What you need to know
Will the shocking photo of a dead Rohingya toddler bring attention to the plight of Burma’s Rohingya minority?
It was called the “most heartbreaking photo of 2015” by TIME magazine. The image? A young Syrian refugee washed up on a shoreline of a usually idyllic Mediterranean beach. He is dead, his lifeless body half covered by sand, and half submerged by the waves gently making their way to the shore. TIME international editor Brian Walsh described the image as “...a symbol of all the children who lost their lives trying to reach safety in Europe and the West, the face of the biggest story of 2015”. Little over a year later, on the other side of the world, a different conflict, another photo highlights the plight faced by some of the world’s most vulnerable people - the Rohingya.
A recent report by CNN shows the body of Mohammed Shohayet, a 16-month-old Rohingya refugee whose family were escaping the continuing violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State. His tender frame is lying face down in a muddy river bank motionless. He is dead, another victim of the violence in Rakhine State. Like Alan Kurdi’s family who were fleeing war-torn Syria for the safer pastures of Europe, Mohammed’s family were on route to Bangladesh to be reunited with his father, Zafor Alam before the boat carrying them across the Raf River border between Bangladesh and Myanmar was shot at by the Burmese police. In the resulting panic, refugees began to pack the boat and it sank, killing not only young Mohammed, but his elder brother as well as his mother.
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The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from the Rakhine State in western Burma differ from Burma’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. In recent years they have been subjected to large-scale crackdowns from the Burmese state, with numerous human rights organizations accusing the state of committing ethnic cleansing. Accusations include the extrajudicial killing of civilians by the Burmese security forces, the burning of entire Rohingya villages and communities, and women being raped at gunpoint by Burmese soldiers. According to reports by the U.N., up to 30,000 Rohingya people have been displaced by the recent violence engulfing the region. Most displaced Rohingya refugees get on boats, walk, or swim to seek sanctuary in bordering Bangladesh where they are met by a government ill-equipped or simply disinclined to deal with a large-scale refugee crisis. There are already more than 30,000 registered refugees in Bangladesh, although authorities put recent estimates at around the 300,000 to 500,000 mark.
The shocking image of Mohammed draws obvious parallels with Alan Kurdi. Both two young lives were taken by the horrors of conflict and the struggles taken by refugees fleeing war zones or places of ethnic conflict simply to live in peace. When it was first released, the image of Alan Kurdi changed perceptions of refugees in Europe and opened European hearts and, more importantly, policy towards refugees. Only time will tell whether Mohammed’s story proves to be a pivotal moment in the way the international community handles the increasingly desperate situation in Rakhine State, but pressure is already mounting on the Burmese government to address a number of concerns regarding the continued persecution of the country’s minority Rohingya people.
In December, a number of Nobel laureates such as Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai and other influential public figures wrote an open letter to Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi, another Nobel laureate, calling on her “to lead with courage, humanity and compassion” toward the Rohingya, warning that failure to address the concerns of the Rohingya people would “lead us once again to wring our hands belatedly and say “never again” all over again”. Furthermore, in an interview with CNN, Human Rights Watch spokesman John Sifton suggested that as attention on this issue is not flagging, "Aung Sun Suu Kyi can only bury her head in the sand for so long,” and that “the Burmese military can only deny these abuses for so long before eventually the world demands they take action."
Although, for young Mohammed and his family it will come too late, now is the moment the international community must wake up and make meaningful measures to protect the Rohingya.
Editor: Edward White