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No justice, and nowhere to go for the victims of Myanmar’s forgotten genocide

by Farah Abdurahman | Apr 1, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

The holocaust in Gaza has eclipsed the long-standing genocide of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, 569 of whom died at sea last year alone. Farah Abdurahman reports on the humanitarian disaster and the response of the Australian government.

More than seven years on from the genocide committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military, the group is no closer to peace or freedom. 

A shortage of food and essential resources has forced many who sought refuge in the world’s largest refugee camp to flee the fishing city of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, where more than 1 million Rohingya are living in squalor.

In recent months, at least 2000 refugees fled to the ASEAN region in unsafe conditions, with an Australian bound boat carrying 151 passengers capsizing earlier this month, causing more than half of the passengers, mostly women and children, to drown. 

In 2023 alone, 569 Rohingya drowned at sea.

Within Myanmar’s Rakhine State, a new wave of killing by the Myanmar Military and crossfire by the Arakan Army has left countless Rohingya dead as their villages become fierce battle grounds between the junta and rebel forces. 

While Australian government officials claims to condemn the atrocities and ongoing discrimination against the Rohingya, foreign policy has done little to reflect the rhetoric.

Since 2017, Australia has granted only 470 special humanitarian visas to Rohingya refugees.

A brutal history

Although native to Myanmar, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from the Rakhine State who have been subjected to decades of state repression and ethnic cleansing which culminated in the 2017 genocide. 

Since August 2017, at least 24,000 Rohingya have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report titled “Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience” by the Ontario International Development Agency.

The report stated that more than 34,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten and as many as 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police. 

More than 115,000 Rohingya homes burned down while another 113,000 others were vandalised.

At least 1 million Rohingya continue to reside in the Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, while a further 600,000 Rohingya who remained in Rakhine State, and close to 2 million Myanmar civilians, are estimated to be internally displaced.

Junta v Aung San Suu Kyi

Although the 2017 genocide was internationally defended by the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the same generals who committed the atrocities against the Rohingya staged a coup in 2021 to overthrow and imprison her. 

The junta also detained or exiled all of Myanmar’s elected civilian leaders. 

Demonstrations in protest were met by a campaign of mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks that amount to crimes against humanity.

Although various international communities including Australia imposed sanctions on Myanmar, and Gambia referred Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for Genocide, no one has yet been held accountable for the crimes committed against the Rohingya.

Apartheid and persecution

NSW Young Woman of the Year and Co-founder of the Australian Rohingya Maìyafuìnor Collaborative Network, Noor Azizah, told MWM the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State face systematic abuses that amount to apartheid, persecution, and deprivation of liberty.

Noor Azizah

Noor Azizah

“The subsequent surge of violence that has raged since the civil war began in 2021 is part of a systematic endeavour towards the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the remaining Muslim population in Myanmar,” she said. 

“Access to information for the Rohingya is severely restricted due to internet shutdowns and bans on phones and mobiles. Families face grave risks, being warned that venturing outside their homes to procure essential supplies like grain or food could result in fatal consequences.

“Those who fled to bordering countries are confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education and livelihood, and are effectively denied citizenship rendering them stateless.”

Defection and conscription

Growing numbers of defectors and loss of morale has weakened the Myanmar military junta resulting in conscription. 

Thousands of young men of military age are now fleeing Myanmar to avoid forced military service. 

Human Rights Activist Maung Hla Myint who remains displaced in Cox’s Bazaar said despite their non-combatant status, the Rohingya in Rakhine State find themselves intentionally targeted.

“The Rohingya are enduring a renewed wave of genocide,” said Myint.

“We are calling upon the international community to establish an immediate and robust international safe zone for the Rohingya in Arakan and to support those remaining in Cox’s Bazar a passage for repatriation so we may return home.”

Myint said many individuals have been permanently disabled as a result of the ongoing violence and lack access to adequate health care for treatment.

He said those who speak out against the junta are targeted, and refusing to join the army leads to arrest and violence. “Those who flee by boat are often drowning or are being sent away by the receiving counties.

“Since the coup, security forces have arrested an estimated 2,000 Rohingya, hundreds of them children, for “unauthorised travel.

“This senseless war has exacted a devastating toll, resulting in the tragic loss of Rohingya lives, the destruction of villages, the incineration of homes, and the forced mass displacement of Rohingya from their homeland.”

Australia’s role in the Route to Repatriation

The Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar confront a daunting challenge in returning home amid ongoing persecution by Myanmar’s military junta. Ms Azizah said repatriation hinges on a stable political climate in Myanmar, ensuring Rohingya rights, and ending the violence against them.

“Achieving repatriation requires concerted efforts involving Myanmar, the global community, humanitarian agencies, and civil society to address root causes and safeguard Rohingya rights as native citizens,” said Noor Azizah.

“Post-repatriation support, including healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities is vital for successful reintegration, and to address the psychological impact of displacement.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia recognised Rohingyas’ right of return and continued to advocate for this in international forums and with the regime in Myanmar

“Australia condemns in the strongest terms the atrocities committed in Myanmar”. 

“Australia has urged Myanmar to create conditions conducive to return, including through the cessation of violence and ensuring safe and unimpeded humanitarian access.”

“Australia has committed to provide $235 million from 2023 to 2025 to meet the needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and their host communities, and for broader humanitarian assistance in Myanmar. This builds on $625 million provided since 2017.”

But thus far Australia still refuses to increase the number of humanitarian visas it grants to Rohingya refugees with the number sitting steady at 470.

Corporate sanctions

Australia last month imposed additional targeted sanctions on five entities with direct links to the Myanmar military regime.

This includes two banks that enable the regime’s activities – Myanma Foreign Trade Bank and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, and three entities that supply jet fuel to the Myanmar military, Asia Sun Group, Asia Sun Trading Co Ltd, and Cargo Link Petroleum Logistics Co Ltd.

In February 2023 sanctions were placed on 16 military regime members of the State Administration Council and two Myanmar military-controlled entities; and in 2018 against five members of the Myanmar military linked to atrocities in Rakhine. 

Australia also maintains a longstanding arms embargo on Myanmar. The sanctions imposed on Myanmar are in stark contrast to Australia’s position on Israel who was found by the International Court of Justice to be at plausible risk of committing genocide. 

The Myanmar genocide case remains before the International Court of Justice. 

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Farah is a former political reporter for Fairfax Media. She has almost 20 years of media and communications experience in senior and executive roles working across government, research and innovation, and the private sector.

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