The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Selective outrage on humanitarian crisis shouted on rooftops by some political leaders begs the question of whether some victims are more equal than others

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde denounced fake photos circulating on Twitter used by a well-known intellectual of Egyptian origin based in Geneva. In a bid to shock international opinion on the Rohingya refugee crisis, the latter hurriedly posted photos which were sent to him by ‘friends’ without checking their authenticity. One of the photos showing burnt bodies lying on the ground was that of a road accident followed by an explosion and a fire in Congo in 2010. 230 bodies were charred. The other photo showing someone burning on the ground turned out to be the self-immolation of a social activist Pranab Boro in a protest claiming lands for the local population of East Assam in 2014. Only the third one with a distressed father carrying his child was an authentic photo illustrating the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

The Geneva intellectual was criticized for trying to manipulate public opinion on social media. Though he apologized for the mistake, the incident reflects the irresponsible posturing of public figures who hastily publish unchecked documents which are likely to arouse awareness on the plight of refugees and jolt international bodies into action. The mistake might have sparked violent religious and ethnic conflicts in hot spots already plagued by violence and ruthless killings. It raises the question of social network fake information where anyone can post and comment anything, and emphasizes the necessity of being vigilant about distorted news meant for mass consumption. The authenticity of news published in mainstream world media dominated by powerful countries is already difficult to decipher for world citizens because of the risk of one-sidedness and bias in reporting. Social network propaganda only adds to more confusion.

Last week’s Twitter photo posting is also perceived as an attempt at a come-back in the spotlight of world media for someone who has lost credibility and been accused of doublespeak, while officially presenting a progressist front in many countries where the media and élite including Le Monde literally adulated and pampered him. It took them time to admit the double standards in brainwashing youths and influencing religious leaders to adopt a conservative religious stance and religious supremacism towards other faiths.

Selective outrage on humanitarian crisis shouted on rooftops by some political leaders and prominent spokespersons begs the question of whether some victims are more equal than others. Glaring hypocrisy comes up in the opportunistic stance adopted by a few countries to criticize Myanmar’s alleged unwillingness and inability to resolve the issue of Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangla Desh. Ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance, abduction and forced conversions, harassment, denial of political and human rights are rife in the countries which are rushing to ask rights and justice for the Rohingya. The same voices kept mum on the most horrifying inter-ethnic and religious conflicts which decimated Christians and Animists among the tribes in South Sudan for years. These tribes have complained about divisive and hostile the apartheid condoned by the Bashir government for years.

The Darfur massacre perpetrated by ethnic militias led to widespread killings, rape of women and displacement of refugees to neighbouring countries. Killings and refugee crisis were said to have amounted to around two million victims. Western intellectuals and leaders denounced what was described as genocide and turned to the International Court of Justice to bring Sudanese leadership to trial. Middle-Eastern and South Asian leaders and élite barely raised their voices. Discovery of oil and water issue brought foreign powers in the conflict, with China selling aircrafts and weapons to the Sudan government, Russian support on one side and the US aid to rebels in the South.

Widespread misery and human sufferings are caused by killings and genocides of all kinds whatever be the causes. Unsurprisingly, leaders of Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan are trying to reap political gains and enhance their respective images in the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. On a recent visit, the Indian Prime Minister did not raise the refugee crisis with Myanmar President but rather harped on the issue of terrorism. India already has to tackle the situation of thousands of Rohingyas on its soil. In a move not to let India gain influence in Myanmar, China, the biggest economic partner of Myanmar, gives its backing to the government.

Causes of Conflict

The first conflicts between the army, majority Buddhist inhabitants and the Rohingyas were reportedly sparked by the attack on and rape of Buddhist women a few years ago (2012). Following the response by the army, a guerilla force calling itself Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, emerged among the Rohingyas in October 2016. Spearheaded by a Pakistan-born man from Saudi Arabia and joined by militants from Indonesia, the group launched an attack on 30 army posts killing soldiers in the north of Rakhine state in August 2017. Refugees claim the group used coercion to force people to attack army posts.

The attack was countered by a major military intervention. 27 000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus fled violence that has gripped the northern part of the state. The army claims that the militants and fleeing refugees set fire to houses to foment fear and anger against the army and create ethnic tension with other groups. On television reports, refugees claim the fire was set by the army. Who is telling the truth? Both maybe.

With democratization of the country in 2012, the question of the status of Rohingyas arose. Violence erupted between the Buddhist population and Rohingyas. The new Constitution gives Internal Affairs and territorial security to the army. President Aung San Suu Kyi has no constitutional power to solve the issue.

Who are the Rohingyas?

Burma was part of Indian territory which the British separated. The Araka kingdom was an autonomous Buddhist kingdom which the British attached to Burma. The Rohingyas are descendants of Arab merchants and Bengali women centuries ago. They migrated to Araka and spoke Bengali. In the 1971 war with Pakistan for the creation of Bangla Desh, thousands of Bengalis flooded into Araka. The ethnic group has never been accepted as the people of Araka. It is a complex history of real ethnic groups with distinct cultures and religions and artificial boundaries of separation and attachments imposed during colonization.

Where do the Rohingyas belong to? The refugees are currently in the ancestral region Bangla Desh and their forefathers come from Arabian lands. A very complex situation. Can Myanmar be blamed for not wanting a separatist movement with loss of Arakan territory in the future? Is the army anticipating the newly formed militant group becoming a nuisance for peace in the future? This is a real concern which cannot be simply wished away.


  • Published in print edition on 15 September 2017

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