THE BLOG

The Most Persecuted Minority in the World

26/06/2015 09:03 | Updated 3 days ago

Ask a Briton who the most persecuted minority in the world are and few, if any, would nominate Burma/ Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya for this most unenviable of titles.

Numbering around 1.1 million in Myanmar's westernmost state of Rakhine, the lot of the Rohingya has, if anything, worsened since a quasi-civilian government ended decades of military rule in 2011. Hillary Clinton calls Myanmar's liberalisation the proudest achievement of her tenure as Secretary of State; yet within a year chauvinistic Buddhist Burmese monks were using their inchoate freedoms of expression to whip up an anti-Muslim hysteria. Sporadic communal violence throughout 2012 left nearly three hundred Rohingya Muslim's dead and whole towns razed. Thousands of lives were destroyed. No one has ever been prosecuted.

Ethnic cleansing on a massive scale followed. Ostensibly separated "for their own safety" behind barbed wire and checkpoints, a de facto apartheid exists in Rakhine - a state where the Rohingya (or "Bengalis" as they are pejoratively labelled and were required to self-identify as in last year's census) make up a third of the population. The state capital Sittwe is now totally Rohingya-free: more than 140,000 have been forced into squalid refugee camps - open air prisons in all but name - on the city's fringes. The UN describes the camps as "some of the worst it has seen".

Stripped of citizenship by Ne Win's military junta in 1982, the Rohingya's ostracisation continues, compounded by their steady political and economic disenfranchisement. They are victims of a multiplicity of transgressions and indignities - denied free movement and the ability to hold jobs, as well as the basic right get an education, receive government services, or hold property. The vast majority that refused to define themselves as 'Bengali' have been stripped of their right to take part in landmark national elections later this year. The (non-binding) resolution issued by the UN General Assembly last year urging the Rohingya to be granted full citizenship has been disregarded by the Burmese government, who have instead prioritised new laws that effectively restrict how often they can have children

The plight of the Rohingya has finally garnered international attention. This year has seen unprecedented numbers submitting themselves to the predations and extortions of traffickers on the Andaman Sea, such is their desperation to flee the dangerous situation in Rakhine. Images of dehydrated refugees and emaciated, starving children cattle-herded on to rickety fishing boats have helped kick start a long overdue conversation. Three hundred have died so far this year - an ignominious new record.

The warning signs that precursor genocide are now evident in Rakhine. That this has failed to make more impact on our discourse is baffling. It is impossible to imagine our attention requiring such a high threshold were it a Christian minority group suffering a similar threat of imminent ethnic destruction.

Compare for example how energised the commentariat and wider public became last year when Iraq's Christian Yazidi's entered ISIL's barbaric sights. Under no circumstances would it be tolerated. The denunciations of "never again" that followed Rwanda and Srebrenica were dusted off and received a thorough airing. Millions of pounds of aid were dispatched, as was the RAF. To date however, calls for the personal intervention of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who last August condemned the systematic persecution of Iraq's minority groups "in the strongest possible terms", have fallen on deaf ears.

Experts predict that genocide against the Rohingya could be sparked by just one isolated incident, yet none of this same urgency exists. Can the West's antipathy and indifference be explained with reference to the enormity November's elections? Perhaps the expectation falls on China to take the lead, despite their consistent policy of non-interference? Or is the answer callous indifference: could it be that we simply do not exhibit the interest when the victims of communal violence are Muslim; even those groups who can qualify as 'the world's most persecuted'?

Our collective response to the plight of the Yazidis was the right one. If we fail to replicate that standard in Rakhine, our moral authority will be further diminished and it will be our enemies that pedal examples of the West's indifferences towards the Islamic world's suffering who alone will be the beneficiaries.