The Straits Times says

Rohingya issue demands just response

The Rohingya issue has erupted into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The Aug 25 attack by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known by the Arabic name Harakah-al-Yaqin, took the lives of a dozen Myanmar policemen. It has fetched a response by the state of immensely brutal proportions, with more than 400 killed and whole villages razed to the ground, causing an exodus. According to the United Nations, some 313,000 fleeing Rohingya Muslims have arrived in the Bangladesh border district of Cox's Bazar, joining 100,000 already there. The numbers are swelling by the hour. Among them are pregnant mothers and infants. Food and water are short, and a disease outbreak threatens.

By some accounts, Myanmar troops fired on refugees even as they crossed the border into Bangladesh, and are laying landmines to prevent their return. Mr Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the situation "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing".

The situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state is a complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots. Since 1982, when a Myanmar law effectively rendered them stateless, the issue has festered. The 2014 census refused to enumerate the Rohingya, since the state regards them as Bengalis and not one of the 135 recognised ethnic groups. For the last five years, they have been the target of sporadic violence, a reason many of its young are prompted to consider militancy.

It is imperative that the Myanmar government end the state-backed violence immediately. That is certainly in its power to do. Second, Asia must rally around Bangladesh and help it tackle the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis. India, with its experience in handling natural disasters, is ideally placed to lend a hand. Asean states should also play a part.

There also is a third element: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, who has dismissed news of the violence as "an iceberg of misinformation". While her hands may be tied - under the Myanmar Constitution, security is reserved for the military - she must find her moral voice. Thus far, her attitude has been disappointing, perhaps for fear of going against the sentiments of the majority Buddhists of her land. Given the social divide, she must serve as the nation's conscience. After all, the Dalai Lama, Buddhism's top spiritual leader, has said the Buddha would have "definitely given help to these poor Muslims".

The dire situation is ultimately for Naypyitaw to resolve and not something to be pushed to others. Bangladesh, and to an extent, India, can render assistance to refugees but they cannot solve the plight of over a million "stateless" people. The Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for generations. They should not be driven out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2017, with the headline 'Rohingya issue demands just response'. Print Edition | Subscribe