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“A Systemic Failure of the United Nations”: The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

Updated: Aug 5, 2019

Take a look at your Instagram feed. It’s filled with posts asking for prayers for Yemen, profile pictures turned a specific shade of blue for Sudan, and the occasional meme. But, where are the posts about the crisis in Myanmar?

Since we, the younger generation, get a large amount of our information from our social media pages, it’s easy to be oblivious to the situation. This is what’s happening, or rather, what’s been happening in the small country that borders Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh.

Currently, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is having a crisis, with approximately 712,700 Rohingya people fleeing their homes in hopes of surviving oppression from the Myanmar military. As an ethnic group that is predominately Muslim but resides in Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya have always faced discrimination, with the United Nations dubbing them “the most persecuted minority in the world.”

The Rohingya have had a tumultuous relationship with the native Myanmarese for centuries, beginning with the immigration policy the British implemented during their colonization of the region. The reigning government for over 100 years (1824-1948) considered both Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of India, rendering all movement of Rohingya workers internal migration. The indigenous people of Myanmar resented this, believing that they are truly “illegal Bengalis,” thus planting the seeds of racism and prejudice. Since then, the hatred for the Rohingya has only grown, finding support in ultranationalist movements within Myanmar.

The Rohingya, have been denied any sort of Myanmar citizenship status since 1982, leaving them a stateless nation. Additionally, they have not been acknowledged as one of the 135 distinguished national cultural groups, even though they have a population of 1.1 million in the country alone.

The prejudice against the Muslim group goes beyond the government’s claims that they are “illegal migrants” and “Bengals”. The country has a history of discriminatory policies, including the deprivation of identity documents, the closing of mosques, requiring specific permits to travel, denying access to healthcare, restricting available education, and prohibiting them from public office. The government has worked to make laws so stringent, that even in the event of an emergency, one must have the approval of an official to be admitted into hospitals. Their only means of authorized travel is by sea, unable to use roads during travel. Students are taught in Rohingya-specific schools led by “untrained volunteers,” who are not remotely qualified to handle the number of students nor provide them with an adequate education. The government also implemented strict limits on Rohingya marriages, birth control, and set a limit of 2 children per couple.

Findings from the UN Independent Report commissioned by the secretary general, António Guterres. Source: United Nations Human Rights Council

Years of prejudice and injustice came to a boiling point in both June and October 2012, where riots and protests broke out, resulting in over 100,000 Rohingya being displaced and hundreds dead as a result of villages and crops being systematically burned down, with the majority taking a perilous voyage to Malaysia for safety. A cease-fire between various armed ethnic groups was signed in October 2015, but the Rohingyan fight for rights continues.

More recently in August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army bases in the Rakhine State, which killed over 70 people, and amongst them, 12 Myanmarese security forces personnel. The act revitalized tensions, with the military instigating a ruthless crackdown as retaliation, murdering approximately 10,000 Rohingya people. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, with the majority heading to Bangladesh, and an estimated 200,000 are in jeopardy during monsoon season.

The United Nations, whose job is to promote international peace and security, has been unorganized in their approach, with “no common strategy” to end the conflict. And even when they did strategize, their efforts to collaborate with the Myanmar authorities were “relatively impotent.” In a report conducted by the UN itself, Gert Rosenthal, a previous Guatemalan foreign minister claimed that the crisis could be summed up as “a systemic failure of the United Nations.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called the crisis a “textbook definition of ethnic cleansing,” as nearly 300,000 escaped Myanmar over 3 weeks in late 2017.

Unfortunately, the future of the Rohingya, especially the 500,000 left in Myanmar, is bleak, as the Myanmar government has shown no signs of prioritizing this global issue. Further complicating this is the ongoing power struggle between Myanmar’s de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military. The military holds most of the power, even having put Suu Kyi under house arrest until 2010, which prohibited her from seeing her family or defying their wishes. Bangladesh, the main asylum for the refugees is currently alerting other nations and asking for help in addressing the situation, as it is unsustainable for them to handle on their own.

As of right now, the United States has implemented sanctions on top generals, senior officers, and their families due to human rights violations. According to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there has been “credible evidence” that supports the claim that government officials played a role in the conflicts that took place in 2017. These sanctions prohibit these select few from entering the United States, making a negligible impact at best. But, complete sanctions on Myanmar as a whole are a highly debated option. According to a study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the most proactive way to influence Myanmar is to strengthen economic ties and work to better diplomacy. As Myanmar’s largest trading partner, China holds the most leverage over the crisis-stricken country, making it the most capable of influencing the military to stop its reign of terror.

Although most of us cannot go to Bangladesh and directly help with the refugees, we can spread awareness. If you would like to donate to groups that advocate for the Rohingya or provide aid, here are a few suggestions of approach: post correct information about the crisis on your social media pages, donate to certified charities, like UNICEF, BRAC, or Action Against Hunger, or have discussions with your friends and family about the situation.


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