People are on the move all over the world, and it is rarely for a good reason.
Usually, it has to do with some combination of the following: political insurgence, famine, outbreaks of disease, economic depletion and ethnic unrest.
Recent studies estimate more than 70 million refugees and displaced people are seeking safe harbor; many obstacles prevent their pursuit. Clearly, rising nationalism does not assist their quest for survival.
One humanitarian crisis – better known and thought to be true in the West than in Myanmar – is the plight of the Rohingya.
They are a Muslim minority in the Rakhine State on the western edge of the country formerly known as Burma.
In August 2017, a deadly crackdown occurred – not the first – by the heavily armed and brutal Myanmar army on this beleaguered people.
What the army inflicted on this people has been named a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Others have called it genocide.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the Rohingya as “one of, it not the most, discriminated people in the world.”
A report published by U.N. investigators in September 2018 accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent.”
The intentional brutality of the army is almost too gruesome to recount
Soldiers snatch babies from their mothers’ arms and throw them in a river; family members have to witness the rape of women and girls just across the field; extended families watch as their villages, thatched homes and worldly possessions go up in flames; elderly people have to travel over challenging terrain, sometimes carried in baskets by the younger ones, to make it to a refugee camp.
At this point, nearly 700,000 have made their way to the sprawling Cox Bazaar, a temporary – not so temporary – place of shelter just over the border in Bangladesh.
You recall this nation has its own history of travail and is not resource rich. Yet, it has created a space for these in peril, with the help of humanitarian aid through worldwide nongovernmental organizations.
In this current pandemic, it is a petri dish of infection as people are so tightly crammed into warrens of families.
So, who are the Rohingya? This is a highly debated topic within Myanmar.
Those who want to defend the army’s actions say they are late comers to the tapestry that makes up Myanmar.
A total of 135 ethnic groups are recognized by the government, but not the Rohingya.
The 1982 Citizenship Law denied their valid identity, although they have been in the Rakhine State for generations, perhaps dating back to the 1800s (or earlier) as descendants of Arab traders.
Over the past few years, after the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League, a virulent Buddhist initiative to protect race and religion has gained steam.
This increased pressure not only on Christians who are approximately 7% of the population but also on the Muslim minority of about 3 to 4%.
The Preservation of Race and Religion Laws passed in September 2015 have stoked great hostility toward religious and ethnic “others” in a land where over 90 percent are Buddhist.
Many who have lauded Aung San Suu Kyi’s stalwart stands for democracy have been startled by her rejection of the allegations of genocide.
In December 2019, she appeared before the U.N. International Court of Justice, defending her country against the charges of genocide.
“If war crimes have been committed, they will be prosecuted within our military justice system,” she said.
Obviously, international scrutiny is less than welcome.
In all fairness, she has little political power other than moral authority, which is quickly ebbing, at least in the West.
The Tatmadaw, the military, retained a 25% voting bloc in the parliament, along with veto power.
It would require a constitutional amendment to make the Rohingya a recognized ethnic group in Myanmar; there is little will to do that even when the decimation of a people is at stake.
The desire to be a Buddhist nation quashes many aspirations of religious minorities.
This is a tragic story of one people group on the move. Presently, about an estimated 1 million Rohingya remain in the Rakhine State.
Their lives are at risk as the military seeks to purge the nation of their unwanted presence.
Refugee life is precarious; religious liberty is often a component of why people are finding new places to dwell.
The metaphor of “people on the way” is deeply embedded in the biblical story and our Christian heritage, which is described as a pilgrimage.
The ways in which this is forced in our time transgresses how God summons to a new land and life.
Refugee rights are a deep concern of God who asks us to join in their protection.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for World Refugee Day (June 20). The first article in the series is: