• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

They Fled From Genocide In Myanmar, But They Can't Escape COVID-19: who are the Rohingya?

Over the decades, a series of military operations, many consider acts of genocide, have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes in search of neighboring refuge.


The Kutupalong settlement, located in Bangladesh, has been receiving Rohingya refugees since 1971, and as of today, is the largest refugee camp in the World.


With approximately 70,000 people per square kilometer, limited food, water, and sanitization services, living conditions in Kutupalong have made the Rohingya the most vulnerable population in the wake of this pandemic.


However, many Rohingya refugees would rather face famine and disease than return to the violence of their home nation, Myanmar, even risking their lives at sea to escape military brutality.


On Thursday, nearly 400 Rohingya were rescued by Bangladesh coastguards. They had been at sea for almost 2 months after failing to reach Malaysian ground.


28 reportedly died whilst adrift.

Who are the Rohingya, and why are they being persecuted?


The Rohingya are a minority ethnic group who have lived in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar since as early as the 12th century. They are a majority Muslim population who reside in the area of Rakhine and have been under constant persecution, oppression, and violence by Myanmar’s military and government.


The Muslim community in Rakhine expanded significantly during British rule from 1824 to 1948 when mostly Muslim laborers from India and Bangladesh came to Myanmar to expand rice cultivation and other industries.


The migration of these laborers was viewed negatively by the native population, and, during WW2 when British-allied Rohingya Muslims fought against Japanese-allied Rakhine Buddhists, their hatred for the Rohingya was further fuelled.


Following Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the laborers that had come from the time of British colonization were officially considered ‘illegal settlers.’ On that basis the Rohingya Muslims, regardless of their history in Myanmar, were denied citizenship, leaving them virtually stateless and limiting the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue.


Steady discrimination and injustice continued until 1962 when a military coup shifted Myanmar’s leadership and eroded any rights the Rohingya had enjoyed before then.



The genocide (2016 until present day)


Considered a terrorist group by the Myanmar government, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has executed multiple attacks against the military, claiming that they must "defend, salvage and protect [the] Rohingya community."


Of those attacks, multiple were carried out on Myanmar’s police posts, killing tens of officers, and in turn, triggering intense military crackdowns labeled as ‘clearance operations.’


Survivors from these ‘operations’ described troops firing randomly at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children, burning down hundreds of villages, committing rape and torture, and resulting in the death of more than 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of 5.




In February 2018, the Associated Press released a video showing what they say is the site of at least five undisclosed mass graves of Rohingya in Myanmar.


As a result of this violence, more than 900,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and other neighboring countries, either by foot or by boat.



Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Chancellor of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, claimed that her government had "the right to defend the country by lawful means" against "increasing terrorist activities.”

International Court Of Justice (ICJ)


The Gambia- with the backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation- filed a case before the ICJ alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya, in the Rakhine State, were acts of genocide.


In court, Aung San Suu Kyi argued that the attacks were initiated by members of the ARSA and that the violence only began after attacks on police stations near their border with Bangladesh.


She said the second wave of ARSA assaults forced Myanmar’s army to respond with “counter-insurgency operations,” and that this investigation does not require ‘international intervention.’


The ICJ’s panel ordered Myanmar to take "all measures within its power" to prevent genocide, however, the court was not able to influence any change inside the country.


Bangladesh and the Rohingya


At the beginning of the crisis, Bangladesh agreed to offer the refugees temporary shelter and aid but said that Myanmar should soon "take their nationals back.”


As the numbers began to increase in refugee camps, and Myanmar showed no willingness to accept the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya, Bangladesh resurrected a plan to relocate 100,000 refugees to a remote, flood-prone island that has been called "uninhabitable" by rights groups.


Today, the island is equipped with flood protection equipment, housing, hospitals, and Islamic religious centers, officials say.



However, the 100,000 refugees able to live on this island are only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya crammed into the 13 square kilometre Kutupalong settlement.


And now, due to recent restrictions on internet networks, lack of basic facilities and a complete absence of facemasks and sanitizers, the Rohingya have been left practically defenseless against the COVID-19 pandemic.


Information on how to protect themselves against the virus and humanitarian aid has also been difficult to provide as the World goes on lockdown.


And of course, with the more than traumatic experiences they endured in Myanmar, the Rohingya are not the strongest physically or mentally- significantly affecting their immunity.


"We are struggling with both hunger and coronavirus at the same time," one refugee said.


"But I think hunger will kill us before the virus does."

To donate to the Rohingya click here.

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