There was a U.N.-supported humanitarian fundraising conference on Monday in Geneva, Switzerland that aimed to secure $434 million for the Muslim Rohingya minority. Earlier that day, the European Commission promised to give $35 million to fund critical relief programs for Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh.
"We need more money to keep pace with intensifying needs. This is not an isolated crisis, it is the latest round in a decades-long cycle of persecution, violence and displacement," Mark Lowcock, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said during the conference.
The exodus, which resumed in late August, is still continuing, and that makes the crisis the fastest growing refugee emergency in the world today. By the end of the day, the conference raised around $344 million from governments and international donors, the U.N. said, calling it an "encouraging step."
The violence at the hands of the Myanmar military and local militias against the Rohingya is described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by experts. One of the biggest tragedies of this century is currently taking place in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma until 1989 when the junta ruling Myanmar changed the English name of the country without the consent of its people. To call Myanmar "Myanmar" or "Burma" is not a big deal for ordinary people around the world, of course, as many do not even know that there is such a country in Southeast Asia or what kind of a plight the minorities living in this country are dealing with.
How many people have heard of the Rohingya before the latest crisis? They have been living in Rakhine, formerly known as Arakan, a state in Myanmar, for centuries, but citizenship was denied to them in 1982. The junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century reckoned on mixing Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism and heavily discriminated against minorities. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, face persecution, severe discrimination, abuse and escalating violence because of their religion and ethnicity. They are subject to arbitrary arrest, torture, slave labor, burning of their villages and rape.
In 2009, a senior envoy from Myanmar to Hong Kong branded the Rohingya "ugly as ogres." In 2011, the junta was dissolved following a 2010 general election and a civilian government rose to power. However, the heavy discrimination against Rohingya has not ended. In 2012, the government of Myanmar banned the word Rohingya as well.
Long considered one of the world's most persecuted and least wanted people, Rohingya have no legal status in the primarily Buddhist country. Buddhist monks provoke anti-Rohingya sentiment, encouraging violent attacks. The Buddhist nationalist movements repeatedly call for the annihilation of the minority. In 2012, violent attacks incited by a campaign of anti-Muslim hate speech destroyed quite a number of Rohingya communities and displaced well more than 100,000 people. Human Rights Watch called the violence against Muslims in Myanmar ethnic cleansing, and the U.N. said crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against the Rohingya.
Since Aug. 25, when attacks on police and army posts by Rohingya insurgents in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state triggered a recent military-led pogrom, some 600,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh. Thousands more reportedly remain stranded in Myanmar without the means to cross the border. Analyses of satellite images from Myanmar found that hundreds of villages of the Rohingya minority have been set on fire since August. The HRW conducted an analysis of satellite imagery, counting at least 200 villages burned down in the latest offensive.
It is also reported that not since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 have more people crossed an international border in a shorter span of time than currently from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is said now to have at least 800,000 stateless Rohingya on a 100-kilometer strip of land in the most underdeveloped part of the country. The Bangladeshi military is planning to build a "super camp," which would be one of the largest in the world. However, the plan carries the risk of spreading disease as well as becoming a breeding ground for non-state armed groups.
As I said, the suffering the Rohingya have been experiencing in recent weeks is not new. This is the third big exodus of Rohingya after hundreds of thousands fled in 1978 and 1991-1992. Myanmar's largest minority has been persecuted for decades. They have survived waves of ethnically motivated violence by the military government, which has progressively deprived them of basic human rights. It is said that conditions in Myanmar are ripe for genocide against the Rohingya and their treatment could be the prelude to genocide.
A couple of years ago, the discovery of new mass graves along the Thai-Malaysian border have shown that escaping persecution in Myanmar is also not a solution to their suffering. At least 32 mass graves were found in jungle camps set up by human traffickers on the Thai-Malaysian border to hold Rohingya refugees. Traffickers have reportedly kept hundreds of Rohingya prisoners until their families paid ransoms. According to a Bangkok-based non-government group, more than 500 people died in the camps in question, which had probably been there for at least five years.
Despite the trouble and hardship they face, there is still little sympathy for Rohingya around the world. They do not have options like the rest of us, who sleep in warm beds every night with no feeling of remorse. Either they will be killed in Myanmar or they will starve in refugee camps.