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The World’s Most Persecuted Minority

Rajuma stands with the hundreds of other women in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, clutching her baby to her chest as her Myanmar village goes up in flames behind her. Suddenly, some of the soldiers holding them at gunpoint look at her. The next few minutes are a violent blur of events. Her son is ripped from her arms and hurled into a fire, and Rajuma is beaten up and gang-raped by the military.

Rajuma’s ordeal is consistent with the suffering of thousands of her people- a Muslim ethnic group of Myanmar called the Rohingya. The Rohingya are facing the brunt of a brutal campaign by the Buddhist nation’s army. The situation is fast growing into the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with more than five hundred thousand people fleeing their homes in a bid to survive the widespread rape and murder. The United Nations, while being denied access and therefore being unable to fully assess the situation, has described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

A Rohingya child’s drawing of his experience fleeing Myanmar

Some of the Rohingya trace their roots back to traders who settled in the region as early on as in the ninth century. Others made their homes there during the British rule when there was a large migration to what is now known as Myanmar, but was then administered as a part of the Indian province itself. After independence, the Myanmar government viewed this migration as illegal and used it as grounds to deny citizenship to a majority of the Rohingya population, terming them as Bengalis or Bangladeshis. Military governments looking to promote nationalism to stay in power used the Rohingya as easy targets, painting them as enemies of the state. Throughout the country’s history, a series of laws and amendments have been passed, all of them making it clear that the Rohingya are not welcome there. They have been left off every list of the country’s recognized ethnicities, and the citizenship laws make it practically impossible for them to gain recognition as citizens of Myanmar, leaving them a stateless and vulnerable people.  

The Rohingya have thus long been denied equal rights and access to resources, with them being discriminated against in all aspects of life. They have endured human rights violations by the country’s governments for centuries, but recent events have led to an unprecedented surge in the number of people crossing the border. These events were triggered by the actions of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group born out of the years of strife between their people and the government. The Myanmar government looks at the ARSA as terrorists, but Maung Zarni, an adviser to the European Center for the Study of Extremism, describes them simply as a group of men “trying to form some kind of self-defence group and protect their people who are living in conditions akin to a Nazi concentration camp”.

In August, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched attacks on police posts as well as an army base, killing twelve officers. The security forces retaliated with disproportionate force, cracking down on the wider Rohingya population, burning down houses and opening fire on civilians. The Myanmar army has put the death toll at around four hundred, saying most killed were rebels. Residents, however, say that over a thousand people have lost their lives, many of them civilians. Satellite imagery confirms the destruction of around fifty percent of their villages.

A victim of a landmine planted along the border

An estimated 200,000-500,000 people now live in overcrowded camps in the relative safety of Bangladesh, struggling to find food, water, shelter, and medical aid. India, sharing its borders with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, has some part to play in this. India has a track record of being a friend to those in need, having provided safe havens for refugees from various countries like Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan in the past. The ruling BJP government, however, now seeks to besmirch this image, calling for the deportation of the forty thousand Rohingya currently within Indian borders. Legalities and practicalities aside, India, as the world’s largest democracy, cannot morally deny aid to these people, much less force them out of the country and back into the hell that they have fled from. With both Bangladesh and Myanmar refusing to accept the Rohingya as citizens, where they could be sent to is also a question to be considered.

While the Right calls for outright deportation of the Rohingya, citing unverified sources to link them with terrorism, the answer is not a complete denial of some amount of truth in their stance, as is the Left’s wont. It is not blatantly Islamaphobic to say that this is a population susceptible to radicalization, and a country needs to look after its own interests and safety as well. However, this doesn’t mean we should close off our borders to the Rohingya, who are, after all, human beings before they are Muslims. There is a middle ground that opponents on this issue need to find; lives depend on it, not just votes.

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