Rohingya people search for refuge from persecution

Thousands of the Rohingya population from Myanmar are crossing the border to Bangladesh seeking refuge from their government.

On Aug. 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, conducted attacks against the Rakhine State police and army forces, killing 12 members of the Myanmar’s security forces and about 350 insurgents.

After the attacks, Myanmar’s military declared the ARSA a terrorist group and started a campaign of violence and retaliation against their population of 1 million Rohingya. More than 500,000 of these Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar with the hopes of crossing the border and finding safety in Bangladesh, according to the Center for Foreign Relations (CFR).

Since the 1970s, Myanmar, mostly Buddhist, established rules that have segregated and isolated the Rohingya people. According to CFR, Rakhine State, where the majority of the Rohingya people are established, is Myanmar’s least developed state with a 78 percent poverty rate.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, described the events in the Asian country as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim minority.

Both human rights organizations and world leaders heavily criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, for her silence and lack of action against military atrocities.

“Most of the world of human rights advocates are just profoundly disappointed in her decision to turn the other way from this genocide,” Brian Bollinger, John Brown University alumnus and executive director of Friends of Refugees, said. “It is really just profoundly disappointing and somewhat out of step with her character.”

Even though she carries the title of State Counselor and is recognized as Myanmar’s defacto democratic leader, Suu Kyi does not have control of the military.  Myanmar’s current constitution was drafted in 1962 by the former military government and was approved through a referendum in 2008.

In 2008, the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch described the draft of the constitution as an effort to “perpetuate military control in Burma, and obstruct any steps toward a meaningful multiparty democracy that upholds human rights.”

The constitution of Myanmar requires that the leadership of the defense, border affairs and home affairs offices be held exclusively by serving military officers. This means that Suu Kyi has no say over the actions of the military or the police. Nonetheless, many claim public declarations by Suu Kyi are intended to diminish the brutality of Myanmar’s armed forces against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State.

“Aung San Suu Kyi today demonstrated that she and her government are still burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State. At times, her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said.

Bollinger thinks differently. From his point of view, Suu Kyi is developing a political strategy that will ensure her victory in the next election cycle. 

“Some will speculate that it’s not that she is apathetic with the plight of the Rohingya, but instead she is playing her cards judiciously in order to ensure her success in the coming election,” Bollinger said. “Then she will be able to have a stronger hold of the necessary gears of the system in Burma and work that [political] machine toward the direction of a solution.”

More than half a million Rohingya have left their villages in search for safety in Myanmar’s west neighbor, Bangladesh. In a press conference on Oct. 5, Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya, Bangladesh minister for disaster management and relief, announced that Bangladesh has a population of more than 900,000 unregistered refugees. Therefore, he announced the construction of a new refugee camp large enough to house all the Rohingya refugees scattered among the 23 camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

The United Nations praised Bangladesh’s government and people and qualified them as “an inspiring example of humanity” and generosity for opening their borders and aiding the Rohingya refugees.

On Sept. 20, the United States government announced the provision of nearly $32 million for the immediate needs of the Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Bollinger encouraged Christians to pray and join the plight for justice of refugee communities like the Rohingya.

“Coming at it from a Christian worldview standpoint, we believe that the wrath of our enemy is not turned away by our own reaction.” Bollinger said. “We also know that peace is not the absence of violence, it is the presence of justice. I think that is a really important element to understand in this conflict.”

Bollinger, whose work allows him to work directly with refugees from all over the world including Rohingyas, sees an opportunity to witness and speak truth in the midst of their struggle.

“When my Rohingya neighbor comes to me and says this is what has happened, what can we do? If I can draw truth from Scripture to speak how God desires his Shalom to enter that nation, that people, that would be an immensely powerful way to witness,” Bollinger said.

Organizations like Friends for Refugees keep advocating for the needs of those who suffered the separation from their home countries. Bollinger encourages those in the United States to be involved by learning about the situation of refugees and writing to their government representatives about actions that can be taken for their sakes.