The Rohingya: Refugees and Survivors
On April 17th, Richard Reoch, a Canadian-born Buddhist monk who has previously served as the spokesperson for Amnesty International, came to Al Akhawayn University to speak about the recent humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
The crisis, Mr. Reoch told a dense crowd of AUI students, faculty, and staff, began a long time ago, but only came to a head in August of 2017. The conflict exists between two ethnic groups in Myanmar: the Burmese—the Buddhist majority who constitute 68% of the population—and the Rohingya—a majoritarily Muslim (and yet still religiously plural) ethnic minority. Although the remaining 32% of Myanmar’s population is constituted of 135 ethnic groups, there are several groups—such as the Rohingya—who are not officially recognized by the government. In the 51 years since Myanmar gained its independence, there has never been a government capable of brokering peace between these groups.
This lack of recognition is only one manifestation of the Myanmarese government’s treatment of the Rohingya. Other more significant examples can be found in the government’s decision to strip the Rohingya of their citizenship, their historical persecution of their countrymen, and their forcing them to live in apartheid-like squalor. Indeed, despite the Rohingya having lived on the same lands for centuries—one that is rich in natural resources such as oil—they have been denied important assets, such as access to education or healthcare.
Tired of their plight, a group of independent Rohingyians—unaffiliated with official Rohingyian authorities—took it upon themselves to attack an army outpost. In response to this attack, Myanmar’s government sanctioned the commencement of “cleansing operations” in an effort to “protect [their] race and [their] religion”. Severe though this reaction is, what is more noteworthy is that three weeks prior to the order—before the Rohingyian had even attacked—the Myanmarese army had already been given orders to place themselves near Rohingyian settlements.
Thus, in August 2017, the Rohingya were forced to flee across the western border into Bangladesh, their villages having burned to the ground and their people massacred: two weeks after the initial announcement, all Rohingya villages had been targeted. Maps of the sites on which the Rohingya had lived for generations show absolutely nothing; after being burned down, the Myanmar government sent in bulldozers to clear the site of any traces of human presence.
The Rohingya fled what they call “the Buddhist Terror”. Upon pronouncing this term, Mr. Reoch grew silent, his eyes full of tears, his voice quavering. After recomposing himself, he told the audience that Buddhists around the world, himself included, are horrified by what Myanmar’s Buddhist majority has done in the name of their common faith claiming it to be “an assault on our common humanity” which the world must be woken up to.
Since arriving in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have set up a mass camp. There are currently 65 million displaced people in the world—some forcibly displaced from their countries, others displaced within their countries—however, it is estimated that the Rohingya constitute one million of these. A quarter of these Rohingyian refugees are children, most of who have lost either one or both parents. More than half of the refugees are women and girls: 80% of the recent arrivals are also women and girls. UN Women has stated that almost all these women and girls are either survivors of or else bore witness to rape, gang rape, dismemberment, or murder.
In his presentation, Mr. Reoch emphasized the state of the camp by showing recent photos of men, women, and children of all ages living in bamboo homes whose thatching has been hewn from plastic and whose grounds stand bare. He warned the crowd that as June approaches, so too does yet another danger: monsoons that threaten to annihilate the homes and turn the campgrounds into a muddy death camp.
Mr. Reoch also shared the stories of the survivors he had spoken with. He spoke of a young girl, not even five, who had been deliberately shot in the back. He spoke of men and women who had staggered into the camp on the brink of death, dismembered and bleeding. He spoke of a mother of five who had watched her husband step on a landmine. He spoke of young men carrying older men on their backs for days on end without food or water. And he spoke of women traumatized to the point that they could not share their stories. Such individuals arrive in the camp on a daily basis to this day, months after the massacre.
One woman, who felt the need to share her story, recounted the destruction of her life: she told Mr. Reoch how the soldiers had rounded up all the women in her village, how they had locked them in a house, and how they had set it ablaze. She is the sole surviving women of her village and the burns line her body, from her feet to her face.
Despite all this, myriad narratives are currently in circulation, many of which take radically different stances. The official story told by the Myanmarese government and many of its media outlets is that the Rohingya simply burned their own homes and ran way. Other outlets go so far as to claim that the Rohingya never existed. Those journalists that have attempted to either objectively report the events or else slander the Myanmarese government’s actions have received death threats and undergone severe prosecution. Yanghee Lee, for instance, the UN Rapporteur in charge of Myanmar has been banned from entering the country after decrying these atrocities. Many have also branded the UN terrorists due to their attempt to intervene.
Whether this is genocide or massacre is still being debated. However, Beth Lalich—a genocide historian—claims that this instance contains all the historical signs that characterize textbook genocide: an independent community, living in their ancestral land, which is systematically annihilated by the military and government.
All this raises a question: so what can the rest of the world: what can we do: what can I do? Mr. Reoch says that there are two courses of action that can be taken here.
The first thing people can do is simply spread the word. Given that the newsroom is subject to the whims of an Attention Economy and that the events are no longer hitting the front page due to their proximity to today’s date, people have already begun to forget. However, though the killings are no longer taking place, the survivors still find themselves displaced: they still need help. The survivors, Mr. Reoch told the crowd, want their stories to be told: conversely, the instigators want the world to forget. The second thing people can do, Mr. Reoch says, is to help the survivors gain access to basic needs: they have no food, water, or clothing. In light of the approaching monsoons, it is estimated that the refugees need one billion dollars in order to properly prepare themselves for yet another devastating event.
During his time at the camp, Mr. Reoch was privy to conversations discussing the Rohingyians’ possible return to Myanmar. Though most seemed to deem this unlikely given the current climate, representatives speculated that they could eventually return should a few conditions be met. Firstly, they would need to see the creation of safe zones. This, however, would prove to be a delicate undertaking as it would necessitate the cooperation of the Myanmar government and the United Nations. Next, they would want their citizenship returned to them. Again, however, this would require a complete reversal in policy. Finally, they would want justice to be served to those who committed the atrocities. Given how the government has dealt with both the events and the fallout, this, too, seems unlikely as it would necessitate the convention of a special court capable of trying officials for war crimes, a feat that might take years.
In the face of the horrors that lay in the past and the uncertainty that shapes the future, Mr. Reoch says that it is important to remember and to share these stories so as to “wake the world up” once more. If one man is capable of igniting such an event, he assured the crowd, think about what the world can do if it comes together to diffuse it and help.
Written by Liam Reilly