It’s nice to think we live in a civilized world where people are free to be their own, in terms of religion, ethnicity, and values. Unfortunately, we are not so far removed from great persecution and hatred. While history textbooks selectively tell us about a few historical genocides, primarily the Holocaust, the 20th and 21st centuries have included several atrocious genocides of innocent people.
History textbooks and teachers have to pick and choose what to teach, and often “small-scale” genocides are glossed over or not included at all. I took a 3 week course on recent genocides 2 years ago. I was shocked to learn about many 20th century genocides unknown to me. From 1915-1917, the Armenian genocide occurred and approximately 2 million Armenians were systematically killed under Ottoman Turkey’s reign. The “Holodomor” was a systematic starvation of the Ukrainian people around 1933 where anywhere from 2.5-7.5 million people are estimated to have died. Mao Zedong in China had somewhere between 50-70 million people die under his reign, and many of those deaths can be attributed to the Cultural Revolution. In Cambodia, Pol Pot led a systematic killing over about 2 million people from 1975-1979, many who died from starvation or concentration camps. The violent Rwandan genocide of April 1994 between the Hutus and Tutsis was a 100-day blood bath with around 800,000 deaths. In the Sudanese (Darfur) genocide of 2003, women were systematically raped, wells were poisoned, and around 400,000 people died. Many of these genocides were previously unknown to me, and while I was saddened by these tragic, unjust events, I felt even worse that I was not informed of them.
This same gut-wrenching feeling, of something terrible happening but being totally unaware of it, hit me again a couple of weeks ago when I learned of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been a country of recent democratic progress, but struggles with inhumane systems of child soldiers, human trafficking, internal conflicts, and oppressive regimes. While there are movements to combat this atrocious history, one remnant of this past is the systematic killing and stripping of human rights of the Rohingya people.
The Rohingya people number around 1 million, are traditionally Muslim, and have been deemed “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” by Buddhist Nationalists. Despite this, the Rohingya have lived in Mynamar for generations and consider it their home. They have been persecuted against for decades, but it has increased rapidly over the last few years. In 1982, under Burmese law, they were denied citizenship in their own country. This has made them the largest group of stateless people in the world. As non-citizens, they face legal restrictions including needing permission to travel and marry. Over 140,000 Rohingya are trapped in internal displacement camps since the persecution became deadly in the 2012. Myanmar’s leaders have tried to make it so that the Rohingya simply do not exist in Burmese history, or even in the world today.
According to Daniel Feierstein’s book, Genocide as Social Practice, there are six stages of ethnic cleansing, and the Rohingya are in the sixth stage.
- Stigmatization and dehumanization
- Violence and terror
- Isolation segregation
- Systematic weakening
- Mass annihilation
Recent violent attacks on the Rohingya were portrayed as consequences of local religious tensions, but it appears these attacks were planned and encouraged by authorities. Some 140,000 Rohingya have been sequestered in camps that are guarded by security forces. The camps are like ghettos, with restrictions on movement and are blocked off from the rest of the world. As you can probably infer, these camps have some of the worst living conditions. International aid such as food and medical care sent to the Rohingya never make it there, under mysterious circumstances. The Rohingya are also denied any education and job opportunities. While there have been some brutal attacks against the Rohingya, the living conditions alone are enough to call this movement a genocide. Additionally, the Rohingya have restrictions on their birth rate – the Myanmar authorities are trying to systematically decline the presence of Rohingya people in our world today.
Many of the Rohingya recognize what is happening to them, but fleeing these camps is as potentially life-threatening as staying there. Rohingya attempting to escape, pay human smugglers to get them across tumultuous waters into nearby countries. This is a terrifying option for many reasons. These boats are often overcrowded and unsafe, and smugglers feel they can abandon the group at any time if “the going gets tough.” Many people have drowned at sea as a result of this precarious means of escaping. Additionally, few countries nearby will accept Rohingya – they have been denied access in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and even Australia. Malaysia and Australia (which is hardly a viable option because of the expense) are the goals for many of the Rohingya people, who can at least apply as refugees there. Because of this, boats full of Rohingya people have been stranded at sea for weeks because they had no where to go.
The past few years have seen massive human migration. Refugees from Syria are displaced across the Middle East, looking to move into Europe. Migration from Latin America north to Mexico and the U.S. continues to be a large movement. The Rohingya are proposed as another large group of humans (refugees, specifically) on the move over the next few months and years. And we need to support them.
Several courageous aid organizations have located themselves on nearby islands to provide healthcare and other needs to the Rohingya who can get there. Non-profit organizations focused on human rights have actively pursued the Rohingya cause, but there is a lack of recognition from political and world leaders. It is important for these people to be engaged because they so often are the only ones who can make a difference. Burmese Nobel peace prize laureate, Aun San Suu Kyi, has been commended around the world for her efforts in moving Myanmar to a democratic system. But even San Suu Kyi does not seem to be too engaged in the Rohingya suffering. Keeping the Rohingya under oppression is popular with the Buddhist voters that San Suu Kyi now needs. Unfortunately for San Suu Kyi’s brave acts for democracy in Myanmar, it is being built on xenophobic practices. Other leaders such as President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have large influence over Myanmar as they rise to democracy, have done little to show their dislike (or disgust, as I see it) of the systematic quarantine of the Rohingya. The promise of democracy in a struggling nation is too exciting, too great, to be bogged down by a human rights travesty.
When I learned about and researched the genocide of the Rohingya people, I was disheartened and saddened by the world around me (I can guess you might be feeling about the same way at this point). But in some small way, I felt better by writing this piece and giving recognition to the Rohingya people. While I can’t do much as a world leader or as a non-profit director, I can do a lot with speech and journalism. I can tell people about this issue, question human rights groups about it, and make sure it is known. This genocide is still ongoing because it has been flying largely under the international news radar. If we raise awareness of this systematic destruction, there’s a greater chance the Rohingya people can be helped. It may not be overnight, or over a year even, but even one more person that is aware of this genocide can help. My last point is that we should not be afraid to call this a “genocide.” I find that often people wait to call an event a “genocide” until after it has happened. But it is entirely appropriate to use such a strong, terrifying word as “genocide” in context of the Rohingya people.