Burmese state of Rakhine, faces a long history of persecution and alienation. They exist today as a stateless race denied basic human rights, unwanted in Myanmar or abroad. Their plight stems from the fact that they are not recognized as citizens by the Burmese state and are instead considered illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh, where they are not welcome either. In 1977, the military government commenced Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) to identify illegal immigrants residing in Burma. The violence and religious persecution that followed led more than 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. In 1982, former dictator General Ne Win enacted the Burma Citizenship Law, which identified 135 official ethnic minority groups, of which the Rohingya were not one. Immigrants that settled in Myanmar before independence in 1948 are considered legal immigrants; all others are considered illegal immigrants unless they can prove their ancestors immigrated to Burma before 1948. As the records needed to trace ancestry are not available to the vast majority of Rohingya families, the Rohingya minority remains a group without civil rights, official recognition, or justice. There exist many examples of the dehumanization of the Rohingya under national law: they have no property rights, they have no identification cards, they are subject to curfews, they are denied access to higher education or government positions, they have exorbitant marriage fees, and Rohingya couples are limited to two children.

This divide between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority erupted into violent clashes in 2012. It began on May 28 when three Muslim men raped and murdered a Buddhist woman in the state of Rakhine. About a week later Buddhist vigilantes retaliated by pulled ten Muslim men off a bus and beating them to death. This incident was the tipping point that set off waves of ethnic riots across the western state of Rakhine. However, it was not just Rakhine extremists and Rohingya clashing in these violent eruptions. Apparently, local government authorities aided Rakhine extremists in the destruction of Rohingya villages.

The conflict has escalated as the government has transformed regional ethnic riots into state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and genocide. In July, President Thein Sein released a statement saying that Burma could not accept an illegal minority group such as the Rohingya and that the Rohingya should be put under the jurisdiction of the UN and removed from Myanmar. Although the UN did not accept this statement, it is a shocking indication that the Rohingya are not welcome to remain in Myanmar any longer and undergirds subsequent government violence against the group.

Human Rights Watch has released a report titled 444All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma's Arakan State," which the government has dismissed as "unacceptable" and one-sided.

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