In what could be construed as a course correction after years of taking a hands-off approach to the ethnic cleansing of Burma’s Muslim minority population, known as the Rohingyas, the European Commission announced on December 11 that it would release an additional €5 million to provide vital food assistance to Rohingya communities that remain stranded in Bangladesh after being driven from their homes.
The move signalled that Brussels is ready to take on a more active role amid the growing chorus of international players who have condemned the Burmese government for their treatment of the 700,000-strong Rohingya community who live mostly in Burma’s isolated northwestern regions, close to the Bangladeshi border.
The EU’s commitment to providing the beleaguered community with additional support comes only months after the European Commission pledged €40 million in humanitarian aid to help house and provide medical aid to the Rohingyas.
“Today’s additional funding is another clear sign that the EU remains committed to standing with the Rohingya community for as long as it takes. Food assistance is an absolute necessity, and we will continue to support both Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh for as long as a crisis exists,” said Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides.
Following major outbreaks of violence directed at the Rohingyas in August 2015, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled from Burma, with nearly three-quarters of those making their way across the border and into neighbouring Bangladesh. The massive displacement of Burma’s Muslim minority was originally ignited by a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in late 2016 before becoming a major humanitarian disaster in the ensuing months as ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide were reported by rights groups and aid organisations operating in Burma.
Burma’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, once a symbol of democratic reform and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has particularly been criticised by the international community for her inaction and refusal to acknowledge that an ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at the Rohingya was carried out by the Burmese military. Suu Kyi has gone so far as to question the existence of the Rohingya people as a separate ethnic group within Burmese society.
International human rights organisations, including the US’ Holocaust Memorial Museum and Amnesty International, have revoked the awards previously given to Suu Kyi due to her role in exacerbating the crisis.
The Rohingya are one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma and are the country’s largest Muslim community with their own language and a culture influenced by Arab traders, Mughals, and Chinese, as well Portuguese and English colonialists.
Traditionally a mix of Sunnis and Sufis, the Rohingya have migrated across South Asia in significant numbers since the 1970s. Estimates of their numbers are often much higher than official figures. The government of Burma, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship and excluded them from the 2014 census, refusing to recognise them as a people.