In 2014, Myanmar tied with the United States for the title of most generous country in the world. This is a curious honor to grant a country that has systematically persecuted its minority Muslim Rohingya population for decades, denying them access to adequate food supplies, health care and education.
Since 2012, however, the situation for the approximately 1.3 million Rohingya has steadily deteriorated due to ethnic clashes between the minority Muslims and the majority Buddhists. State-sponsored violence has become more common and accepted, even despite the country’s transition to democracy in 2011. Indeed, democracy is failing human rights as political parties gain public support through their advocacy of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Frequent acts of cruelty directed at the Rohingya, including murder, forced labor and mass scale arrests, have caused more than 100,000 of the minority group to flee the country and left another 140,000 internally displaced.
The actions committed by Myanmar’s government are criminal and, by the standards imposed by the International Criminal Court, must be classified as crimes against humanity. Even more, due to their flagrant infringement of four of the five criteria used by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to define genocide, these human rights abuses amount to genocide. To be clear, only one of these criteria needs to be violated for a government’s actions to be classified as genocide, yet these brazen acts of inhumanity can be classified as genocide on multiple counts.
For 30 years, Myanmar has established a racist apartheid within its own country, producing a system wherein the Rohingya have an infant mortality rate that is three times the national average, a doctor-patient ratio that is 1:200 of the national average and a 90 percent rate of illiteracy in a country with a 95.4 percent literacy rate — one of the highest in all of Asia. Even more, Rohingyas are unable to improve their circumstances by accepting international aid from groups such as Doctors Without Borders due to the harsh ban enacted by the government. Making matters worse, they cannot fight for change democratically, since they have been denied citizenship and voting rights.
The most generous country of 2014 is also among the most criminal and cruel toward one of its own minority groups, and there has not been enough international outrage or activism to combat this tyranny.
Indeed, the United States has expended an alarmingly little amount of energy attempting to rectify the crisis in Myanmar, especially considering the Obama administration’s hailing of Myanmar’s transition to a democracy. While the United States has in part lived up to its title of most generous nation by agreeing to take in refugees through an international cooperative effort, no huge push has been made to organize such an effort toward rescuing the stranded Rohingya.
Even worse, instead of outspokenly demanding justice and human rights provisions, many countries have themselves become criminal, or simply criminally negligent. India and China, the two economic powerhouses that border Myanmar, have simply allowed the human rights abuses to continue through their passive refusal to castigate the nation’s government or pressure the country with economic sanctions.
India is slightly less culpable than China, since it has grudgingly accepted approximately 10,000 Rohingya refugees and has less political and economic influence in Myanmar than China.
Other neighboring countries have followed this example and are doing little to help, if anything at all. Indonesia and Malaysia have created temporary government shelters, in which the Rohingya migrants can reside and receive humanitarian aid, provided that they return home or resettle in another country after only one year. However, even in these countries the Rohingya, lacking legal status, are condemned to widespread threats of exploitation and human trafficking.
The Rohingya are also prevented from leaving the government camps, which effectively bar them from any jobs or educational opportunities. The conditions in Bangladesh are even worse, where the government, in order to protect its tourist industry, is attempting to move 32,000 Rohingya refugees to the remote island of Thengar Char, which disappears completely under high water at high tide and has no roads or flood defenses.
However, the harshest and most brutal responses come from Thailand and Australia. Thailand has stated in no uncertain terms that it will refuse to grant asylum to the forlorn Rohingya who are attempting to sail to safety on what have been dubbed “floating coffins.” Even worse, those Rohingya who do arrive in Thailand via human traffickers are often tortured, raped and starved to death while they are extorted for ransom. A mass grave from such a camp was uncovered in May, and many more undoubtedly exist.
There is a bloody stain spreading across the region, and the crime that began with just the Myanmar government has been exacerbated by the callous international response to the brutalized Rohingya population.
Indeed, Australia — a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, the fourth most generous country and the 12th largest economy in the world — is perhaps the most culpable of these countries. The Australian government is determined to prevent any entry by Rohingya refugees and is not only turning back boat-fulls of desperate, dying Rohingya, but has also bribed human traffickers to turn at least 20 boats full of migrants back to Indonesia in the last 18 months after intercepting them at sea. By doing so, the Australian government is effectively engaging in human trafficking, a crime that simply has no excuse in such a socially and economically progressive country.
Dozens of Rohingya are burned alive, hundreds are dumped in mass graves, thousands starve or sink helplessly into the sea, yet countries with the power to stop these crimes or simply provide refuge to those being persecuted instead opt to close their borders and harden their rhetoric. How has it become acceptable to tolerate such inhumanity?
There can be no more silence, no more negligence or heartless indifference. We are witnessing the next genocide. We must act.
Safiyah Bharwani is a College sophomore from Sugar Land, Texas.