Cyclone Mocha ravaged Myanmar, wreaking havoc by destroying bridges, toppling power lines, and causing extensive damage in many areas but also to makeshift homes in displacement camps and villages throughout Rakhine state. This catastrophic event is significant since it has further exacerbated the precarious situation of tens of thousands belonging to the persecuted Rohingya minority. Rohingya individuals mourned the loss of their loved ones outside devastated villages and embarked on a search for the missing, anticipating limited assistance from a government that denies their very existence.
According to a statement by the Arakan Rohingya National Alliance, a coalition advocating for human rights, the death toll has already surpassed 400, and there are fears that it will continue to rise as hundreds remain missing. Approximately 600,000 Rohingya currently live in Myanmar.
The 2017 Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh occurred due to a horrific campaign of slaughter, rape, and destruction, which was eventually recognized as a genocide by the United States. This forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border with Bangladesh, where previous waves of refugees had also sought shelter. Despite the Rohingya community having a rich and deep history in Myanmar, the state regarded them as ethnic Bengali interlopers with no rightful claim to citizenship.
Today, the Rohingya in Bangladesh find themselves stranded in a dangerous and concerning state of uncertainty for over five years since the military crackdown in Myanmar. The military coup in 2021 has escalated the conflict in the country, making the possibility of a secure return for the Rohingya a far-off possibility.
The Rohingya still in Myanmar have faced death and destruction, with no relief in sight. Denied citizenship and access to healthcare, the Rohingya are mistreated by the Myanmar government and have no representation or recourse. They also require permission to travel outside of their townships.
Many of those remaining in Myanmar live in squalid camps in Rakhine, displaced by ethnic violence that has riven the state for decades. For those who had struggled to make a life, the storm has now wiped out years of work. Stateless and hopeless, the Rohingya are a battered and bruised people with no seeming hope for their future.
The plight of the Rohingya is relatively unknown but recent efforts to highlight their dire situation has placed them in the public eye. Tasweer, a biennial photo festival in Doha, recently displayed a photo exhibition showing the daily life of the Rohingya. The photos, taken by three young Rohingya refugees – Omal Khair, Dil Kayas and Azimul Hasson – capture daily life at the world’s largest refugee camp at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, painting a picture of hope and resilience.
The largely Muslim ethnic minority is confined to the severely overcrowded and unsanitary living spaces with little hope of returning to their homeland in Myanmar. Authorities in Bangladesh, meanwhile, are increasingly imposing restrictions on their movements.
In a new development, Human Rights Watch criticized sharply on Thursday a plan to return Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, saying it poses “grave risks” to their lives and liberty.
Bangladesh is home to about a million Rohingya, most of whom fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar that is now subject to a United Nations genocide investigation.
The two countries are looking to return around 1,100 people in a pilot project in the coming weeks even though the UN has said repeatedly the conditions are not right. It is unclear what it meant but it can be assumed the UN was referring to the Myanmar authorities and their refusal to recognize the Rohingya.
“Bangladesh authorities shouldn’t forget the reasons why Rohingya became refugees in the first place, and recognize that none of those factors have changed,” HRW said. “Bangladesh is frustrated with its burden as host, but sending refugees back to the control of a ruthless Myanmar junta will just be setting the stage for the next devastating exodus,” the group said in a statement.
HRW’s statement indeed highlights the very problem the Rohingya face in Myanmar. The country refuses to recognize the minority group’s rightful place in its society let alone its right to exist. With this level of hostility, there is no hope for the Rohingya to exist peacefully in Myanmar in an environment devoid of persecution and rejection.
The United Nations, along with human rights groups, should press Myanmar even more forcefully to accept the Rohingya and treat the minority group as equals in its society with full and equal access to rights and healthcare. Without such recognition, the Rohingya will continue to suffer from persecution, calamities, and natural disasters.
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