The forgotten Rohingya


In 1991, a second push, known as Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched with the same purpose, resulting in further violence and another massive flow of 200,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh.

Non-governmental organisations from Europe and North America estimate that 300,000 Rohingya refugees remain in Bangladesh, with only 35,000 residing in registered refugee camps and receiving some sort of assistance from NGOs.

Acknowledging the Rohingya

Those remaining, more than 250,000, are in a desperate situation without food and medical assistance, largely left to slowly starve to death. The December 2011 refugee repatriation agreement reached between Myanmar President Thein Sein and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will exclude the Rohingya, due to their lack of Myanmar citizenship, one of the conditions for repatriation for the expected 2,500 returning refugees.

The Rohingya predicament underlines a paradox for the world's great faiths, straddling the divide between Islamic Asia and Buddhist Asia. Each emphasises compassion and kindness and yet, we see little evidence of this in their dealings with the Rohingya people.

As part of this current study on the relationship between centre and periphery in the Muslim world, we recently interviewed Dr Wakar Uddin, Chairman of The Burmese Rohingya Association of North America (BRANA). A gentle and learned man, he is an energetic ambassador for his Rohingya people with a firm grasp of regional history. All the Rohingya want is the reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, as revoked by the former dictator General Ne Win, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it.

Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy have a unique opportunity to reach out to the Rohingya people and include them in the new democratic process. The NLD should work with the central government to expand the role of all ethnic minorities as full Myanma citizens.

By acknowledging their rights, the government will bestow upon the Rohingya the dignity and the responsibilities of citizenship and present opportunities for mutual cultural understanding and the repatriation of the thousands of refugees existing in purgatory, separated from their homes and families. Great strides have recently been made by the Myanmar government towards the creation of an open and democratic political system and an end to ethnic violence, yet this is only the beginning.

With the recognition of the Rohingya as Myanma citizens, Suu Kyi will honour the memory of her father, Aung San, as he, before his untimely and tragic death, also reached out to ethnic minorities to participate in an independent Myanmar. Only then can a democratic and modern Myanmar be legitimate and successful in the eyes of its own people.

But the first step is to acknowledge the Rohingya exist.

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