Amjad Bashir: Why the world needs to act to help the 21st century victims of ethnic cleansing

Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect food items distributed by aid agencies. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

The road from the town of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh snakes alongside some of the most beautiful beaches you are ever likely to see. There is mile upon mile of golden sand, palm trees sway in the breeze and the main sound you hear is the lapping of the Indian Ocean. For an hour or more as our car skirts the coast, all is unspoilt natural beauty.

Even the incessant rain, falling as it has since April, cannot hide the potential attraction of this place. It looks like a tropical paradise and the regional authorities here have long nurtured plans to unlock its tourism potential - but just now this little corner of the globe has become better known for the hell on earth being suffered by some.

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

As we round a corner the reason starts to become apparent. Figures appear at the side of the road. Thin, ragged figures, mostly women; some sitting exhausted, some standing, a few on the move.

Their numbers start to thicken and the strands of humanity grow into broad, pressing queues. Then we crest a hill and the scale of this tragedy suddenly presents itself to us like a blow. We all catch our breath.

An undulating landscape spreads out before us with every hillside coloured in gigantic blotches of electric blue where there should only be nature’s green. Dotted everywhere are the ramshackle camps that now house more than 400,000 souls who have fled persecution and terrifying violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

Some came on foot, some made a perilous sea journey, and they continue to arrive at a rate of 20,000 a day.These are the Rohingya Muslims, the ethnic undesirables that Myanmar has decided to cleanse itself of and they are now clinging onto the edge of hillsides and the edge of life.

As I survey this sorry scene the thought strikes me that at this rate, unless this outrage is stopped in its tracks, there will no Rohingyas left in Myanmar to save.

Such was my heavy heart then, as we descended that hill last week after our 90 minute journey and I prepared for my first experience of these camps and the blighted lives they shelter.

I had travelled to Bangladesh with a party of other Conservative Parliaments, who share my deep concern for the Rohingya and their fate. Earlier this year, in my report for the European parliament on the issue of statelessness, I warned about the cruel persecution being meted out to the Rohingya.

In an effort by the Buddhist majority to drive out an unwanted Muslim minority, long-established in Rakhine state, the Burmese authorities had stripped them of their citizenship. It was an act of simple brutality

My report told how this meant they could have no access to health care, no education for their children, no ability to take a job, no right to own property. To the state they were non-people, their past, present and future erased in one stroke.

I warned that without international intervention their plight would get worse. I hardly knew how quickly that would prove true - or how very much worse, but so it has proved.

When the state’s war of attrition against the Rohingya failed do force them out, it resorted to all-out force and the army went in during our summer. What started as a supposed counter-insurgency operation has turned into a systematic regime of murder, terror and destruction of villages.

Make no mistake, this is ethnic cleansing in the 21st century and the United Nations has called it so.

At the heart of all this the once-saintly Aung San Suu Kyi maintains her ignorance and innocence. A woman who has a Nobel Peace Prize and a Sakharov Prize on her mantelpiece, the de facto leader of her country. Accolades aside, she is also the one person with the power in Myanmar to stop this with a word.

Yet that word has not been forthcoming, and recently she gave a speech claiming she did not know why the Rohingya were fleeing Rakhine. Ethnic cleansing? What ethnic cleansing?

I wish she had been with me to tell that to the thousands I saw in those camps earlier this month. She might have mentioned it as they queued desperately just to register their presence, to receive their handful of rice and to be given their pile of cane fibre and sheet of plastic - that bright, electric blue I had seen from the far hilltop - so they could build their own shelter on the edge of the ever-growing shanty.

I would particularly like her to have met the woman who called to me as I made my way through the middle of one typical settlement, through the stinking mud of a thoroughfare that was more of a river than a street. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, she held a tiny baby tightly in her arms. She said her child was 10-months old, but like so many others it looked new-born through malnourishment.

The woman held her arm out not to beg - there is a pained dignity in these people and despite the poverty and the starvation nobody begs - but to tell me what she thinks I and the other politicians of the world need to know.She said she could no longer produce milk for the infant because she was getting insufficient food herself. Why was she here, I asked?

She told me how she had seen first her 12-year-old son hacked to death, then her husband attacked by men with swords and dragged away. Her old life as she knew it had ended in the most violent of ways. The rain of this never-ending monsoon slowly soaked us both as she said she did not know his fate but assumed he must have been murdered.

Many others told similar stories and women there greatly outnumbered the men, who stood out in their standard garb of vest and a scrap of cloth tied around their waists.

The stories had a grim, familiar pattern: soldiers appearing suddenly in the village, often wearing civilian clothes to disguise the uniforms underneath; men and boys targeted and killed on the spot or taken away; women, girls and infants fleeing; village burnt to the ground.

Colleagues who made a trip to the Bangladesh -Myanmar border told me they could smell the smoke. The time for international talk about this tragedy has passed. And I believe the time has also gone when economic sanctions will be enough to meet the urgency of the problem.

I shall be calling for nothing less than the creation of safe zone for the Rohingya in Rakhine by the United Nations. That will require a military presence so that violence can be halted and the refugees return.

We have to send in the Blue Helmets, as we did in Iraq for the Kurds and in East Timor before that. In keeping faith with those I met in the camps, I will do all in my power to get that to happen.

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