By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
They are the ethnic and cultural Rodney Dangerfields of the 21st century, a people displaced from their homeland of more than six centuries two years ago, only to end up being packed into overcrowded refugee camps in a country that can barely manage to feed its own people and which has only agreed to provide them with “temporary” asylum until their government decides to let them return.
Over the centuries, the Rohingya of Myanmar have endured the indignities of persecution and isolation — first in their native Myanmar and now in their current home of Bangladesh.
Ever since their ancestors first settled in the Rakhine region of what was then Burma in the 15th century, having been brought over from the eastern Hindu kingdom of Bengali by British colonists as laborers, they have been seen as the dregs of Burmese society.
The predominantly Muslim Rohingya never assimilated into primarily Buddhist Myanmar (they do not speak Burmese and practice their own traditions), nor were they ever welcome into Burmese society.
Seen as outsiders and cultural interlopers by most Buddhist Myanmarese, they have consistently been treated as second-class citizens at best and as hostile invaders as worst.
For the Myanmar government, the Rohingyas represent a cultural annoyance that poses both a financial and social burden on its already strapped economy.
Rather than trying to incorporate these native people and provide for them, the Burmese government has opted to marginalize and persecute them, hoping that with enough abuse, they would either die out or move somewhere else.
And in the last two years, that is precisely what has happened.
At the start of 2017, their total population in Myanmar was about 1 million; today, it has dwindled to less than 200,000.
The Rohingya have faced brutal violence and discrimination in their native Myanmar for decades.
Under Myanmar law, they are forbidden to vote and denied citizenship.
They also have scarce access to basic human needs such as healthcare, drinking water, utilities and education.
But since the Rakhine crisis began in 2016, following attacks on Burmese border posts by Rohingya insurgents, Myanmar’s military junta has implemented a brutal program of systematic torture and extrajudicial killing of the Rohingya population.
Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground and thousands of Rohingya women and children have been raped and executed in a surge of terror that the United Nations has described as bearing the “hallmarks of genocide.”
Nearly 150,000 Rohingya have been kept in government-run segregated camps – supposedly for “their own security” – for the last six years.
Murdered, caged and persecuted, the Rohingya have sought asylum wherever they could find it, mainly in neighboring Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is currently housing some 700,000 Rohingya, but has made it clear that this humanitarian support is only a temporary measure that will be sustained until they can be relocated back in Myanmar.
And things are getting ready to get even worth for these displaced refugees.
Now, as if the fates had once again conspired against the Rohingya people, Bangladesh’s monsoon season is looming, along with the threat of cholera and other dysentery diseases.
Most of these Rohingya refugees live in flimsy tents and bamboo huts in Bangladesh’s impoverished southeast corner.
The monsoon season, which is just beginning, historically has brought with it disease, landslides, flash flooding and mass deaths.
The area where the Rohingya live is one of the most frequently flooded regions of one of the most flood-prone countries on Earth.
Despite two cholera vaccination campaigns that have been conducted in the Rohingya camps, there are grave concerns by international health monitors that an outbreak of the disease is imminent due to poor sanitation and water quality.
Incidences of cholera, one of the fastest contagious diseases in the world, have already been reported in the Rohingya camps.
It is only matter of time until the close living conditions of the Rohingya and the inevitable flooding that accompanies Bangladesh’s monsoon season turn this endemic into an epidemic.
More than 200,000 refugees currently live in areas that are likely to flood in the weeks ahead.
There is nowhere else for these people to go.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries on Earth.
Bangladesh’s monsoon season can last for up to six months.
Earlier this year, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a plan to conduct a voluntary repatriation of the refugees in two years, albeit with little specifics as to when and how that process will be carried out.
Sadly, that plan may turn out to be too little, too late for the Rohingya.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com