The Most Persecuted Minority In The World: The 'Gypsies' Of Burma

Since the beginning of June, ethnic violence has marred the western state of Arakan in Burma, killing more than 80 people and displacing 90,000. The target of this violence: an ethnic minority that has been brutally persecuted for years.

Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh (UNHCR/G.M.B.Akash)
Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh (UNHCR/G.M.B.Akash)
Bruno Philip

Who are the Rohingyas, these pariahs of Asia that even the "Burmese heroine of democracy" Aung San Suu Kyi hesitated to defend during her European trip? Since the beginning of June, the riots that broke out in the western Burmese state of Arakan - called Rakhine by the government - between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority officially killed 80 people and wounded 54 others. The U.N. World Food Program provided emergency aid to 60,000 people and said 90,000 displaced people needed assistance.

NGOs believe that there are many more casualties. Some sources suspect that the Burmese security forces helped the Buddhists during anti-Muslim pogroms.

The very origin of the name Rohingya is controversial. Burmese historians claim that no one had ever heard of them before the 1950s, thus supporting the Myanmar government's stance that denies them any rights or citizenship and considers them as illegal migrants.

The Rohingya are physically similar to Bangladeshis and speak a language close to the Bengali in Chittagong, southern Bangladesh. Their origins are probably quite diverse, spanning Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Moors or other Persians who descended upon South East Asia throughout the centuries.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are "the most persecuted minority in the world." There are 800,000 of them in Arakan State, especially near the border with Bangladesh, where over the years they have massively fled the Burmese junta's repression, most notably in 1978 and 1991-1992. Several hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas still live in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Many of them live in absolute poverty.

The Gypsies of Asia

No one wants the Rohingyas. They are the Gypsies of the Far East, long oppressed by the Burmese regime that calls them "Bengalis' or worse, "black monsters." They are even turned back by Bangladeshi border guards. Bangladesh, whose past "Islamic" solidarity no longer prevails, doesn't want to add to its own problems.

In Rangoon, the hatred can be felt online, where the Rohingyas are compared to "dogs, thieves, terrorists." One web user, commenting on a picture of a Rohingya corpse during the last riots, wrote this sentence: "Death is still too small a punishment for them!"

Even former imprisoned dissidents think they should leave the country and go "back home," though they don't have one. Implanted on the Burmese territory at least as far back as the beginning of the British rule, they have nowhere else to go. The Burmese government has denied them citizenship.

In 1982, a law made them officially stateless. The Rohingyas aren't recognized as an ethnic minority in a country where there are over 130 identified ethnicities. They have trouble marrying or sending their children to school, and they're not allowed to go to university. They were the first targets the former junta's exactions during the former junta: extortion, land confiscation, forced labor.

The partial end of censorship and the pursuit of democratization by the current government have enabled free speech, the downside of which being that it has awakened and liberated the old demons of racism and religious or ethnic discrimination.

Ethnic tensions on the rise

It all started in June, after the rape and murder of a young Burmese Buddhist, 28-year-old Ma Thidar Htwe. After rumors of Rohingya involvement spread, a mob of Buddhists attacked a bus full of Muslims, lynching 10 of them to death.

A cycle of retaliation started when the Rohingyas looted an Arkanese Buddhist village before they were themselves attacked and driven out of their lands. Burmese president Thein Sein imposed the State of Emergency and established a curfew in the troubled areas. Censorship, which the government said would be abolished on June 1st, was reestablished - or not lifted - on any information about the inter-religious riots.

On June 19, an Arakan court sentenced two men to death for the rape and murder. They had previously been identified by the Burmese press as "Bangladeshi Muslims," a term used to designate the Rohingyas, even though in Burma there are Indian Muslims or Bangladeshis that aren't of Rohingya ethnicity.

With this outbreak of violence looms the worrying possibility of tensions between Muslims and Buddhists spreading to other regions of the country, since many disciples of the original Rohingya prophet emigrated to Burma during British colonization. In a country torn by multiple ethnic wars since its independence, there is reason to be alarmed.

Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to openly support the Rohingyas, probably worried about the political backlash of defending people that her sympathizers simply don't consider human.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - UNHCR/G.M.B.Akash

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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