At least 500,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since August of this year. Although the crisis has intensified in recent months, the targeted, sometimes violent, discrimination of this minority group is anything but new.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group from Myanmar's Rakhine state, just south of Bangladesh, who have at times numbered 1.1 million.
Officially, Myanmar's government does not recognize the Rohingya as lawful citizens. The government claims they were brought to Rakhine from Bangladesh during the time when Myanmar was a British colony, and the government says they are living in Myanmar illegally. Ask the Rohingya and they’ll tell youthey have been in the region for over a century, and some claim to have been in the region from as early as the eighth century.
“The answer to that question is highly contested, particularly by those who want to politicize the issue,” said John Knaus, the associate director of the Asia division at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Regardless of when the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar, the military junta that controlled Myanmar until recently denied them citizenship in 1982, leaving them stateless and vulnerable.
WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THEM?
Attacks on the Rohingya have been systematic and widespread, reportedly at the hands of the Myanmar police and military, leading to what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."(The term is often used to refer to the forced removal of an ethnic or religious group by intimidation or violence.)
A controversial report by the Myanmar government found no evidence of systematic violence against the Rohingya, but the country has refused to allow the UN or outside organizations or journalists to conduct an independent investigation.
Most of what’s known about the Rohingya crisis is being collected from interviews and information gathered at the Bangladesh border from those fleeing across it. Last February, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report in which refugees told stories of gang rape, mass killings, and brutal beatings. More than half of the women interviewed reported having been a victim of sexual violence.
Satellite images have shown Rohingya villages burning. Refugees blame the Myanmar military, while the Burmese military has claimed the Rohingya burned their own homes. The BBC's Jonathan Head was one of the few journalists allowed into the Rakhine state, but under strict government surveillance. During a tour of the region's villages, he was given photos showing Rohingya allegedly burning their homes—photos he later discovered were faked.
There are 40,000 Rohingya refugees settled in India, 16,000 of which have obtained official refugee documentation. The majority of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar have not made it past Bangladesh. Devastating floods in India and Bangladesh over this past summer have worsened conditions in refugee camps and led to a cholera outbreak, water shortages, and malnutrition.
WHY ARE WE HEARING ABOUT IT NOW?
Myanmar has more than 100 different ethnic groups, with the Burmese making up about two thirds of the country. And while the Rohingya have long been persecuted as a minority, the scale of recent violence is unprecedented. It ramped up on August 25 after a small faction of Rohingya militants called the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army attacked police posts, killing 12 members of Myanmar’s security forces. In retribution, Myanmar’s military vowed to root out militant groups, and they’ve responded on a massive scale that has left many innocent civilians dead, injured, or homeless.
Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is executive director of an organization he founded called the Peace and Development Initiative, which documents stories of the violence in Myanmar. Following the August attacks, his organization paused its work in Rakhine in fear of retribution. Though he now attends Columbia University in New York, Hlaing is intimately familiar with the violent discrimination long seen in Rakhine.
He's Burmese and grew up in Rakhine with a Buddhist family, but following student protests against the Myanmar government, Hlaing was held as a political prisoner for five years and subsequently exiled to Thailand.
Hlaing says he believes Myanmar’s security forces are exploiting the late August events to push the Rohingya out of the region.
WHAT IS MYANMAR'S FAMOUS LEADER, AUNG SAN SUU KYI, DOING ABOUT THE CRISIS?
The daughter of a resistance movement general, Aung San Suu Kyi has been advocating for a democratic Myanmar for nearly her entire life. She became a leading figure for the National League for Democracy, then an opposition party, in the late 1980s, but she was detained in 1989. She spent 15 years under house arrest, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has been hailed as a leader of democracy around the world.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi has not publicly condemned the military's treatment of the Rohingya, and this has tarnished her international reputation. Human rights activists believe it’s her responsibility to speak out against the military’s violent assault, but she has no functional control over the military.
During Myanmar's most recent election, the NLD won the majority of the country's parliamentary seats. As the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar's de facto leader, officially named its “state counselor."
But that still doesn't mean Aung San Suu Kyi can rein in her country's military, which had established power years before her election and doesn't have to answer to her. The military is guaranteed the right to appoint 25 percent of Myanmar's parliamentary seats, giving it veto power over constitutional amendments. As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are barred from moving the military under civilian control.
BUT IS MYANMAR A DEMOCRACY? (AND WHY DO WE SOMETIMES CALL IT BURMA?)
During the 20th century, activists struggled to establish a democracy and the Burmese were at times under a strict, militaristic regime. For more than a century, Burma was a British colony, until it declared independence in 1948. The country was briefly a democratic republic, but instability created a power vacuum that was exploited by General U Ne Win, who led a military coup in 1962. By 1974, he had established a regime that isolated the country.
Further crackdowns on what remained of the country's democratic institutions came in 1988 when the military responded to student-led protests by killing at least 3,000.
The country's ruling military junta changed the name of the state from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, but this change is not officially recognized by the U.S. and UK. (National Geographic refers to the country as Myanmar.) Use of the name Myanmar remains controversial among some, who say it infers support for military rule.
In the past five years, Myanmar has become less isolated, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory represented a step toward democracy for citizens of Myanmar. But the situation remains complex.
“I don’t think anyone would say Myanmar had become a democracy,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Myanmar’s democracy is a work in progress. This [Rohingya crisis] shows how fragile it is.”
IS THERE HOPE FOR THE ROHINGYA?
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar describe regular mistreatment from those in the government and surrounding communities.
“[They] feel like second-class citizens,” said Hlaing. Hlaing was struck by the atrocities he witnessed growing up in Rakhine and participated in protests against the government as a teenager. While the military's attacks have been the most devastating, the Rohingya also face violence from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, Hlaing added.
“There’s a fear, especially among Burma's Buddhist nationalists, of Burma losing its unique Burmese culture,” said Knaus. “Whether that’s from Muslims coming into the country or influences from places like China, and the rest of the outside world, there’s a real fear that Burma is going to be changed by all of these influences. The Rohinyga are the most obvious examples of this. They’re Muslim and perceived to be from Bangladesh so to many they are the prime example of this foreign cultural and social invasion.”
Hlaing says his curriculum from Rakhine state schools emphasized the country’s Buddhist origins as what made Myanmar unique. Even his own family, he said, struggles to understand his work advocating for the rights of minorities.
Born in 1880, at the peak of British colonisation of India, Begum Rokeya lived a short, yet meaningful life. A Bengali writer and activist, she has often been touted as the pioneer feminist of Bengal. A fierce advocate of gender equality, Rokeya wrote many short stories, novels, poems, satire and essays, calling for women to be treated equally as men. She held the lack of education to be responsible for women lagging behind men in her writings.
She has long represented the face of Muslim feminism in Bengal. She pushed for an equal society through her writings and activism, as well as her actions and strategy. She also founded a girls’ school, and an NGO named Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association). Despite facing several obstacles and criticism, Rokeya went door-to-door, encouraging men to send their daughters to school, and continued the campaigning till her death.
Some of her major literary works include Abarodhbasini, in which she attacked the extreme forms of veils and purdah, which she claimed was bad for women, and stopped them from thinking and working independently. Begum Rokeya also wrote a science fiction novella, Sultana’s Dream, in which she lives in a feminist utopian world ruled by women.
Early Life and Work
Rokeya Begum was born in Pairabondh village of Rangpour. Her father, a local landlord, married 4 times, and imposed a strict veiling upon the women of his family. No formal education was allowed for women in his house, and only Arabic was taught informally, so they could recite the Quran and perform Islamic religious rites.
However, defying the rules laid out by her father, Rokeya, along with her sister Karimunesa insisted upon learning Bangla – the local language – much to their father’s disdain. The Bengali Muslims preferred using Arabic or Persian as a language to produce media. However, their brother Ibrahim Saber decided to teach them.
Rokeya married the Deputy Magistrate of Baghalpur, Sakhwat Hussain, who was then a divorced 39-year old. Having studied in England, Hussain was a liberal person, who encouraged his wife to learn both Bengali and English. During the lifetime of her husband, she started her literary career and launched books like Motichur and Sultana’s Dream.
Rokeya led a hard life, full of personal losses and tragedies. She didn’t get her mother’s love and attention, her husband passed away early in their married life and she lost two daughters in their infancy.
She faced severe resistance from the society for her writings and activism to change its attitude towards women. She attempted to inform them of the world outside of their homes, kitchens, of things other than clothes and jewellery. She inspired the Bengali Muslim women to wake up from the patriarchal slumber and accept their individualities and created a slogan, “Jago Go Bhogini” (Wake Up Sisters).
Career as a Writer and Activist
At the peak of her career, Rokeya had learnt Bangla, Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic. However, much of her literary work is in Bangla, excluding a few stories in English. One of her first novellas, Sultana’s Dream was also in English, in which she reversed the gender roles and portrayed women as dominant gender. Although she started writing about reforming the society in as early as 1903, a two-volume compilation of which was published in 1908 and 1921 respectively. She published a novel, Padmaraga in 1924, and another, Oborodhbashini in 1928.
Rokeya started off her school, Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in the memory of her late husband. In 1911, when the foundation was laid in Kolkata, there were only 8 students. However, the strength increased to 84 by 1915, and it became a high school in 1930. Among the many subjects taught at the school, the most prominent ones were nursing, sewing, home economics, Bangla and English. She believed it was very important for women to be strong physically, so she focused more on physical activity in her school. Through practical training, Rokeya aimed at enabling women to be economically independent, whenever needed.
Having faced the issues being a woman herself, Rokeya decided to launch Anjuman-e-Khawanteen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association) in 1916. Much of the organisation’s work focused on helping women coming from poorer backgrounds. Along with offering financial help, the organisation also provided shelter to women in need. She also launched a program to help women living in slums learn reading, writing and child care.
Her profile by The Daily Star noted, “Begum Rokeya believed that men and women were created differently, but equally… the subjugated position of women was not due to Allah’s will, but due to men’s immorality.”
It also pointed out her use of logic to resist the idea that women were created inferior to men. “Had God Himself intended women to be inferior, He would have ordained it so that mothers would have given birth to daughters at the end of the fifth month of pregnancy. The supply of mother’s milk would naturally have been half of that in case of a son. But that is not the case. How can it be? Is not God just and most merciful?” it read.
Eliza Binte Elahi of The Asian Age writes, “Rokeya believed that men deliberately refuse women equal opportunities to cultivate their minds with the purpose of sustaining women’s dependence on men and further perpetuating women’s dependence on their own inferior status. Rokeya used examples of women who earn more than their husbands, but still submit to the men folk at home to point out that the framework of women’s subjugation exceeds economic parameters.”
Rokeya died on December 8, 1932, while working on an article titled Narir Odhikar.
Begum Rokeya’s work has a distinctive style, in which she inculcates logic, creativity and humour. She started her career writing for a magazine called Nabanoor, and throughout her career, she asked women to stand up for their rights and protest the injustice they face and encouraged them to break the barriers holding them back from progress. Some of her famous writings are as follows:
Motichur (Two volumes, first published in 1904, second in ’22)
Padmarag (Essence of the Lotus, published in 1924)
God Gives, Man Robs (Published in 1927)
Her death anniversary is commemorated as Rokeya Day on December 9 in Bangladesh. A state-run public university named Begum Rokeya University was launched by the government in 2008.
The Bangladeshi government also launched a national honour titled Begum Rokeya Padak for her contributions towards the literature and betterment of women in Bengal. The Padak has been given to 39 women till now for their exceptional work to promote women rights.
Conflict has driven Yemen to the brink of famine. Few areas have been hit harder than al-Hudaydah, where many people are now bereft of hope
Before the conflict began in 2015, the 53-year-old was a fisherman. Now he makes two brooms a day, which earns him a daily income of $1. “The boats that we were working on were bombed [by Saudi jets]. Now my family and I don’t have enough to eat,” he says.
The conflict is the primary driver of a hunger crisis that the UN has warnedcould turn to famine this year if nothing is done.
On Wednesday, the UN launched a $2.1bn (£1.6bn) appeal to prevent famine in the Arab world’s poorest nation, where nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished. The humanitarian appeal is the largest launched for Yemen and aims to provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people this year.
Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, said: “The situation in Yemen is catastrophic and rapidly deteriorating”. At least 10,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict.
Al-Nahari lives in the area of Yemen worst hit by the crisis. He says even those fishermen whose boats have remained intact do not dare to sail for fear of being bombed by the Saudi jets that frequently bomb targets within the country. The attacks are to counter the advances of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sana’a, and have spread out across Yemen. “The war killed our only income, which was [me] working as a fisherman, and now we are jobless and hopeless,” he says.
Al-Nahari did not earn much as a fisherman, but it was enough to buy flour and some basic food. “We are broken, we don’t have enough money, no food, nothing to eat, nothing to work with,” he says.
Fatima takes care of her two grandsons in al-Hudaydah’s al-Mujelis village. Ali is 11 and Mohammed four. They both suffer from thalassemia and their condition has been exacerbated by the lack of rich food. “We have no money to treat my grandsons or to feed ourselves. Since we lost our jobs, we have no income and we have nothing to eat,” she says.
The children’s family used to worked in a Mango farm before the bombings. “These days, we sell brooms and buy ourselves some flour and then eat it with water,” she says. “Either we die from the bombing or from the hunger. My grandson needs treatment and also on the top of all that he needs to eat a healthy food, my grandson doesn’t know what the milk tastes like.”
She says the world was turning a blind eye to the Saudi bombings, which have prompted criticism of the UK, which exports weapons to Saudi Arabia. “I also blame the whole world for watching us dying and for their silence against [the] Saudi-led coalition,” she says.
Ashwaq Ahmad Moharram, an obstetrician and gynaecologist volunteering in al-Hudaydah, says the humanitarian situation there is believed to be the worst among Yemen’s 22 governorates.
“The situation in al-Hudaydah was bad before and now it has become even worse; if they were poor before, now they are poorer,” she says.
“When I visit homes here, I have not found even the simplest daily life supports: there is no daily food, most of people eat only fish and sell what is left, but now after fishing boats are targeted by Saudi-led coalition, they have nothing left to make income from.”
Saeeda, a 60-year-old woman living in al-Hajb village in the al-Almansoriah district of al-Hudaydah, is disabled. In the past, she was financially supported by her only son, who worked in a Mango farm.
“When the war started, he lost his job; my grandson looks for what is left from [our] neighbour’s food. Saudi jets scare me all the time and when I hear their sound in the air, I cannot even run away from my thatched hut [because] I’m disabled,” she says.
“Before the war, we were eating breakfast and lunch, we had $3 a day, the situation was safe, but now we don’t have anything, my son is jobless, our life was difficult but now it’s more difficult than it was, sometimes I wish I was not born in this life.”
She adds: “Farms have been bombed, fishing boats too and diseases have become widespread; fever kills a lot of children.”
Ghaleb Mashn’s 11-month-old son Radad is malnourished and has abdominal swelling. The family lives in al-Hajb village. “My son has a congenital disorder, his condition gets worse when he is starved. I don’t have money to treat him. I went to al-Hudaydah for two days and I couldn’t stay longer to continue his treatment,” says Mashn, who makes brooms and hats and makes $2 a day. “My son needs to be treated, his weight was 3.5kg and after one week in a malnutrition centre it increased to 4.5kg.
“Everything has changed. Our life has become a hell. Saudi Arabia bombards us and kills our neighbours.”
Gummai Esmail Moshasha’s thatched hut in al-Jah, in the Tihama area of al-Hudaydah, was targeted on 12 January. Moshasha, 54, and one of his sons, Ali, 21, were outside waiting for the breakfast call when the bombings began at about 6am. Inside, however, were Ali’s 18-month son, Ahmad, his wife and his mother. They were instantly killed.
“They were preparing the breakfast at our thatched hat, it was a tea and some biscuits,” Ali says. “Suddenly the rocket hit our thatched hat, I ran to the home to see what happened, I was shocked to see my family members killed and cut into pieces, I hugged [what was] remaining of my wife’s body, I also hugged my mother and my son’s body, I was crying.
“My message to the world is, ‘Please stop the war’, but I think my message is useless, they won’t be able to bring back who I have lost.”
The United Nations has documented shocking accounts of sexual violence, including gang rape, against Rohingya women and girls at the hands of Myanmar’s military. News Deeply spoke with a U.N. investigator about what she found when she talked to survivors.
The spate of violence, which includes gang rape and involves survivors as young as 11 years old, was found to have been perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces,
On October 9, 2016, the Burmese military entered northern Rakhine state – and over the next four months detained and killed men, women and children. Soldiers burned down houses and raped women and young girls. The U.N. report says these actions amount to possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The military insists this “clearance operation” was a justified counterinsurgency operation following an October 9 attack on security forces near the Bangladesh border, which resulted in the deaths of nine policemen. The violence caused more than 69,000 Rohingya to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they are currently living in eight makeshift camps in Dhaka and Cox Bazar.
Myanmar’s Rohinyga population lives in villages in northern Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh border. They are known as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Their Muslim faith is viewed as a security threat by Buddhist groups in Myanmar, which means they receive limited access to basic services such as education. They are also prohibited from claiming citizenship and moving freely throughout the country.
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) sent a four-person team, including human rights officer Ilona Alexander, to Bangladesh in early January of this year to investigate these human rights violations. Their investigation included testimony from 101 Rohingya women who experienced violence at the hands of the military: More than half reported being sexually assaulted.
Women & Girls spoke to Ilona Alexander about the evidence she gathered on the sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya women and girls.
Women & Girls: The military indicated that it was conducting “area clearance operations” in the region – what exactly does this mean?
Ilona Alexander: Based on the interviews we conducted, the “area clearance operations” followed this pattern: Large numbers of armed men (often from both the Myanmar Armed Forces and the police, sometimes accompanied by Rakhine villagers) would arrive in the village. As is confirmed by satellite imagery analysis, they would proceed to destroy many houses, mosques, schools and shops.
They would separate the women from the men. Women would be rounded up, and either told to stay inside a school or other building or outside in the burning sun. Many would be raped or would experience others forms of sexual violence, often during strip searches, either during roundups or in homes.
Women & Girls: How did the victims describe the attacks?
Alexander: The vast majority of those interviewed had experienced multiple violations. Families may have had members killed, beaten, raped or taken away to an unknown location, while at the same time their homes were burned and looted. For most interviewees, separation from their families is a major concern.
Many of the men have been detained or killed. This is one of the saddest things, because these women have experienced tremendous sexual violence – but sometimes they broke down even more when they talked about their missing husbands.
For me, the touching thing was hearing stories from the little boys who feel that now that their fathers are gone, they are responsible for protecting their mothers and sisters. But these boys have had to watch their sisters and mothers being beaten and raped, and now they feel like they have failed to protect their mothers.
Women & Girls: Your investigations found that one girl as young as 11 years old was gang raped by military forces. Can you describe this case?
Alexander: For this girl, she started by describing to me how life was peaceful in her village before … suddenly the military appeared and started killing people [and] abusing women.
She told me how she witnessed a man who was about 40 years old have his throat cut with a cleaver in front of her. After, the military came to her house and badly beat her parents.
After this incident, her father went into hiding from the military and took her two older sisters with him so that they would be safe. He left the girl at home with her mother and two little brothers because he thought the military wouldn’t hurt children.
The military came back to their house twice. The first time, the military came and removed her clothing and kicked her. After the clothing was removed and the girl was beaten, the military suddenly left. The next day they returned with seven soldiers and removed the mother from the house. The soldiers locked themselves in a room with the girl and gang raped her. The girl told me that she doesn’t even know how many of them raped her because she fell unconscious at times and awoke bleeding and injured after.
Women & Girls: Why were some of the women you spoke to targeted for gang rape, while others weren’t?
Alexander: They wanted to terrorize the population, so they took some women into public places like mosques and gang raped them while other women were outside and listening. They wanted the women outside to know what was happening so they were terrorized.
They would have around eight women and 20 men from the military in the mosque, and the men would take a turn with each woman.
I had this one 15-year-old girl tell me that she was only raped by one solider because she was not as beautiful as the girls who were gang raped. When she told me this I thought, “My God, what kind of culture is this where women think they aren’t beautiful enough to be gang raped?”