More than half a million Rohingyan refugees were forced to flee for their lives from Myanmar (formerly Burma) into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they remain in camps, haunted by the horrors of seeing their villages burned, women raped, and scores of family and friends slaughtered or tortured in places of worship.
A UN human rights report has cited disturbing eyewitness descriptions of numerous killings, including one from a 12-year-old girl who told how security forces and Buddhists from Rakhine state surrounded her house and started to shoot.
They gunned down her seven-year-old sister right in front of her – no child should have to witness such extraordinary brutality and barbarity. In her own heartbreaking words, the young girl recalled: “I tried to protect her and care for her, but we had no medical assistance and she was bleeding so much that after one day she died. I buried her myself.”
The report also states that in some cases, before and during the attacks, megaphones were used to announce: “You do not belong here – go to Bangladesh. If you do not leave, we will torch your houses and kill you.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has said the brutal killing “seems [to be] a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Having fled the savage human rights violations by the army in Rakhine, the Rohingyan people’s nightmare is far from over. They now face the threat of malnutrition, cholera, and other diseases in sprawling makeshift camps along the Bangladesh border and in the Cox’s Bazar district.
While they languish in barely accessible areas of Bangladesh’s floodplains and the international community struggles to get the Myanmar government to accept their responsibilities, SCIAF’s sister agency Caritas Bangladesh is providing food, water and basic essentials.
We’ve already committed £100,000 to Caritas Bangladesh and have been overwhelmed by the generosity of Scots who, within only a few days of launching our Rohingya Emergency Appeal, donated more than £120,000.
The first visit to Rakhine by Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi since violence broke out in August was a conciliatory move that may mark a greater role by the civilian government but, having been a cause celebre for human right activists for decades, her failure to condemn the Rohingya killings is scandalous.
At the heart of this suffering is a fundamental difference in understanding of sovereignty and the nation. Beyond Suu Kyi’s difficulties with army generals and the constitutional limits on her power, a more fundamental issue is whether, having lived there for centuries, the Rohingya have any claim on the Myanmar government or to nationality.
“There are no Rohingya in Myanmar,” the authorities say. “These are Bengalis [illegal immigrants] brought by the British.” Even what to call the Rohingya is a toxic debate.
The history of Myanmar – even of the country’s name – is one of one ethnic group excluding and dominating others. The old name, Burma, reflects the dominance of the Burman people in the country, and therein lies the nub of the problem.
There is an overwhelming consensus among the people of Myanmar, the army and government that the Rohingya people, who do not share the Burman ethnicity, culture or religion, are not citizens of Myanmar.
The government and people of the country don’t seem to feel, or demonstrate, any responsibility for the Rohingya. What is lacking is just, viable notions of citizenship and the nation which serve everyone in the country.
Pope Francis’s visit next month to Myanmar and then Bangladesh shows his pastoral commitment to engage with the highs and lows of the countries. I sincerely hope he will help inculcate some sense of Myanmar’s national civic responsibility towards the Rohingya, who have lived for so long within their borders.
Constitutional changes of this kind would also benefit the Rakhine, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic groups which all have struggles with the government. It’s vital that the Rohingya are recognised as citizens of Myanmar and are able to go home to enjoy the associated rights and responsibilities.
Most immediately, however, it is essential that the violence and ethnic cleansing stops, and that the Rohingya can count on our compassion and generosity to care for their most basic needs.
Please support SCIAF’s Rohingya Emergency Appeal by visiting www.sciaf.org.uk
Alistair Dutton, SCIAF director.