A People On The Brink

The Rohingya have long been considered to be among the world’s most persecuted people. Now, in the midst of ongoing genocide, they face a new threat.


Amelia Lake | amelia.lake@yale.edu

(“Displaced Rohingya People in Rakhine State.” Image courtesy of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Usually kids get a bedtime story before they go to sleep, like something from a Walt Disney film,” says Sam. “In my case, my parents used to tell us about the genocidal acts that happened to our relatives and how our villages were destroyed.”*


Like many Rohingya, Sam, whose full name must be kept confidential for security and privacy reasons, was born undocumented and in exile to parents who escaped ethnic cleansing in Myanmar as children. He is among the lucky few who managed to reach safety in the United States, where his children were born. In spite of the suffering his people continue to endure, he remains fiercely proud of his heritage: “Rohingya is my language, my dignity, my belonging, and a cause that I am ready to defend whenever it is required.”


Persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar dates back generations and is codified into its legal system. Myanmar’s nationality law, enacted by the Burmese military junta in 1982, is primarily based on membership with any of the 135 legally recognized “national races”. The International Commission of Jurists has condemned this legislation as intentionally discriminatory, particularly against those of South Asian, Chinese, and mixed descent. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a majority-Buddhist country, are not legally considered a distinct ethnic group indigenous to Myanmar, but rather, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a claim which the government of Bangladesh rejects. Consequently, the Rohingya are ineligible for citizenship in either country. With few exceptions, they are denied access to education, the right to vote, and freedom of movement. Government forces, often aided by the local Buddhist population, routinely attack Rohingya villages, forcing survivors to flee to internally displaced persons camps.


(“Burnt Down House in Northern Rakhine State.” Image courtesy of Moe Zaw, Voice of America. Public domain.)

Rohingya resistance has been met with brutal, crushing reprisals. In response to a 2017 Rohingya militia attack on border police, the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) began a campaign of violence against Rohingya civilians in an effort to drive them out of Rakhine State. The massacres, including village burnings, torture, and gang rapes, left thousands dead and forced 700,000—almost 70% of Myanmar’s Rohingya population—to flee to Bangladesh in what the U.N. has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Leading up to the 2017 atrocities, Myanmar military and intelligence officials infamously engaged in a years-long campaign on social media to promote anti-Rohingya hate speech and incite ethnic violence. Still, the government of Myanmar officially denies any allegations of genocide.


With the arrival of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia, the plight of the Rohingya has taken a turn for the worse. As Myanmar’s underprepared healthcare system strains at the seams, the outbreak has fanned the flames of ethnic tensions and incited racist hate speech online, prompting fears of further violence. Rohingya refugees attempting to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh have been scapegoated for the spread of Covid in Myanmar. The Voice, a Burmese media outlet whose Twitter account was later suspended, published a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man as an illegal border-crosser carrying Covid. Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya political activist, accused local officials of publicizing the names and addresses of Rohingya diagnosed with Covid. After reports of several cases in Rakhine State in June 2020, where a number of Rohingya still remain, Aung San Suu Kyi, former State Counsellor of Myanmar, threatened illegal border-crossers and their helpers with “severe” punishment, a stark contrast to her earlier policy encouraging the return of non-Rohingya refugees from Thailand to seek medical assistance with no punishment.


For those Rohingya who manage to cross the border into Bangladesh, the struggle is far from over. Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar is the largest refugee camp in the world, and one of several sheltering Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. First established in 1991 to house Rohingya fleeing Myanmar’s Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, its population has since swelled to over 700,000, and continues to grow. The camp is located in the deforested hills of the Chittagong Province, which are vulnerable to floods and mudslides during Bangladesh’s monsoon season. Refugees largely lack access to education and vocational training, and some have turned to the illicit drug trade, inciting ire from Bangladeshi locals. Authorities also struggle to cope with the influx of sex traffickers exploiting Rohingya women and girls. Citing safety and security concerns, the Bangladesh government heavily restricts movement into and out of the camps. Internet and electricity are limited, and access to mobile phones is scarce, leaving many diaspora Rohingya, like Sam, unable to reliably contact their loved ones.

Covid-19 has taken a surprising amount of time to take a foothold among the Rohingya refugee population. When the first wave swept through Bangladesh in 2020, of the roughly 1.1 million Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, only 11 deaths were reported. In response to early infection reports, the government instituted a strict lockdown in the camps, withdrawing all but essential services—health, shelter, and food. HAEFA (Health and Education for All), which operates medical centers in the camps, meticulously screens refugees for symptoms, offering treatment not only for Covid but for other chronic underlying conditions that can make infection especially dangerous. Without consistent access to electricity, healthcare workers rely on a solar-powered electronic medical record system to track Covid cases. This, in combination with restrictions on refugee movement, is believed to have curbed the spread of infections.


But the recent rise of the Delta variant poses a serious threat to the Rohingya. “[They] are now at very high risk for this Delta variant because they are not vaccinated at all,” says Ruhul Abid, MD, PhD, recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “In our calculations, one-fifth to one-fourth of the adult population suffers a comorbidity such as diabetes, hypertension, or asthma, which can create very severe Covid outcomes. It’s going to become an enormous risk unless we donate vaccines very quickly.”


Abid suggests that vaccine donations to developing nations should include a number earmarked for refugee populations, who remain especially vulnerable and tend to lack access to comprehensive healthcare. “We’re doing good. The United States is roughly 70 percent vaccinated, and soon we’ll reach 80 and 90 percent. But if the rest of the world does not get vaccinated, we’ll have the same problem again. There will be another variant. India had a huge infection rate, and that’s where the Delta variant emerged—because if 1.3 billion people cultivate a virus, there will be variants.” Presently, health workers are undergoing training to inoculate Rohingya refugees aged 55 and above, pending vaccine availability.


For many Rohingya and advocates, dwindling recognition of their cause as Myanmar’s military crackdown heightens is a cause of frustration. Bangladesh, overwhelmed by the deluge of refugees, has increasingly pushed to repatriate its Rohingya population, an effort met with resistance and protest from the refugees themselves, who fear continued persecution and statelessness if forcibly returned to Myanmar. But even if governments and institutions are reluctant to help in the name of altruism, it might be in their own interest to do so. “These things have to be brought back into the mainstream discussion, because they’re on the back burner right now,” says Abid. “But they can’t be on the back burner. You, your children, and your family might get infected. Developed nations need to know that developing nations have to be vaccinated for their own safety. Whoever is hosting refugees needs to know that these people must be actively vaccinated, otherwise these pockets will infect again…Covid has taught us at least one thing—that even if we don’t care what happens to marginalized groups, you can’t be safe unless you provide healthcare to everyone.”


For most Rohingya, the future remains uncertain. “Currently I’m hopeless,” says Sam. “We don’t see any serious action being taken to solve this issue. We had a little hope during the International Court of Justice case, but then things went into sleep mode again.”


“Unless you go there in person, it’s very difficult to understand the scale of this crisis and how inhuman the conditions are,” Abid says. “And how forgetful we all are as well. This is something we need to remember.” He expressed hope that mobilization of Yale student platforms to raise awareness for the Rohingya cause might inspire alumni, many of whom occupy powerful positions in government and business, to take tangible action. And Yale is hardly uninvolved—earlier this year, a petition demanding the removal of Yale-NUS Governing Board chair Kay Kuok Oon Kwong over her alleged financial ties to the Tatmadaw reached over 2,000 signatures. Recognition of genocide may be a largely symbolic gesture, but it can foment political change by leveraging diplomatic alliances, a decision the United States government neglects to make. Whether it be donating vaccines, or pressuring Congressmen to pass legislation, for an institution as influential and wealthy as Yale, there is more that can—and should—be done for the Rohingya.


*Sam’s words have been slightly edited for clarity.


Writer’s Reflection

While it is neither advisable nor possible for an individual to be fully aware of and active in advocating for every single human rights abuse in the world, it saddens me how quick we are to forget any given crisis once it’s no longer in the headlines. In researching for this article, I was struck both by the immense tragedy of the subject, which words fail to fully capture, and the selflessness of the people who have dedicated their lives to it. Repeatedly, the value of raising awareness for the Rohingya people was emphasized. I hope that in writing this article, I might be able to do just that, even if only incrementally.


I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Sam for sharing his words with me. Our intention initially was to interview some of his contacts within the camps, with him acting as a translator and mediator; however, as a result of the Bangladesh government’s restrictions on Internet access, he was unable to reach them. Instead, he graciously agreed to be interviewed over email.


I’d also like to thank Dr. Ruhul Abid both for his noble work and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. Lastly, I’d like to call special attention to Tarikul Islam and Rashed Khan from Rise for Rohingya and Adem Carroll from the Burma Task Force at Justice for All for their generosity in offering me research resources and putting me in touch with Sam and Dr. Abid.


The history of the Rohingya and the entirety of their current situation are deep and complex topics, far beyond what I can explain in my 1500-word limit. I strongly encourage readers to visit Rise for Rohingya, Justice For All, Health and Education for All, and the Yale Rotaract Club to learn more about this issue and find ways of getting involved.