In Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country roughly the size of Texas and nestled neatly between Thailand and Bangladesh, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is brewing as a country led by female Nobel laureate Aung Sun suu Ki teeters on the brink of genocide. For years now, Myanmar’s Rohingya people, a Muslim minority ethnic group in the primarily Buddhist country, have been driven from their homes in the country’s Rakhine State into neighboring Bangladesh, but recent escalations in the violence have thrown Myanmar into a crisis.
“The Rohingya fleeing Myanmar are now stateless refugees, making them even more vulnerable and adding more challenges to the search for solutions,”Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tells Bustle.
The Bengali-speaking Rohingya have a long history in Myanmar.
Descended from 18th-century Arab traders and described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted people in the world, an estimated 1.5 million Rohingya make their home in the country, but they’re largely invisible. Myanmar’s government objects to the word “Rohingya” entirely, considering them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — a categorization that renders them ineligible for any form of public services. Many Burmese share the sentiment.
This lack of recognition has understandably made for decades of tension in the country, but the crisis in its current state has been simmering since October 2016, when militants killed nine border police officers in an attack near Maungdaw.
Then, on Aug. 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group, attacked Myanmar security forces. The attack resulted in the deaths of nearly 400 people and served to drive the already-addled country into a frenzy. The current wave of violence is the most atrocious so far — and is only getting worse.
Since late August, satellite images have captured photos of Rohingya villages burned to the ground, while journalists have reported women raped and beaten by the military, infants drowned, and teenagers shot by rifles. Examining the full scope of the situation has been difficult, as Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators.
Kathleen Prior writes a devastating account of the situation for Vice, where a 25-year-old Rohingya woman describes being brutally beaten and having her throat cut by a mob of armed men. The woman’s 1-month-old infant and husband were killed.
Meanwhile, according to United Nations reports, more than 300,000 people have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh in just the past two weeks, where 500,000 Rohingya refugees already live. Those who escape often live for years in refugee camps, with limited access to food, medical care, and education. The UN reports that many of the new arrivals are women that are pregnant or breastfeeding. In his column this week, New York Times reporter, Nicholas Kristof, describes two visits to the country’s camps where he met starving toddlers and young women who had miscarried due to inadequate prenatal care. That is why the crisis in Myanmar is a feminist issue.
UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan described the arrival of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as “the most desperate and devastating thing” she has seen in nearly two decades of working with refugees. “It reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s,” Tan said. “But this is 30 years later. How can it be happening again?”
Legal experts who have studied the country have said that the situation now constitutes genocide. A 2015 study by Yale University found “persuasive evidence that the crime of genocide has been committed against Rohingya Muslims,” similar to crimes perpetrated in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, as examples.
Myanmar’s situation is somewhat unique, though: the country is under the rule of a 72-year-old woman and Nobel laureate who has long been regarded as a champion of human rights and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, was a political prisoner-turned-political darling — everyone from Barack Obama to Bono has lauded her leadership. Suu Kyi spent two decades fighting against Myanmar’s military junta, with 15 years of that spent under house arrest. When she was allowed to contest the country’s election in 2012, she won easily.
In Suu Kyi's 1991 Nobel speech, given two decades after winning the prize, she famously said, speaking to her sufferings, “I thought of prisoners and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, of that great mass of the uprooted of the Earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.”
But on the subject on Rohingya, Suu Kyi has been less than welcoming, claiming that reports of violence against the Rohingya are “fake news” and mostly exaggerated. When one woman provided an account of brutal rapes at the hands of Burmese soldiers, Suu Kyi’s Facebook page called the story fake, even posting a banner image reading, “FAKE RAPE.” As of March, Suu Kyi had never visited a Rohingya refugee camp, according to the BBC.
“When you can call claims of mass rape ‘fake rape,’ as a woman especially, that’s just mind-boggling,” Dr. Rick Halperin, director of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights Program, and former chair of the board of directors of Amnesty International tells Bustle. “If anybody in this world should know about the plight of poor women, especially women at or beyond the margins of society because of their minority status, if anybody should be aware of what it means to be female, it ought to be her.”
Suu Kyi’s silence hasn’t gone without notice in the rest of the world, however. Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have both urged her to speak out against the violence, with Tutu writing this week, “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Yangehee Lee, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has also called on Suu Kyi to step up regarding the situation in Rakhine. “That is what we would expect from any government, to protect everybody within their own jurisdiction." At press time, a Change.org petition to revoke Suu Kyi’s Nobel prize had more than 400,000 signatures.
Some countries in the region have taken action: The Maldives is severing economic ties with Myanmar, while Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned over reports of growing number of deaths and forced displacement of Rohingya Muslims.” Additional protests supporting the Rohingya have taken place in Malaysia and India’s Kashmir region.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Suu Kyi announced that she would not be attending the UN General Assembly, which began on Sept. 12 in New York City.
"The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state,” said spokesperson Zaw Htay, in a statement. “The second reason is, there are people inciting riots in some areas...The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue." Second Vice President Henry Van Tio will attend in her place.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona have introduced a resolution that condemns the violence against the Rohingya and urges Suu Kyi to act. “The Senate urges the Government of Burma to allow unrestricted access to the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” the resolution states, “as well as resume the delivery of field work and aid from critical humanitarian organizations to help those displaced and injured and to monitor events in Rakhine State.”
While it’s easy to feel helpless state-side, there are things you can do to help end the violence against the Rohingya.
Most important, Halperin emphasizes, is education and conversation. “Educate yourself about the history of Myanmar since World War II and demand that the U.S. consider or enact economic sanctions against Myanmar’s government,” he says. “This country should use its economic and moral authority to disentangle itself from Myanmar economically and it ought to be sending much aid to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world.”
If you wish to donate funds, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the office charged with the protection of these people, explains Halperin. The UNHCR is accepting donations directly for Rohingya refugees. While Myanmar has limited aid workers’ access within the country, a UNHCR contribution serves to register new arrivals in Bangladesh and make sure they receive much-needed food, shelter, water, and healthcare. On Tuesday, UNHCR chartered a jet carrying nearly 100 tons of aid, including shelter materials, blankets, sleeping mats, and other items that will serve 25,000 of the families in the camps.
As the crisis continues to grow, the world can only wait and see who steps up and speaks out for the Rohingya.
“It’s bad enough that we’ve witnessed Syria and have done virtually nothing,” Halperin says. “We shouldn’t throw up our hands and watch Myanmar and Bangladesh fall into a similar state.”