COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — They have been called “the world’s most friendless people” and current events are proving that to be true: Since August 25, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled violent persecution in Myanmar, which they consider their homeland, and arrived in neighboring Bangladesh, which has kept its doors open on condition that they don’t stay forever.
The international community — and Europe in particular — has condemned the situation but done little to stop what the United Nations says could be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Decades of tension between the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is de facto stateless, and majority-Buddhist Myanmar have come to a peak. The Myanmar government doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s 125 ethnic groups, even though they have lived in northern Rakhine State since the 12th century.
“We have always felt oppressed, it is an ongoing process. But this time we fled to save our lives,” said Sabikun Nahar, holding her baby.
On August 25, rebels of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) attacked around 30 police and army posts in Rakhine, killing 12 officers, according to the Myanmar government. In retaliation, the Myanmar army — which considers ARSA a terrorist group — launched an unprecedented campaign against civilians, who for decades have been categorized as “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
Nahar is one of 422,000 Rohingya forced to flee, according to the latest U.N. estimates. The 21-year-old, who looks older than her years, said she and several relatives ran away in early September when “our Buddhist neighbors and the army came and unexpectedly torched our houses. They then started shooting us when we ran to save our lives.”
That was the start of a perilous 12-day journey to Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi town on the border with Myanmar, with her mother-in-law, sister, brother-in-law and one-year-old child. “A lot of our relatives and friends have been killed,” said Nahar.
Experts agree Europe has powerful tools at its disposal, but they also warn the bloc is typically too slow to act.
Many of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar talk of houses burned down by the army and Buddhist mobs, indiscriminate shooting, and landmines planted along the border. It is difficult to verify their testimonies, partly because Myanmar refuses to allow independent investigators to enter Rakhine. But analysis of satellite images taken by organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) supports the refugees’ stories.
“The images corroborate accounts gathered by HRW from refugees who have described arson, killing, and looting by Myanmar’s military, police, and Rakhine mobs,” HRW said in a statement on September 19. Satellite footage shows that at least 214 villages in Rakhine have been destroyed, the group said.
Ahead of a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York last week, the group called on world leaders to condemn what it called “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of Myanmar’s military. It also urged the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo.
President Emmanuel Macron announced he would work with the other members of the Security Council to end military operations, guarantee humanitarian access and restore law in the area. His use of the word “genocide” in relation to the humanitarian crisis marked the strongest verbal criticism by a European head of state.
Meanwhile, the U.K. — which ruled Myanmar from 1824 until 1948 — announced in New York that it would suspend its training of the country’s military, after facing criticism that it was dragging its feet in responding to the crisis.
Other European countries should follow the U.K.’s lead on the issue, said Alistair D.B. Cook, a researcher at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
“There is a lot of focus on Aung San Suu Kyi [Myanmar’s head of state and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate], while the people who have the power is the army,” said Cook.
Myanmar’s military occupies 25 percent of seats in parliament, holds the right to veto constitutional changes and controls the country’s security apparatus. It is also allegedly the main force behind the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
Concerted action from Europe would be more effective than a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which is likely to be vetoed by China and Russia, Cook added. Both countries are permanent members of the Security Council and big importers of weapons from Myanmar’s arms industry. China is also heavily involved in energy projects in Rakhine.
The European Union already holds a common position on Myanmar, which was first adopted in 1996 and includes an arms embargo. The bloc’s good relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could also help resolve the crisis, according to Ludovica Marchi, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugees hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar | Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images
“ASEAN has always protected Myanmar and sought to maintain peace,” Marchi said. “It has also, however, proved capable of exerting sufficient pressure on the government in charge to compel them to undertake reforms.”
Remy Mahzam, a research fellow at RSIS, said the EU will have to invest “in contributing to development aid, technical cooperation and training in Myanmar and facilitate the country’s opening up process.”
But while experts agree Europe has powerful tools at its disposal, they also warn the bloc is typically too slow to act.
The approximately 800,000 forcibly displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh — some 300,000 of whom arrived in Cox’s Bazar on the back of a previous crisis — live in despair, lacking basic needs like food, shelter or water.
The situation is feared to be worse in Rakhine itself, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are cut off from access to humanitarian help. An estimated 1 million Rohingyas lived in Rakhine before attacks began in August.
If Europe and others abandon the Rohingya to their “friendless” fate, members of the group could fall into bad company, experts also warn.
“ISIS is already exploiting the Rohingya crisis to recruit more fighters,” said Mahzam at RSIS. “Al-Qaeda has also issued a recent statement calling for attacks against the Myanmar government. The conflict could rekindle extremism and motivate more attacks across the world to address the crisis.”
More than ever, the Rohingya need a friend. It’s up to Europe to make sure they find the right one.
Paloma Almoguera is a journalist based in Singapore.