A health worker in a hazmat suit last month at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Shafiqur Rahman/AP)
Last Thursday, Bangladeshi and U.N. officials confirmed the first two positive coronavirus cases in the camps that shelter about 1 million Rohingya refugees. They involved one refugee and a local resident who lives in a community adjacent to the refugees’ crammed, ramshackle settlements in Cox’s Bazar, a city in southeastern Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar. Given the conditions in many of the camps, experts say, the disease could spread quickly.
“Our worst fears have been realized,” Deepmala Mahla, Asia director for CARE, a humanitarian organization, said in an interview with Today’s WorldView. “I have no reason to be so optimistic that the confirmed number is the only number.” She warned of the camps’ “highly inadequate hygiene and sanitation facilities,” including shortages of soap and water. The sprawling encampments mark one of the densest places on earth, with more than 70,000 people per square kilometer in certain areas. “Social distancing” in this environment is a virtual impossibility.
The developments add a new layer of woe for one of the world’s most benighted communities. A majority of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar were forced into panicked exile by a campaign of ethnic cleansing led by Myanmar’s military that started in 2016. Most of the refugees don’t have a way back to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state: Their villages were set ablaze and members of their community butchered, and authorities in Myanmar refuse to recognize their rights to citizenship and residency.
Years of systemic persecution and marginalization preceded what rights groups see as the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya. “We are talking about a population that is already deeply traumatized,” Mahla said, “and a load of them are suffering from underlying health conditions” borne out of poverty and malnutrition that only make them more vulnerable.
How did it come to this? That deeper trauma is the subject of a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, available online now, with plans for a physical installation still in place for later in the year. Through imagery, videos and personal testimonies, it charts the escalating persecution leveled upon the Rohingya — who went from being any other group in the multiethnic patchwork in the country also known as Burma to one whose identity was steadily effaced by rising ethno-nationalism in a military-dominated state.
Myanmar’s authorities revoked the citizenship of many Rohingya in the 1980s and cast the community as Bengali Muslim interlopers from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya communities have a long-documented presence in the country. Those who remain are denied basic rights, from access to state services to the ability to vote. Those in refugee camps are effectively stateless, marooned in a monsoon-hit purgatory, unwanted by any nation and getting increasingly desperate.
The museum sees as part of its role an obligation not just to tell the story of the Holocaust, but also to ensure that the conditions that led to the 20th century’s most hideous genocide are not repeated. For years, the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide has tracked early warning signs for such violence and warned in 2015 that the Rohingya were a population “at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide.”
“At one point there were Rohingya members of parliament,” Naomi Kikoler, the center’s director, told Today’s WorldView. “And now you have a situation where they are being essentially erased from the very DNA of the country.”
“We have been persecuted by the Burmese government, policy by policy, in a slow march toward genocide that is seeking to destroy us,” Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said in a statement shared by the museum. “People need to know that genocide still happens in the 21st century, and through this exhibition people will be able to understand what we have endured. It is powerful to know that we are not forgotten.”
Kikoler described the exhibit as a matter of setting “the historical record” of who the Rohingya are and what they have suffered. “There has to be recognition of their basic right to humanity, identity and legal status,” she said, adding that she hopes it reaches audiences in Myanmar and helps “provide a counternarrative for a community that’s been victimized.”
So far, the outcry of rights groups and a degree of pressure from Western governments have not forced Myanmar’s leaders to sufficiently change course. Myanmar is often shielded by China at the U.N. Security Council, and it maintains substantial geopolitical ties to other regional powers.
The country is slated to report to the International Court of Justice in The Hague at the end of this week on its compliance with edicts regarding preventing genocide and preserving evidence of possible genocide, but experts see little indication that the underlying systems of discrimination against the Rohingya have or will be dismantled.
Meanwhile, dread and uncertainty grip the camps in Cox’s Bazar and internment camps on the other side of the border. In recent weeks, a familiar tragedy has played out again, with Rohingya refugees clambering onto flimsy boats and braving the Andaman Sea to find sanctuary in Malaysia. Concerns over the coronavirus meant some were turned away, cast adrift in the ocean.
“We don’t know how many have died on boats over these past few weeks,” Omar Waraich, South Asia head for Amnesty International, told Today’s WorldView. “There are no graves to mark their numbers, and no tombstones to record their names. In the end, they could not even find land to accept their remains. They are being punished not for what they have done, but who they are.”