Rohingya refugee crisis: hypocrisy of democracy?

The reforms of Aung San Suu Kyi have been completely shattered by the humanitarian crisis

Myanmar is currently suffering from what the United Nations says is “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis”. The situation is different to Syria, where refugees are fleeing conflict. In Myanmar (Burma), it looks remarkably like a case of ethnic cleansing.

The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority in a country which is 90 per cent Buddhist. For years, they have endured oppression and are refused citizenship because they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many having lived in Myanmar for generations.

Recent escalations have figures estimating that over 600 000 Rohingya have fled their homes in the northern Rakhine province for Bangladesh since August. This reaction has its origins in a series of attacks carried out by Rohingya militants which killed 12 police officers. The current conflict is the military’s retaliation, and is completely disproportionate. Rohingya villages are decimated, leaving hundreds dead, while the vulnerable suffer rape. Incredibly, the military refuse to admit to targeting innocent civilians, claiming they are focused only on the militants.

Refugees in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Image: Department for International Development Burma

The statistics tell a different story: there are 500 potential members of the militant group to over half a million refugees. It is clear that Islamist extremism is being used as an excuse for the murder and enforced exodus of a minority. This is an evident violation of human rights.

Many charities and the UK Disasters Emergency Committee have launched appeals to help the Rohingya, but more must be done than just damage control. The UN, USA, China, and UK have all condemned Myanmar and its leader, but no concrete sanctions have been imposed. It seems that the key powers are avoiding action out of fear of terrorism and a tentative relationship with a country that was ruled under martial law until 2011.

Before the crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, was celebrated as a symbol of peaceful resistance and was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She brought Myanmar out of its military rule by promising democratic reform and eventually winning elections. Aung San Suu Kyi visited the Rakhine State on 2 November, so has now seen the condition first hand, yet her response saying she will encourage repatriation is a reckless solution as her military would simply kick the Rohingya out once again.

The military still holds a lot of power in Myanmar, so Aung San Suu Kyi obviously feels the need to appease them. Surely a humanitarian crisis is more pressing than ensuring your government stays in power, especially when that government was founded on years of peacefully pushing for democracy and justice, leaving critics demanding her Nobel Prize be stripped. In her previous position, she would have had much more support from the western world, but her current negligence towards human rights has completely undermined that. She is harming the future of her country by refusing to act against her own military.

Equally, more concrete action needs to be taken by the UN. This refugee crisis might seem less pressing to the West as the refugees are not turning up on our shores, instead simply going across the border to Bangladesh. However, human rights are being breached and this needs to be stopped. If Aung San Suu Kyi wants a democratic Myanmar, then she needs to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens and stop their persecution.

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