Recently I had a thought-provoking conversation with one of the Rohingya Muslims in Qatar who had recently fled Myanmar to escape the ongoing turmoil. He told me stories of members of his community being tortured and burnt to death by extremist Buddhist factions. Depressingly, the situation in Myanmar has been worsening in recent months.
In January, it was reported that 48 Rohingya Muslims had been brutally murdered in Rakhine State. As with many previous incidents, the government turned a blind eye towards this outrageous attack.
For Muslims in Rohingya, killings, tortures and starvation have became a horrific reality. The situation has been exacerbated by the recent order made by the Myanmar government to expel several aid groups including Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which had offered medical assistance to nearly 700,000 individuals in Rakhine State. MSF, which had been working in Myanmar for close to two decades, is no longer able to offer help to thousands of desperate Muslims in the country. According to Tom Andrews of United to End Genocide, a US-based activist group, the brutalities that have been taking place in Myanmar are now threatening to become the world’s next genocide.
Myanmar has a reputation as one of the most uncompromising states. Mr Andrews argues that not only has the army failed to safeguard a large number of already persecuted individuals, it has been associated with the use of torture and rape against Myanmar’s minorities.
The army is alleged to have frequently forced Muslim villagers, including children, into unpaid work, even though the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, has repeatedly issued condemnations against such acts. Several reports suggest that many Rohingya women are forced to work as prostitutes by Myanmar’s state forces.
Appropriation of lands owned by Muslims reportedly still persists, particularly farmland in several areas targeted for new villages and Buddhist settlers.
According to the UN refugee Agency, these land appropriations, along with the aggregate impacts of the discriminatory regulations on employment, movement, and educational opportunity, have caused tremendous adversity, heightened poverty and widespread malnutrition among Rohingya communities in Myanmar.
At the same time, it is reported that nearly 140,000 Muslims in Rohingya live in conditions of complete fear, discomfort and seclusion in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.
These people have limited access to food, shelter, water and medical assistance.
Even though there are many aid organisations that are ready to offer assistance, the government prevents them from doing so.
The sectarian violence has displaced thousands from their homes. Some have fled to Bangladesh while many have migrated to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But none of these countries have welcomed these displaced people with open arms. As a result, a large number eventually go back to Myanmar to face the atrocities.
A frightening increase in religious and ethnic divisions and systematic human rights violations are being inflamed by well-funded anti-Muslim hate campaigns led by Buddhist extremists.
It cannot be ignored that the government has failed to put an end to the atrocities and is, instead, aggressively pursuing more coercive legislation against the Muslim communities.
Moreover, the international community has largely maintained its silence on the situation. Myanmar made several public promises during Barack Obama’s diplomatic visit to Rangoon in 2012. Only a few have become a reality.
Yet, as Mr Andrews puts it, Washington is “doing business as usual” with Myanmar.
In addition, although several human rights groups have called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to press Myanmar to end its inhumane practices, it has barely paid lip service to these requests.
Muslims in Myanmar need real, genuine and serious efforts by both the Myanmar government and the world community to end this ongoing misery.
It is difficult to see when all of this is going to end, but one thing has to be made clear: if all of us remain silent, Myanmar’s Muslims will continue to pay a heavy price.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a freelance writer based in Qatar