OIC and the plight of the Rohingya

The Rohingya join a long line of small, vulnerable minorities threatened with extinction. What makes their plight harder to accept, though, is that it is happening before our very eyes, unfolding on social media. We can speculate as to what will happen next, but we feel powerless to stop it. Worse, we appear unable to help those fleeing in fear for their lives.

The Rohingya are a Muslim community from western Myanmar who have faced severe discrimination since their country became a dictatorship in 1962. Ironically, their condition has worsened with Myanmar’s recent partial democratization, because a newly opened public space has regrettably been filled with radical voices, using religion to escalate the oppression of this minority group.

Riots broke out in 2011 across Myanmar targeting the Rohingya as well as other Muslims. Thousands died, and tens of thousands were displaced. Every few months, hundreds or thousands flee, mostly by boat. But these refugees have been refused entry into neighboring countries and sent back to sea, to face an inevitable death.

It is bad enough the Rohingya are being driven from their homes. It is worse though that they have nowhere to go. But awareness of the Rohingya’s plight driven by global social media campaigns has put pressure on neighboring and especially fellow Muslim countries to take action. Turkey recently offered $1 million in assistance and nearby Indonesia and Malaysia are also opening up their doors.

But these efforts are not nearly enough. What is needed is immediate, coordinated, strategic and international cooperation by the international community, and in particular, by the Muslim community. The plight of the Rohingya may serve as yet another recruitment tool for extremists, but by having Muslims at the forefront to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya, it will send a powerful message to violent extremist groups that seek to take advantage of the tragedy befallen their fellow brethren to support their violent ideology.

Extremism has many root causes, one of which is the absence of meaningful opportunities for young people to make contributions to their own societies. When young Muslims do not have adequate opportunities afforded to them by their government, they are then less inclined to work within existing institutions.

Time and again we see this happen: A crisis unfolds and Muslims are the primary victims. Despite talk of fraternity and loyalty, the Muslim world is, however, unable to translate sentiment into assistance. Few mechanisms exist that can coordinate action between governments, relief agencies, international organizations and the desire of individuals to assist in whatever way they can.

But there is hope that this time may be different.

Myanmar’s neighbors, or other friendly countries, should be persuaded to open their doors to refugees, while other countries should be persuaded to open their purse strings to make this happen. The West African country of Gambia has announced its intention to offer settlement to any and all Rohingya, but Gambia unfortunately lacks the resources to transport the refugees to Gambia.

This is where the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) can step in. The OIC listed the Rohingya at the top of its agenda for its Annual Summit of Foreign Ministers this past week. With the representatives from 57 countries convening in Kuwait, this was an opportunity to raise collective support and assistance for the Rohingya. But, of course, pledges and sentiments of support must be followed up with tangible action.One step in the right direction materialized from the OIC’s proposed 2012 plans to provide on-the-ground aid and support to victims of communal violence in Myanmar through the creation and maintenance of a local humanitarian office. Myanmar’s government blocked those plans after they had initially agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the OIC. But the OIC is continuing to look for new mechanisms of assistance.

For example, the OIC just reached an agreement to work with the Arakan Rohingya Union, an umbrella body representing Rohingya organizations across the world. The OIC can build bridges between the union and member states and other international partners. This work should not be exclusive to Muslim countries and communities, but it also should not be surprising if Muslims take the lead as sympathy for the Rohingya is an understandable and powerful reality.

And if there is no improvement in Myanmar in the near future, then at least those Rohingya who can leave should be provided with assistance to start their lives anew.

The OIC can show Muslims that there is indeed value in working within existing institutions, that these institutions are elastic enough to incorporate new voices and new demographics and resilient enough to see real changes through. If the OIC can partner with organizations outside its borders, it will also build bridges not just between different Muslim communities, but between global communities. And if the OIC does, it will show that Muslims can work with partners and allies throughout the world to promote humanitarian efforts.

Helping the Rohingya matters more than we know, to them and to us.