Why You Need To Pay Attention To Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim Crisis

by JR Thorpe
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

With the news cycle in the U.S. currently dominated by the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, it wouldn't be surprising if other major worldwide events were passing you by at this very moment. One humanitarian crisis in particular, happening now in Myanmar, shouldn't be passing you by. The Rohingya people are fleeing northern Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to escape violence from the Burmese military, and feminists need to take notice. The crisis, as with many humanitarian disasters, disproportionately affects women and children, particularly because of the threat of sexual violence. It has also forced the international community to reckon with one of the world's most famous feminist leaders, whose silence on this issue has been deafening.

Here's the lowdown. Rohingya Muslims, who number about 1.1 million, have long been persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, as they're considered stateless people without citizenship. In fact, the Guardian has called them "the world's most persecuted people." Clashes between the Rohingya and the Myanmar military have happened since at least the 1970s, but the current outbreak of violence, sparked by a Rohingya militia group allegedly attacking military outposts and killing 12 police, has led to 310,000 Rohingya fleeing over the border to Bangladesh, with others trapped at the border. Knowing what exactly is happening is tricky for outside observers because of the lack of press or humanitarian aid access allowed in Rakhine State, the area of Myanmar where the Rohingya people are forced to live, by the Burmese authorities. But on Sept. 11, the United Nations' top human rights official Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein declared the Myanmar state's treatment of the Rohingya as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," following overwhelming reports by refugees that the military are burning Rohingya villages and raiding homes. It's a horrible and terrifying situation, and women worldwide need to be paying attention.

Rohingya Women Are Among The Most Vulnerable People Worldwide

Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation, and the state regards the Rohingya Muslim community as "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh undeserving of citizenship because of their historical Bengali origins — despite the fact that they've been living in Myanmar since well before the 1940s. (A minority of Rohingya people are Buddhist.) This is far from the first time that they've been forced to flee, either: Tensions between Rohingya people and other Burmese have flared since the 1970s. The conditions of deprivation and human rights violation in which the Rohingya have been living are extensive. Speaking to Al-Jazeera, an anonymous Rohingya man laid out the many ways in which living as a persecuted minority has affected his life. "My movement, education, access to healthcare and career have been heavily restricted because of my ethnicity," he said. "I'm banned from working in the government, denied the right to pursue higher education, barred from visiting the capital, Yangon, and even stopped from leaving northern Rakhine State." But for Rohingya women in particular, the situation is dire because of the twin issues of severe state discrimination and vulnerability to sexual violence.

"Rohingya women face different layers of discrimination and marginalization," wrote Rohingya human rights activist Wai Wai Nu in the Equal Rights Review in 2016. "Not only does the government not intervene to protect Rohingya women, much of the sexual violence comes from the security forces themselves." She also pointed out that Rohingya women are subject to huge personal control by the state, from their marriages to their childbearing. "If a Rohingya woman wants to get married," Wai Wai explained, "she has to get permission from the town administrators. If a Rohingya woman has more than two children, she may have to pay a fine or go to prison and the children may not be included in the family registration list." Rohingya women face everyday discrimination that becomes an escalating crisis in times of conflict.

Rohingya women have proven extremely vulnerable in attempting to escape from Burmese state violence. A report from Human Rights Watch in February alleges that amid the last outbreak of conflict between the Rohingya and the state in 2016, Burmese government forces used rape and sexual violence as tools of war against Rohingya women and girls. Women and girls also face gender-based violence even as they flee. Stories have emerged of Rohingya women fleeing for Malaysia being held to ransom by their smugglers and then sold into marriage. And in this latest wave of violence, women with children have made up the bulk of drowning victims on the Naf River in Bangladesh as they've attempted to cross to safety. 25-year-old Rohingya refugee Rashida, now residing in Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera, "The children kept asking for food, but we could not carry anything with us, only my three children. We crossed the border on a small boat, it felt very dangerous and I thought it was going to sink, so I was clutching my children tightly."

Female refugees are deeply vulnerable in any context. The Women's Refugee Commission points out that, even once women arrive in refugee camps, they remain severely disadvantaged, at risk of sexual violence and exploitation, likely deprived of education and healthcare, and forced into labor. For the Rohingya, however, they're simply moving from one context of violence and possible discrimination to another.

The Nation's Foremost Feminist Leader Isn't Saying Anything

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Another reason that the Rohingya crisis should be a big issue for feminists around the world right now, though, is that the country is currently led by a world-renowned feminist leader — whose response to the crisis, according to some, has left a lot to be desired. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for her decades of campaigning for democracy in Myanmar, then Burma, while under house arrest by the government military junta. Suu Kyi was released from detention in 2010 and her party went on to win the country's first free democratic election in 2015; she is seen as the country's de facto leader, though her official title is "state counsellor." In 2014 she commented: "More women's rights means more human rights and a better, happier world for all of us". Despite this, Suu Kyi has not yet directly responded to the humanitarian crisis happening in her own country.

Highly respected peace activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai and the Dalai Llama, have criticized Suu Kyi for her lack of response to the outbreak of violence. So far, the Burmese leader has said that it is "a little unreasonable" to expect the issue of the Rohingya — who have been an oppressed group in the country for decades — to be solved in 18 months, which is the period since her party took power. She also commented that the government is trying to protect "everybody," adding: "We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens." In March, after the revelation that Rohingya women had told international media about rape and sexual assault at the hands of Burmese military, her official Facebook page was seen to have had the words "fake rape" placed in its banner. She has not explicitly mentioned the Rohingya or visited Rakhine State herself during her time in power. Over 400,000 people have now signed a petition to strip her of her Nobel Peace Prize for not speaking out about the crisis.

Some of the criticism seems to give Suu Kyi power that she doesn't actually have. The former American Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, told NPR that Suu Kyi actually has no control over the military itself, which is responsible for the violence. Lex Rieffel, an expert on Myanmar politics, at the Brookings Institute, explained to the Financial Times that Suu Kyi "has not yet condemned 'the shameful treatment of the Rohingya Muslims' because to do so would be condemning the overwhelming majority of the people who voted for her party in the 2015 election, and even more the military establishment that has yet to accept civilian supremacy in the country’s quasi-democratic political system." In other words, Suu Kyi is playing a game of three-dimensional chess in a country that widely believes the Rohingya to be stateless security threats, and retains a powerful independent military that doesn't answer to her.

Mark Farmaner, head of a Burmese activist group in the UK, also said that focusing on Suu Kyi "distracts from the military's culpability." But as an international symbol for peaceful democracy and female power, her actions are very disappointing for feminists all over the world. The BBC reports that Burmese diplomats are attempting to prevent the UN Security Council from rebuking the country, rather than working to calm the violence itself. Time will tell what kind of mark her response to the Rohingya crisis leaves on Suu Kyi's legacy as a feminist leader. However, this crisis, and the response to it, show that feminist credentials don't mean that a leader will always do the right thing.

Regardless of what action Suu Kyi chooses to take, Rohingya women need help now. If you want to know what you can do to help, go to Muslim Aid, the al-Mustafa Welfare Trust, or the UNHCR to donate to relief efforts for Rohingya refugees.