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Rohingya Muslims Are the Most Persecuted Minority in the World: Who Are They?

“The day the army attacked my village, my father and I had just come out of prayers, when we heard sounds of shooting ... While the firing was still going on, my father stood up, which is when a grenade came and exploded close to us, killing my father,” stated a man from the Rakhine state in a new report conducted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). He is one of the nearly 70,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar since Oct. 2016.

Rohingyas are often called the most persecuted minority in the world, unable to claim citizenship in a country that refuses to recognize them.  

Beaten, raped, abused, displaced, and killed, the Rohingya have fallen victim to the horrors of a genocide that the world is not watching. After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the world said “never again.” But the severity of the systematic attacks — carried out by the Myanmar army — are being called ethnic cleansing.

Read More: Malala and Other Nobel Laureates Accuse Myanmar of Ethnic Cleansing in Open Letter

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson told News AU, “there is no national security imperative or rationale that could justify the horrendous abuses that Human Rights Watch has documented.”

In an open letter  to the United Nations Security Council, Malala Yousafzai and 22 other Nobel Laureates and world leaders called on the international community to observe the crimes and take action.

“They have endured severe restrictions on movement, marriage, education and religious freedom,” the letter read. “Yet despite the claims by government and military, and many in society, that they are in fact illegal Bengali immigrants who have crossed the border, Bangladesh does not recognise them either.”

Since then, the OHCHR sent in a team to conduct in-depth interviews with 204 witnesses and victims. More than half of them fled from the most affected villages of the Rakhine State.

Stateless and portrayed as a “threat to race and religion,” who are the Rohingya Muslims? Why are they being so viciously abused? And more importantly, what measures are being taken to help them?

Who are the Rohingya Muslims?

The Rohingya, with a population of just over 1 million, live in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The Rakhine state, in the country’s northwest, is home to an estimated 800,000 of the 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar today. With limited access to basic services and a shockingly low literacy rate, the state is one of the country’s poorest regions. This is because in the predominantly Buddhist country, the community faces restrictions on basic freedom such as access to education.

Despite having lived in the region for generations, the Rohingya Muslims are viewed as “Bengali” (or illegal immigrants) with no cultural, religious, or social ties to Myanmar.

This discrimination comes down to one thing...

Many victims told the OHCHR that, for years, soldiers would taunt them, delegitimizing Islam as a whole.

“Call your Allah to come and save you,” they would say. “What can your Allah do for you?”

Years of discrimination and intolerance led to a violent outbreak in 2012, when 140,000 Rohingyas were forced into refugee camps by extremist and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups.

The situation escalated last October when nine police officers were killed on border posts along the frontier with Bangladesh. It is not clear who carried out the attacks but most theories identify the assailants as “Islamist terrorists.” The government responded with a strict military counterinsurgency operation.

Since then, hundreds of civilians have been killed by the military.

"It would be one thing to round up suspects, interrogate them and put them on trial,” wrote the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and world leaders in their letter to the UN Security Council. “It is quite another to unleash helicopter gunships on thousands of ordinary civilians and to rape women and throw babies into a fire."

Atrocities and Accounts

Martial law has offered broad discretionary powers to the Myanmar Police Force and Tatmadaw and Border Guard Police. Between dawn and dusk, any movement or convening by Rohingya is punishable by torture, rape, or death. At the same time, homes have looted and burned to the ground.

The disturbing OHCHR report tells the stories of the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingyas.

“I was at home with my 13-year old uncle, when the army broke into the house,” a boy recounts. “They beat us with sticks, metal rods and kicks. We were crying, pleading for mercy...We were dragged out of the house, which was set on fire. My uncle, who attempted to flee was caught, beaten and thrown into a burning house.”

Of the women interviewed, 43 percent of them reported being raped, even those as young as 13-years-old. In several situations, the army forced victims to watch their family members suffer.

A 22-year-old resident of Myaw Taung told OHCHR that “after entering our home, the army raped my two sisters, 14 and 17 years old, before the eyes of my elderly parents. They were raped collectively by at least eight army men. They had severely beaten my parents prior to raping my sisters.”

Taking Action

“They have been suffering for years. They have been tortured, killed simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith,” remarked Pope Francis following the report. He prayed for the Rohingya refugees during a general audience on Wednesday.

The report has sent waves of shock among leaders and activists worldwide.

Pearson told News AU “Australia should be raising this publicly and privately with the Burmese government and urging a UN-led international investigation into these abuses.”

Through all of this, Nobel Peace Laureate and the country’s Leader of the National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi has remained surprisingly quiet.

Suu Kyi assumed the role — similar to that of a Prime Minister — last year after the country’s first free election in a generation. She stood on a platform of reconciliation, championing democracy.

Researchers at Queen Mary University London told The Independent that her silence amounts to “legitimising genocide” and entrenching “the persecution of the Rohingya minority”.

Suu Kyi, however, has been hampered by a junta-era constitution that reserves key ministerial posts for the army. With control of a quarter of the parliament, it is ensured that no amendment can be passed without the army’s approval.

“Unfortunately Suu Kyi is following her political not humanitarian instincts and since the Rohingya are deeply unpopular in Myanmar…” Pearson said, “she has not gone to Rakhine State to talk with communities which could help to try and defray tensions.”