An apple farm in the middle of the Cornish countryside may not be the place you would expect to find an expert in Myanmar. However, that was where I went to speak to Michael Foster about the small Asian country, which is widely criticised for the treatment of one of its minority populations.

The Rohingya have been called ‘the worlds most persecuted minority’. They are a group of Muslims living in the Rakhine state of Myanmar where they have lived uneasily alongside Buddhists for decades. Many people within Myanmar view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and treat them with mass distain. They have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government, living as stateless people.

Michael Foster, a specialist in the Rohingya crisis who has spent years working within the country sat down and explained to me the extent of their persecution and the thinking behind it. “From an objective view it’s a ruthless campaign, many analysts believe this is a push for the military to sway Myanmar citizenry to put themselves back in a powerful position in the country. Constitutionally they still hold 25% of seats in the lower and upper seats of Parliament.”

Michael Foster working recently in Myanmar. Photo: Thet Paing Htay

The Rakhine state is one of the 14 states in Myanmar and it is dominantly Buddhist in ethnicity. There have been clashes between the Rakhine and the Buddhists and about 150,000 Rohingyas have been internally displaced. However, in 2016 there was a major upsurge in violence between the two groups, forcing many Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

On the 25th August the violence got worse when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a clearance that killed at least 1,000 people and forced over 300,000 out of their homes.

Many of the Rohingya people have been put into displacement camps which were set up to last 2 years, many of them have been there for around 5 years now. Foster said: “people are forced to be in these camps and the military has put up 5 metre high barbed wired fences with guard towers on the outside keeping people inside, restricting movement, restricting education and restricting access to healthcare”.

Although the central Rakhine states are being overseen by the UN, the Northern states have been closed off from public view. Foster believes this is where most of the atrocities are occurring. “The central Rakhine state is heavily monitored both by the UN institutions and NGOs so of course the military can’t go in there and execute 150,000 people because eyes are on them but in northern Rakhine state they deny access to outside observers so they have the ability to more freely enact their campaign to displace the Rohingya.“

As the situation continues to escalate it seems less likely that there will be a positive outcome. Foster said: “I don’t want to be pessimistic but there is no happy ending here Rohingya are continuing to be displaced so the situation hasn’t subsided, the military is still driving Rohingya from their villages. The Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh so it’s not like the situation has ceased in Myanmar.”

 

However many charities have jumped to help the cause. Here in Cornwall, Shelter Box is working to get their survival boxes out to those who need them and even on the university campus people are fundraising to help.

Julia Handler, a MSc Conservation Science and Policy student at Exeter Penryn is organising an event on campus with the hope of raising awareness amongst students. The campaign is fundraising for the disaster emergency committee. They have released an appeal to fundraise for the Rohingya in Myanmar for the crisis.

She explained her reasons for running the event, saying: “I went to Myanmar as a tourist but this conflict has been going on for years and I think it’s really climaxing right now and so being in Cornwall we are secluded from the hot spots like London. I started talking to people and they were really interested but didn’t know much about it so I thought an event where people could ask questions to someone who knows a bit more about it would be really beneficial.”

She co-organised the event with 3rd year student Sarah Redman who said about it: “it can be really easy to forget about, or not completely understand, everything that’s going on in a country so far away so these sorts of events are really useful and important for students and members of the wider university. As part of the week there will be a discourse organised by politics society, a quiz by Geography society and a Film screening by History society.

If you want to get involved you can go online to the disaster emergency committee (https://www.dec.org.uk/) where they have guidance and show how you can fundraise for them.