Yangon, Myanmar (BBN) – The Rohingyas have been described as the world’s most persecuted people.
Rejected by the country they call home and unwanted by its neighbours, the Rohingya are impoverished, virtually stateless and have been fleeing Myanmar in droves and for decades.
In recent weeks, more than 10,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, reports BBC.
They have told horrifying stories of rapes, killings and house burnings, which the government of Myanmar – formerly Burma – has claimed are “false” and “distorted”.
Activists have condemned the lack of a firm international response. Some have described the situation as South East Asia’s Srebrenica, referring to the July 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims who were meant to be under UN protection – a dark stain on Europe’s human rights record.
Tun Khin, from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, says Rohingyas are suffering “mass atrocities” perpetrated by security forces in the northern part of Rakhine state.
A counter-insurgency campaign was launched after nine border policemen near Maungdaw were killed in a militant attack in early October, but the Rohingya say they are being targeted indiscriminately.
The BBC cannot visit the locked-down area to verify the claims and the Myanmar government has vociferously denied alleged abuses.
But UN officials have told the BBC that the Rohingya are being collectively punished for militant attacks, with the ultimate goal being ethnic cleansing.
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities and say they are descendants of Arab traders who have been in the region for generations,
But Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – a common attitude among many Burmese.
The predominantly Buddhist country has a long history of communal mistrust, which was allowed to simmer, and was at times exploited, under decades of military rule.
About one million Muslim Rohingya are estimated to live in western Rakhine state, where they are a sizable minority. An outbreak of communal violence there in 2012 saw more than 100,000 people displaced, and tens of thousands of Rohingya remain in decrepit camps where travel is restricted.
Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya already live in Bangladesh, having fled there over many decades.
Since a dramatic Rohingya exodus from Myanmar last year, the political party of Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has taken power in a historic election, the first to be openly contested in 25 years.
But little has changed for the Rohingya and Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the current violence is an outrage, say some observers.
“I’m not saying there are no difficulties,” she told Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia on Friday. “But it helps if people recognise the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is.”
Her failure to defend the Rohingya is extremely disappointing, said Tun Khin, who for years had supported her democracy activism.
The question of whether she has much leverage over the military – which still wields great power and controls the most powerful ministries – is a separate one, he said.
“The point is that Aung San Suu Kyi is covering up this crime perpetrated by the military.”
But others say international media fail to understand the complex situation in Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims live alongside the mostly Buddhist Rakhine people, who are the state’s dominant ethnic group.
Khin Mar Mar Kyi, a Myanmar researcher at Oxford University, told the South China Morning Post that the Rakhine are the “most marginalised minority” in Myanmar but are ignored by Western media.
In her recent media comments, Suu Kyi said Rakhine Buddhists “are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise “and said she wanted to improve relations between the two communities.
She has now formed a special committee to investigate the ongoing violence in Rakhine state but correspondents say it will disappoint the many people calling for a credible and independent investigation.
It is made up solely of Myanmar nationals, will be led by former general and the current vice-president Myint Swe, and will include the head of the police force.
“People are dying day by day and time is running out,” said Tun Khin.
South East Asian countries generally don’t criticise each other about their internal affairs. It’s a cardinal rule of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
But the current situation has seen some strident criticism from Myanmar’s Muslim-majority neighbours, along with protests. Indonesian police even say they have foiled an IS-linked bomb plot targeting the Myanmar embassy.
Malaysia’s youth and sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin has called for Asean to review Myanmar’s membership over the “unacceptable” violence.
“The principle of non-interference is void when there is large scale ethnic cleansing in an Asean member state,” he said
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, has pledged to do everything possible to stop abuses against “our Muslim Rohingya brothers”.
Leading regional newspapers have condemned Asean’s inaction, with Thailand’s The Nation describing it as an “accessory to murder and mayhem”.
An emergency regional meeting calling for action must urgently be held, said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Myanmar’s foreign minister should also be called on to explain to Asean what is happening in northern Rakhine, Robertson said.
“What we want is both talk and action to really help the Rohingya, not just ministers posturing to gain domestic political points,” he said.
Indonesia’s ambassador to London, Rizal Sukma, told the BBC that a comprehensive approach was needed.
He said an investigation with regional participation should be launched and that his country stands ready to participate.
The UN’s refugee agency says Myanmar’s neighbours should keep their borders open if desperate Rohingya once again take to rickety boats to seek refuge in their countries, as happened early last year.
Spokeswoman Vivian Tan said now would be a good time to set up a regional task force that had been proposed to co-ordinate a response to any such movements.
Separately, former UN-Secretary General Kofi Annan is heading another advisory commission currently looking into the general situation in Rakhine state after being asked in August by Suu Kyi.
But some have questioned how useful this commission will be, given the exhaustive number of reports that already exist. Its report, in any case, will not be released until next year.