A Silent Witness to Rohingya ‘Genocide’

There has been clear and ample evidence of the grave atrocities committed against the Muslim Rohingya by Myanmar military forces.

On 2 October 2018, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, became the first person to have her honorary Canadian citizenship revoked. Although Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her fight for democracy in Myanmar, she has failed to be a champion of change and human rights after the horrors of Rohingya genocide surfaced. According to a United Nations fact-finding mission, Myanmar’s military has systematically killed thousands of Rohingya civilians, burned hundreds of their villages, and engaged in ethnic cleansing and mass gang rape while the Myanmar’s leader has allegedly denied the atrocities, restricted access to international investigators and journalists, defended the military and denied humanitarian aid for the Rohingya. While Canada sends a powerful message against the violators of human rights, would anyone come to the rescue of one million Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, described as the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’?

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a population of around 51 million people which consists of more than 135 ethnic groups. One group, the Muslim Rohingya with a population of 1.1 million living mainly in Rakhine State in the north of the country, are not recognised as an ethnic nationality of Myanmar and suffer from arguably the worst discrimination and human rights abuses of all. As noted before, the Rohingya are stateless and they have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless and while most of them still live in extremely poor conditions in Rakhine, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, over the course of many decades. Myanmar’s government does not consider the Rohingya its nationals and claim that they are Bengali labourers who immigrated to Myanmar during the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), from today’s India and Bangladesh.

However, because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). After independence, Myanmar’s government viewed the migration of labourers as illegal and thus denied citizenship to the majority of Rohingya. Today, neither Myanmar owns them nor Bangladesh; both consider the Rohingya as refugees in their lands. 

The majority Buddhists of Myanmar believe that the Rohingya are Bengalis trying to take over the Rakhine State and turn it into an Islamic one, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention created for political reasons. On the other hand, the ‘stateless’ Rohingya have been victims of horrific human rights abuses:  in April 2013, HRW said Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya and in November 2016, a UN official made the same accusation.

In February 2018, the Associated Press released a video showing what is believed to be the site of a massacre and at least five undisclosed mass graves of Rohingya in Myanmar. Myanmar’s government has denied all such accusations; in fact, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have blamed violence in Rakhine, and subsequent military crackdowns, on those they call ‘terrorists’. While talking about the human rights violations and UN’s report on the crisis, the Myanmar’s leader did not even mention the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. A blind eye to the massacres of Rohingya Muslims deserves more criticism and serious action by the international communities, than what has been shown by Canada’s parliament which stripped Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship.

 The Muslim Rohingya crisis has not gained international focus only because of the atrocities committed against them; it has also played a significant role in disrupting the bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh since the late 1970s. Unfortunately, years of negotiation between the two countries have failed to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis and today, there are more than half a million Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh; the majority remain unregistered.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Bangladesh would offer the refugees temporary shelter and aid, but that Myanmar should soon ‘take their nationals back’. Refugees in Bangladesh have been banned from leaving the overcrowded border areas and police check posts and surveillance have been set up in key transit points to stop Rohingya from travelling to other parts of the country. Although in November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal for the return of 650,000 Rohingya refugees, who fled in the recent violence, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the ‘conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for returns to be safe, dignified and sustainable’ and that the Myanmar’s government is responsible for creating better conditions.

There are also growing calls for the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) but while Bangladesh is a member of the court, Myanmar is not – so the Court has no jurisdiction there. International prosecutors have therefore sought to assert the jurisdiction of the court for the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In June 2018, the ICC has issued a deadline for Myanmar to submit a written response to a request for a ruling on whether the tribunal should exercise jurisdiction over the country’s mass deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh; the deadline for Myanmar to respond, which was set for 27 July, has passed. A month ago, Myanmar also rejected the UN report which called for Myanmar’s military figures to be investigated for genocide. Now the ICC has opened a preliminary examination into Myanmar’s alleged crimes against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The international community is stressing upon the insecurity and violence that has produced the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh but it is also focusing on how these refugees have produced conflict, dilemma and insecurity in Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has been called ‘the most urgent refugee emergency in the world’ by the UN and it is not only a concern for Myanmar or Bangladesh anymore but for all international communities. Moreover, there is a further perspective regarding this issue: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Formerly known as the al-Yaqeen Faith Movement, ARSA released a statement under its new name in March 2017, saying it was obligated to ‘defend, salvage and protect [the] Rohingya community’. The group is considered a ‘terrorist’ organisation by the Myanmar government has claimed responsibility for an attack on police posts and an army base in Rakhine State. However, on 9 September, the group declared a month-long unilateral ceasefire in Rakhine to enable aid groups to address the humanitarian crisis in the area.

The Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar are lost in the midst of violence and chaos. They claim to be the nationals of Myanmar and have lived in the Rakhine State for several generations. The Myanmar government considers them as Bengali refugees and the Bangladesh government has labeled them as Myanmar’s refugees, rendering the minority group stateless. There has been clear and ample evidence of the grave atrocities committed against the Muslim Rohingya by Myanmar military forces.

The deprived minority has no voice and those who have voice, remain silent. When such appalling human rights abuses continue for years and the international communities fail to stop them, the horrors of silent abuse are written in history as the ultimate and shameful failure of not only these international communities but of the entire mankind. Thousands of Muslim Rohingya are being brutally massacred and the remaining ones are being deprived of the basic necessities of life, but here we remain, a silent witness to this horrific Rohingya genocide.

The author Faria Pitafi is an intern at the PIIA. 


“Canada revokes Myanmar leader’s honorary citizenship.” Al Jazeera, October 3, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/canada-revokes-myanmar-leader-honourary-citizenship-181003034011996.html

“Who are the Rohingya?” Al Jazeera, April 18, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/rohingya-muslims-170831065142812.html#ARSA.

Rahman, Utpala. “The Rohingya Refugee: A Security Dilemma for Bangladesh.” Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 8, no.2 (June 2010): 233-239. https://doi.org/10.1080/15562941003792135.

Mahmood, Syed S, Emily Wroe, Arlan Fuller and Jennifer Leaning. “The Rohingya people of Myanmar: health, human rights, and identity.” The Lancet 389, no.10081 (May 2017): 1841-1850. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00646-2.

Southwick, Katherine. “Preventing Mass Atrocities against the Stateless Rohingya in Myanmar: A Call for Solutions.” Journal of International Affairs 68, no.2 (Spring 2015): 137-XVII. 

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Filed under Criminal Justice, Criminal law, Discussion, Ethnic cleansing, Genocide, Human Rights, Islam, Islamophobia, Myanmar, Pakistan Horizon, Rohingya, Statelessness

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