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What’s Happening With the Rohingya Crisis Now?

December 18, 2019, 10:26 PM UTC

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While raceAhead often covers U.S.-centric news on culture and minority communities, we know there’s interest in global events as well. So today we offer a timely explainer on a grave topic: the Rohingya crisis.

Around 745,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since violence against the ethnic minority started in 2017—most to neighboring Bangladesh, according to OCHA. As of March 2019, over 909,000 Rohingya refugees have gathered in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is now home to the world’s largest refugee camp. There they remain, refusing early repatriation for fear for their lives.

Their plight is a stark contrast to the home reception Myanmar’s state chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi received after returning from the Hague to defend the country against genocide charges. She was welcomed by “galvanised supporters, who staged rallies across the country chanting ‘Stand with Suu Kyi’ and waving flags,” reports Reuters

Speaking to supporters yesterday, she thanked them for being “a great source of strength,” during her defense, in which she claimed a misconstruction of facts. “The situation in Rakhine is complex and not easy to fathom,” she said at the Hague.

Here’s how we got here.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority from the northern areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. While they made up about one-third of the Myanmar population, there’s a long history of the government denying their citizenship.

From Encyclopedia Britannica: “The use of the term Rohingya was highly contested in Myanmar. Rohingya political leaders have maintained that theirs is a distinct ethnic, cultural, and linguistic community that traces its ancestry as far back as the late 7th century. However, the broader Buddhist populace in general rejected the Rohingya terminology, referring to them instead as Bengali, and considered the community to be largely composed of illegal immigrants from present-day Bangladesh.”

While the Rohingya have long faced persecution, and have been displaced on other occasions, none were like the wave that began on August 25, 2017. 

What prompted the mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar? 

In 2017, the Myanmar military began a brutal campaign that targeted all Rohingya, claiming they were responding to an attack from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and that the campaign was a part of counterrorism efforts. Reports came in of villages being burned and civilians killed. In an address to the Human Rights Council in September that year, then-UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said the “situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shared similar concerns

And, in a report released last May, a UN fact-finding mission gave further evidence and called for military officials to be tried for “charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

How has the influx of Rohingya refugees affected Bangladesh?

Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated nations, has felt the financial strain of housing so many Rohingya refugees. And many international appeals for funds have not been fully met. “It’s a big burden for Bangladesh, no doubt about it. But what they faced was almost some kind of genocide,” says Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. That’s not to say that the situation has been without its tensions, especially with attempts to hasten repatriation to Myanmar, which were cancelled due to Rohingya protests. And just recently, according to VOA, Rohingya refugees have been concerned over the installation of checkpoints and barbed-wire fences in their camps.

What does the Myanmar government say? 

Despite mounting evidence and international pressure, Myanmar continues to deny it all. And Aung San Suu Ky—a political prisoner who lived through 15 years of house arrest—has gone from “long feted in the West as a champion of human rights and democracy,” says the New York Times, to being “stripped of many awards.”

It’s a position that’s placed her before the Hague to defend her country’s actions. 

Why was it finally brought to the Hague? 

The Gambia filed proceedings to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya. The lawsuit is on behalf of the 57 nations of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which Gambia is a member.

“Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it,” said Abubacarr M. Tambadou, the Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister. “This is a stain on our collective conscience. It’s not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here, it’s our collective humanity that is being put on trial.”

In the presence of the Rohingya refugees who were flown in for the trial, Suu Kyi gave remarks that defended the Myanmar military, maintained that the actions were necessary counterrorism measures, and said the case brought against her country was based on an “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state.”

What’s next? 

An ICJ decision will likely take years. But the lawsuit also had another intent: for the court to issue an order to protect the Rohingya. And that’s a decision that is expected in the coming weeks

In the meantime, with refugees trapped for more than two years and without foreseeable guaranteed protections that will allow them to return home, infrastructure investments have improved the situations in some of the Cox’s Bazar camps. After around $1 billion in international aid investments over the last 18 months, the Kutupalong camp, for instance, has been “deemed relatively stable,” says CityLab. “Today, there is a semblance of order inside the camps.” Despite obvious limitations (like the ban on permanent housing), such investments have helped move these camps away from the dire conditions that alarmed the international community at the start of the crisis.

Are there other global events you’re interested in seeing covered in raceAhead? We want to know. Just reply to this email.

Tamara El-Waylly

Tamara El-Waylly and Ellen McGirt curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

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“All that The Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings. To stop these acts of barbarity and brutality that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience. To stop this genocide of its own people.”

—The Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou in his opening statement to the International Court of Justice.