Rohingya_S. S. Mahmood

Rohingya in a New Delhi Refugee Camp, Courtesy of Syed Saad Mahmood

By Arlan Fuller, research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights

Over the past three months, the Myanmar military has led a violent campaign targeting the Rohingya people in Rakhine State and currently shows no signs of relenting. In early October, the government cited an attack on border police as justification for a wide-sweeping offensive targeting men, women and children, with beatings, incinerated homes, systematic rape, and extrajudicial killings. In Myanmar (once known as Burma) on January 20, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights—after initially being denied access to Rohingya villages and the surrounding region—announced that conditions were deteriorating and that she was informed by locals that conditions had never been worse. She added she believed it was not too late to reverse course.

An excluded Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine State of western Myanmar, the Rohingya have long been targets of persecution. Decades ago, the Myanmar government deemed the Rohingya to be undeserving of citizenship; and by using this policy, Myanmar officials have denied them access to public services, social supports, and even protection from ethnic violence. Myanmar’s citizenship law has led to 1 in 7 stateless persons worldwide being Rohingya.

In a December Lancet article, FXB staff and colleagues articulate the extent of persecution directed toward the Rohingya. In the piece we assert that the Rohingya in Myanmar suffer a cycle of vulnerability to poor health outcomes: from childhood malnutrition, to diarrheal illness and other infections, to high rates of infant and maternal mortality. However, beyond the basic information that exists regarding health inequality, there is a grave absence of vital health and census data relating to the Rohingya, which is in of itself a sign of negligence on the part of the State.

As the violence rages in Rakhine State, Myanmar policymakers sit on their hands, ignoring the many calls to halt persecution from the international community. Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, describing the action as a lawful counter-insurgency operation, has hesitated to take any steps to hold the military in check, let alone hold its officers accountable. Even with pleas from the UN, NGOs, and even her fellow Nobel prize laureates, Suu Kyi seems to remain unmoved by the suffering within her own country.

But Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government are not the only actors lacking sympathy for the Rohingya plight. The Bangladesh government has also proved hard-hearted. Approximately 65,000 Rohingya have fled the recent violence and have crossed the Bangladesh border to presumed safety. Yet, as the refugees desperately seek protection from the terror of the Myanmar military, the Bangladesh government states that they will identify Rohingya and return them to Myanmar, an act that would be in violation of the basic refugee law principle of non-refoulment, in which refugees are protected from being returned to locations where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

Aung San Suu Kyi must put an end to the military operations in Rakhine State and the government must allow humanitarian aid into area. Additionally, until conditions improve, Bangladesh must provide a secure haven for those who are seeking safety from persecution. But Myanmar and Bangladesh are not the only stakeholders bearing the responsibility to act. We also echo calls for a United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights situation in Rakhine State. The actions of the Myanmar Government against the Rohingya people could arguably be advanced as a charge of genocide, or at the very least as ethnic cleansing, and must be addressed.

FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, University of Harvard