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Myanmar, Rohingya: People Without Country

Pope Francis will be visiting Myanmar from 27th November to the 30th November, and Bangladesh from the 30th November to the 2nd December. His visit will certainly focus global attention on the plight of all the people suffering, and in particularly, the Rohingyas.

“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, meaning “the whole world is one family”, is an ancient Sanskrit phrase found in the Maha Upanishad, one of the Sacred Texts of Hinduism. This important phrase underlines a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy, which includes welcoming, hospitality, tolerance, harmony, unity and adaptability. For several centuries, India, as a country, and a large percentage of Indians have been doing their best to live up to this ideal. India has been home to races, nationalities, tribes, religions and cultures from across the world.

The Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar.
The Rohingyas – 1.2 million people approximately – are an ethnic minority group, mainly Muslim, who are concentrated in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Despite having roots and living in the Buddhist-majority country for centuries, the Rohingyas since 1982 are denied citizenship, disenfranchised, regarded as illegal immigrants and rendered stateless. Since the late 1970’s, many of them have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly Bangladesh.

In February 2017, a United Nations report had documented numerous instances of gang rape and killings, including of babies and young children, by Myanmar’s security forces. In the past month, because of some insurgency on the part of a small group of Rohingyas, the army’s viciousness, already very ghastly, has escalated even further. Recently, the United Nations’ top human rights official called Myanmar’s ongoing military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority group in that country’s Rakhine state “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, but the Myanmar’s government denies this.

Since the 25th August, more than 480,000 Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh. They face land mines planted along the border. Others make the treacherous crossing, through inclement weather, including torrential rains and floods, of the wide estuary of the Naf River, which separates Myanmar from Bangladesh.

It is estimated that several hundreds have died in capsized boats, and boatmen have been charging exploitative rates for a ride that usually costs a pittance. Victim survivors have been sharing horror stories of what they have been going through. The unbelievable and inhuman suffering, which they are being subjected to, has captured the attention, the anguish and anger of a sizeable section of the world community.

The Bangladesh Government, the UN and some local and International NGOs are doing their best, but the conditions are dire, and food and drinking water is scarce. The UN Refugee Agency in a communiqué states, “there is also an increased risk of communicable diseases, infection, cholera and respiratory infections”. It is incredibly difficult to keep warm and dry under these conditions and already weak and exhausted, many refugees will struggle to stay healthy.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, visited the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh recently. On the 27th September, on his return to Geneva he said, “They had to flee very sudden and cruel violence, and they have fled with nothing. Their needs are enormous – food, health, shelter. They have absolutely nothing. I have hardly seen in my career people that have come with so little. They need everything”, further adding, “I have spoken to several women who have been raped, or have been wounded because of their resistance to rape. I spoke to many children, shockingly absent of emotion, because they were so traumatized. They told me how they had seen their parents or relatives or friends killed in front of their eyes.”

On 11th September, in his opening statement to the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country. Some 40,000 Rohingyas have settled in India, and 16,000 of them have received refugee documentation. The Minister of State for Home Affairs has reportedly said that because India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the country can dispense with international law on the matter, together with basic human compassion. However, by virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement, India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations”.

Despite the suffering of the Rohingyas, the Government of India is trying to deport about 40,000 Rohingyas who are currently living in India and to prevent other Rohingyas from entering the country. This action by India would clearly go against the country’s obligations under international and domestic law.

There has been global condemnation of the atrocities committed against the Rohingyas. Pope Francis will be visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh. His visit will certainly focus global attention on the plight of all the people suffering. Pope Francis has consistently taken a stand for all refugees and displaced persons and he has been vocal in his defense of the Rohingyas. On the 27th August, he said, “Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority. I would like to express my full closeness to them – and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights. Let us pray for our Rohingya brethren”.

The Government and people of Myanmar, the Government of India, and the international community must pay heed to the fact that, “the whole world is on, family”; that every citizen in a civilized world is endowed with rights, that even refugees have to be treated with compassion, care and the dignity they deserve. Above all, everybody has to realize that the Rohingyas are human too.