Rohingya crisis: Energy, environment & gender issues
The negative consequences of natural resource depletion and environmental degradation in the south-eastern part disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable members of community: women and young girls
The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority from the State of Rakhine in Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia, where they are not recognized as citizens even though their origins can be traced back to the days of the Arakan Kingdom in the 7th century.
Fuelled by linguistic, cultural and religious differences between Rohingyas and the Buddhist majority people along with low levels of national funding for Rakhine state, the Rohingya have always been treated like illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Recent alleged attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Rakhine have sparked a military crackdown on the Rohingya by the Burmese army. As a result, beginning in August of 2017, nearly 700,000 refugees have crossed the border into neighbouring Bangladesh forming overflowing and exceedingly squalid refugee camps. The Burmese military is carrying out "clearance operations", which involves the destruction of hundreds of Rohingya villages, open firing on villagers, and planting landmines near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
The Burmese government has been accused on counts of genocide, which is the deliberate killing of large number of people of a specific ethnic group as well as ethnic cleansing, "the expulsion of an "undesirable" population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these,".
A direct example of the policy implications of anti-Rohingya ideology is Myanmar's constitution, which in 1982, passed an act under the previous military junta and recognized 8 ethnic groups as having a right to citizenship, while effectively excluded the Rohingya.
This exclusionary policy decision led to an entire community of the nation's Rohingya to lose most of their basic rights overnight. This is because recognizing the Rohingya as citizens would involve allocating to them an autonomous area of land within Myanmar, which in this case would be giving up a large portion of Rakhine territory.
Even though the Rohingyas reside in a large part of the Rakhine, granting them geopolitical power over Rakhine land is still said to spark fear of separatist movements led by the ARSA. In addition to the geopolitics of the region, another significant issue contributing to discrimination against the Rohingya is past involvement with separatist movements.
The Rohingya Crisis is currently termed as the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world by the (UN). Likewise, Rohingya villagers fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh have given rise to the world's largest refugee camp, surpassing Dabaab on the Somali-Kenyan border. Not to mention, accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide have been directed towards the Myanmar government and the military specifically, even though, all accusations continue to be denied. Within the overarching issue of displacement, discrimination and violence, as in most conflicts worldwide, women are affected disproportionately.
Adolescent girls, specifically, find themselves subject to sexual and domestic violence, early marriage, and human or sex trafficking. Being in a completely foreign area like Cox's Bazar, which has always been a hub of human and drug trafficking, young Rohingya girls are easy targets for traffickers. Simultaneously, rigid religious norms such as purdah, prevents active female engagement in public life.
One of the major issues within all the Rohingya camps, including is the fact that there is a severe lack of sustainable sources of energy. From the simple task of cooking, to procuring light for the nighttimes, the only easily accessible source of energy is the surrounding trees. However, wood, as a resource, is neither renewable nor sustainable without supplementation in the form of planting the very species that are being cleared away.
The Government, along with the Forest Department, must actively engage in addressing the problem of environmental degradation and destruction of forest land.
One of the most important things to be kept in mind while designing and implementing such policies is inclusivity and the needs of the most vulnerable. In the case of the Rohingya, the most vulnerable members of the community are the women and young girls in all aspects from resource availability to restrictive socio-cultural norms. Therefore, policies and projects addressing issues of sustainability and restoring the environment must include female community members.
The Rohingyas continue to be grossly unaware of the consequences that actions like deforestation could have not only on the ecosystem of the Southern Peninsula, but also on their individual lives.
In order to tackle this issue, the first step would be educating the refugees; for instance, alternating daily sessions between learning about health and hygiene and social and environmental awareness. The sessions could be as simple as learning about the flora and fauna of the forest land around them or the importance of the different plant species and in terms of maintaining a healthy ecosystem for both the residents of refugee camps and the wildlife.
Due to the conservative nature of Rohingya society, normalizing the women and young girls' role of working in the public sphere alongside men is difficult. In order to venture out of the confines of the household, Rohingya women and girls must have basic economic independence, which is greatly lacking because of overall low literacy rates coupled with socio-cultural restrictions.
Furthermore, the Rohingya women can eventually be taught to either recycle or up cycle materials that have been discarded such as plastic, metal and cloth.
Lastly, the damaged state of the overall natural environment in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh requires immediate action; nonetheless, it is utmost important to exercise the principles of equity and inclusivity throughout the process of recovery.
Even though the influx of the Rohingya has negatively affected the forests and natural resources of Cox's Bazar, ignoring the most vulnerable members of an already vulnerable community can lead to social tension and further suffering. Therefore, all future projects or policies regarding forest land and natural resource management should be evaluated based on its impact on Rohingya women and girls to prevent further social susceptibility.
Nandita Modhubonti, Undergraduate Student, Clark University, Massachusetts, United States