By Assad Bhuglah
On Friday 1st September 2017, while most of the Muslim world was celebrating Eid el Adha, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the international community of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in western Myanmar and urged the country's security forces to show restraint after 400 people -- most of them Rohingya Muslims -- died in communal violence. "The secretary-general is deeply concerned by the reports of excesses during the security operations conducted by Myanmar's security forces in Rakhine State and urges restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," said a U.N. spokesman. The violence has sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh, while scores of desperate people have drowned trying to cross a border river in makeshift boats. Reports of massacres and the systematic torching of villages by security forces -- as well as by militants -- have raised fears that the violence in Rakhine is spinning out of control.
Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar face death and uncertainty as they try to make their way into Bangladesh, fleeing a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military that has killed thousands. Stuck between the brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army and a closed border with Bangladesh, the Rohingya Muslims' chance of survival is slim.
The plight of the Rohingya community constitutes a very complicated problem with its historical roots in the legacy of British colonialism and its present amid global power struggles in Southeast Asia. Following British annexation of Arakan state in 19th century, most Rohingyas migrated there from Bangladesh. But during independence in 1948, the state was allocated to Buddhist Myanmar rather than the Muslim eastern Pakistan – now Bangladesh – and since then, Rohingyas have always been seen as a national security threat by the Myanmar government. They were deprived of their citizenship rights as early as 1948, and lost their legal existence as an ethnic group in 1982. Rohingyas face fundamental rights abuses. Myanmar's nationality law, approved in 1982, denies Rohingya citizenship. According to the law, foreigners cannot become naturalized citizens of Myanmar unless they can prove a close familial connection to the country. Rohingyas are not recognized among the 134 official ethnicities in Myanmar because authorities see them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They are subjected to forced labour, have no land rights and are heavily restricted by the government. They have no permission to leave the camps built for them, have no source of income and have to rely on the World Food Program to survive.
According to United Nations records, Rohingyas constitute the most persecuted minority in the world. Their persecution has continued almost uninterrupted for decades, but the global public only became aware of when there was a sudden deterioration in widespread human suffering and violence. Although Muslims constitute 4 percent of Myanmar's population of 60 million, since 1982, Rohingyas, as the largest Muslim group, are considered stateless, undocumented immigrants in their homeland. They have no citizenship, no registration or legal rights, no rights to ownership and no rights to marry or receive an education along with no resettlement options. So when they are attacked, persecuted or accused for domestic instability – as Myanmar's authoritarian government frequently does, they are practically defenceless, because legally, they do not exist.
Systematic ethnic cleansing, pursued by the military regime since 2012, triggered a decline in the local population from 1.3 million to 800,000. It is estimated that around 100,000 civilians lost their lives and 400,000 were forced to migrate to neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia. The Myanmar government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi refused to cooperate with United Nations investigators probing continued abuses and violence against Rohingya Muslims.
The plight of Rohingyas became a matter engulfed in global power struggles among the United States, Russia and China after 2004, when massive energy reserves were discovered in Rakhine state. China completed two geo-strategically important oil and natural gas pipelines in 2013 from Rakhine to its Yunnan province and gained the opportunity to bypass the busy Malacca Straits in its transport of energy resources from the Middle East. This territorial link to the Indian Ocean made Myanmar and Rakhine extremely valuable for Beijing in view of its global energy strategy.
Moscow is also aligned with Beijing in its support of the military regime in Myanmar against Western interference and diversification of energy routes. Therefore, China and Russia are likely to block any potential decision against Myanmar at the UNSC.
In return, the U.S. and Western media started to publicize the plight of Rohingyas and human rights violations in Myanmar in an effort to discredit the authoritarian regime of which Beijing as its most ardent supporter. But this support is only conjuncture and is not based on principles, as even the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to accept that Rohingyas are targeted in ethnic cleansing.
Unless there are radical changes in the balance of power among the relevant actors, the current crisis and suffering in Rakhine seems set to continue. Unless the core issues of citizenship, equality and justice are addressed, the crisis has the potential to undermine regional stability, not to mention the decay of brotherly consciousness among the ummah.
The silence of several Muslim countries on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims is quite intriguing. No Muslim country other than Turkey seems to be showing sensitivity towards the massacres happening in Myanmar. Turkey has been doing its part to send humanitarian aid to the suffering people and in order to put an end to violence. But just delivering aid is not enough. On the occasion of Eid day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held numerous phone calls with Muslim leaders all over the world to call for intensified efforts to solve the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Turkey is mobilizing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with a view to holding a summit regarding the Rakhine state this year, with the hope of finding a decisive and permanent solution to this problem. In the meantime, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has called on Bangladesh to open its doors to Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state and Turkey is prepared to pay all the expenses.