By Marieme Jiddou, Class of 2019
Mohiuddin Mohamad-Yusof sat in a midtown Manhattan cafe in February, wearing a black suit, red tie and baseball cap, casually drinking a cup of coffee. Mr. Mohamad-Yusof’s cap, however, didn’t have the symbols for the New York Mets or Yankees. Instead, it had the letters, WRO.
Mr. Mohamad-Yusof is the president of World Rohingya Organization, or WRO, and talked about the crisis currently happening in his own country, Myanmar that is located in Southeast Asia. Mr. Mohamad-Yusof claims that he was the first ever Rohingya Muslim refugee who came to the United States in 1999. He has since created the WRO, which he said gathers donations to help Rohingya Muslims back in his homeland and Bangladesh refugee camps.
The Rohingya Muslims are natives to Myanmar, and have lived in the predominantly Buddhist country, formerly known as Burma, for centuries, according to CNN. Since 1948 the religious and ethnic group has been persecuted against in their own country, because the Myanmar government refuses to see them as citizens.
“It’s not just a simple conflict, it took centuries for it boil up to where it is now,” Mr. Mohamad-Yusof said.
After Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948 an act called Union Citizenship was passed defining which ethnic groups had the right to citizenship. From Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups, only the Rohingya Muslims were denied citizenship, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, or CFR. But, the Rohingya Muslims, who had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations, were allowed to apply for identity cards. But these identity cards didn’t provide them with education, medical access, or jobs, unlike the citizens of Myanmar.
Laws in Myanmar continued to change, affecting the Rohingya Muslims.
In 1982 another citizenship law was passed. This law had three levels of citizenship. The most basic was giving evidence that a person’s family had lived in the country prior to 1948. Many Rohingya Muslims did not have access to such paperwork, or if they did, the government denied them.
Under those citizenship laws Rohingya Muslims were once again not recognized as an ethnic group. Although it allowed Rohingya Muslims to apply for citizenship, the ethnic group never received the proper paperwork and were officially made stateless, according to CNN.
Many viewed this as a persecution method, said Mr. Mohamad-Yusof. This led many Rohingya Muslims to migrate to neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, Thailand and Indonesia, according to CFR.
Rohingya Muslims continue to flee their home. Recently, also due to the violent breakouts in Myanmar, many Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh. As of April 26, 693,000 crossed the border into a part of Bangladesh called Cox’s Bazar, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.
“Even in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh army are raping the females, and they cannot say anything about it,” Mr. Mohamad-Yusof said. He spoke in detail about the struggles of young Rohingya women and how they have been traumatized by seeing their own family members being shot and killed when trying to flee Myanmar. However, their troubles don’t end there as they are often trafficked to bordering countries like India.
“Renewed violence, including reported rape, murder, and arson in 2017, triggered a massive exodus of Rohingya amid charges of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s security forces,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Those forces claimed they carried out a campaign to reinstate stability in the western region of Myanmar.”
The Myanmar government along with Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, which is the equivalent to a prime minister, plays an important role in the conflict. When asked about the issue of their country, Ms. Suu Kyi has called the Rohingya Muslims “terrorists,” according to CNN.
Ms. Suu Kyi has also denied accusations of human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslims, or that an ethnic cleansing is happening, CNN has reported.
Besides the Myanmar government being blamed, many politicians and activists believe the United Nations has failed this ethnic group, said Mr.Mohamed-Yusof. The United Nations has interviewed many Rohingya Muslims, who described their current living conditions and trauma, including torture, rape, and killings by the Myanmar military, as well as in Bangladesh, he said. Yet, the United Nations did not intervene with this ethnic cleansing, he added.
“The United Nations and our partners continue to work closely with the Government of Bangladesh to coordinate the humanitarian response and to ensure that refugees are protected in line with international standards, and to provide desperately needed support including food, shelter, health care and water,” according OCHA’s website.
Mr. Mohamad-Yusof has considered why this conflict began in the first place.
“What caused this issue is greed. They (Myanmar government) wanted our lands and in order to do that they need to dispose of us,” he said in the midtown cafe.
As the crisis has continued for years, Mr. Mohamad-Yusof fears they may never be a resolution.
“I believe we are already too late. A lot of our population has been wiped out already. But I do believe if we unite the Buriaminese and the Rohingyas we could protect our people,” he said.
Mr.Mohamaed-Yusof, who is currently living in the U.S., still tries to gather donations to send to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Mr. Mohamad-Yusof said that any amount of donations helps the ethnic group. Every year, he visits Rohingya Muslims and their families living in the U.S., and continues to help them.