The realization is slowly dawning on the international community that a shocking crime against humanity is unfolding in Myanmar.
Over 700,000 Rohingya have been forcibly expelled from their ancestral lands in that country by a volatile mix of military aggression and religious persecution, with the country's government largely turning a blind eye or worse.
State-sponsored violence has led to a massive exodus of the Rohingya from the country, a great human wave of refugees who have no choice but to flee for their lives before the onslaught. Many have fled to any country that offers some hope of asylum, however faint, while some have taken to the sea on rickety vessels, searching for refuge in more distant lands.
Malaysian authorities have given refuge to a boat carrying 56 Rohingya, just as Indonesian fishermen recently rescued five Rohingyas who were still alive in a engineless boat without food for more than two weeks. These latest boat people are from a government run camp called Thae Chaung, close to the capital city of Sittwe in Rakhine.
These camps have been called the concentration camps of the 21st century, because of the detention conditions faced by the imprisoned Rohingyas. The military marched Rohingyas out of the capital city of Sittwe to these camps in 2012 after a pogrom in which almost all Rohingyas lost their homes because of violent local reactions to vicious rumors.
Rohingyas cannot leave these barbed wired, heavily guarded camps, and no organization is allowed to serve them on the inside. About 125,000 Rohingyas have been forced to "live" in these camps for the past six years.
The important question is, how did these people leave these heavily guarded camps surrounded by barbed wire, where no one is allowed to enter or leave? Rohingya human rights activists are saying that the government is systematically forcing these detainees out of the camps, working with smugglers to take them to other countries or let them perish while trying to reach Malaysia.
On of this year, I met a few of these former prisoners of Sittwe camps. A man and woman whom I will call Alia and Yusuf had made their way to refugee camps in Bangladesh. They were let go after six years of internment. They "earned" their freedom by agreeing to accept something called National Verification Cards, or NVCs. Among other things, these cards include a false, pre-printed "confession" claiming that the cardholder illegally entered Burma.
I have a photo of that card.
Rohingyas are indigenous people of Burma living in their ancestral lands. They were always citizens, and always voted and elected their representatives until 1982, when the military government stripped them of their citizenship.
As the Burmese government announced its intention of closing down the IDP camps, we were wondering if they will allow the Rohingyas of Sittwe to go back to their ancestral homes. Yusuf, who was severely tortured by the Burmese military, is still being treated by Doctors without Borders. He told me that they refused him entry into the city.
Alia was a professional seamstress with certificates. She was sewing when she was arrested from her home. She told me that young women from the detention center are regularly taken out by soldiers for days at length, raped and then returned back. After getting her NVC, she and her husband tried to enter Sittwe as well, but were chased away by the military, running for their lives. Unfortunately, she lost her husband during the treacherous journey to Bangladesh.
It is evident that the closing of these camps after six years does not herald the return of Rohingyas to their ancestral homes and properties in Sittwe. Instead of rehabilitation and resettlement, Rohingyas are forced to renounce their legal right to be in the country and made to flee.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not an option for the detained people of Sittwe. It is about a 100-mile walk northwest, through mountains. The route means going through military post after military post, without permits to travel — something required of Rohingyas even under normal situations. Many of the paths through jungles taken by Rohingyas in the last six months are also littered with landmines. And those Rohingya who are somehow able to reach the border face newly built barbed wire fences which make it impossible to cross.
So the sea is the only option left and the Burmese government is only too willing to encourage this passage. But these waters are not kind to the Rohingya.
In the 2015 exodus through the sea, the United States State Department estimated that about 12,000 Rohingyas were on those boats. Sadly, only 3,000 reached any shore. I met some of these boat people in 2015 in Indonesia. They told me horrible stories of oppression in Burma which forced them to flee. A large number of those boat people were unaccompanied children as young as nine years old.
A year later, Amnesty International issued a statement wondering what happened to the rest of the Rohingyas. We need to keep asking these questions. The world's most persecuted people are depending on us.
Imam Malik Mujahid chairs the Interfaith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma. He is chair emeritus of the Parliament of the World's Religions. Follow him on Twitter at @MalikMujahi