Rohingyas escaping persecution in Burma

TRU prof, Muslim club president and woman who escaped Burma years ago share their thoughts

Since late August, almost 420,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from persecution in Burma’s Rakhine province to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations. The Burmese military’s campaign against the Rohingya people comes as a response to a series of attacks made by the freedom fighter group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25.

The Arakan project, a charity working to improve conditions for the Rohingya people, who have been without citizenship in Burma since 1982, estimates that 214 Rohingya villages have been destroyed since late August.

The Burmese government, wanting a Buddhist nationalist state, have downplayed the crisis, claiming that it isn’t ethnic cleansing. Despite this, Burmese mobs have been displacing the Rohingya people while looting villages and killing those who refuse to leave.

Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya Muslim living in Vancouver, escaped poor living conditions in Burma almost two decades ago. After living as a refugee in Thailand for 16 years, Ullah came to Canada just last year.

While the situation in Burma has been dire for the 1.1 million Rohingyas living there for the last four decades, Ullah said that the violence happening now is the “worst ever.”

“I want to go back but there is really not an opportunity to do that,” Ullah said. “Everything is burnt down, all the historical places like mosques or infrastructure, anything that says, ‘this is us, we have been here for a long time’ – that saddens me a lot.”

Ullah still has family trapped in Burma, who she stays in constant contact with. Though her family is currently safe, Ullah says that she is still nervous. Her family lives in one of the few villages not burnt down, yet they describe living in “concentration camp” conditions.

Leaving the country isn’t an option for all Rohingya and it’ll likely become even more difficult to do so, as the Burmese military is reported to have been planting landmines on the trails to the Bangladesh border.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Ullah has wanted to help her relatives back home. With the help of her mother, she set up a crowdfunding page on LaunchGood, a website that caters specifically to Muslims. Since starting the crowdfunding campaign, Ullah has raised over $15,000, with the first round of donations, $6,000, being sent over on Sept. 11.

Robert Hanlon, TRU political science professor and expert on Southeast Asia. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Here in Kamloops, both the TRU Muslim Students Association (TRUMSA, a TRUSU club), and the Kamloops Islamic Association have strongly condemned the violence in Burma.

“At the end of the day, we support the weak side,” said Ibrahim Hamid, president of TRUMSA. “We support the women and children who are dying in their homes. We will be praying and helping in any way that we can help.”

While the violence in Burma may be horrifying for those observing the crisis, TRU political science professor Rob Hanlon told The Omega he is not surprised by the situation.

“The Burmese government does not recognize these people as citizens,” Hanlon said. “They are disenfranchised – a very poor group. By all measures they are stateless, and it is only a matter of time until the impact of having a stateless group in your society blows up.”

While the Rohingyas have lived in the Rakhine province in northern Burma for decades, pushes to give them their own state have been denied by both the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments.

At this point, Hanlon believes that the international community has two options: either increase the pressure on the Burmese government or respond with a military intervention.

“There certainly must be a diplomatic solution,” Hanlon said. “But this is also an opportunity, again where we see a mass atrocity committed, for this being a clear example of the need to invoke the Responsibility to Protect.”

The Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, is a political commitment by UN member states to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Ullah shares a similar sentiment, hoping that the international community acts sooner rather than later.

“This is a man-made crisis, so it’s preventable,” she said. “If we don’t stick up for each other just because of race or skin colour a lot more of this will happen.”