London, UK – The lecture hall at the London Muslim Centre quickly filled up after late afternoon prayers for an urgent meeting on the crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya people.
Over the past month, reports have filtered out from survivors of mass killings, torture, and other abuses directed at the majority-Muslim Rohingya by Myanmar’s military.
The latest round of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State began last month when Rohingya fighters attacked about 30 police posts and army bases, prompting a military crackdown.
Buoyed by the turnout at the mosque in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets on Friday evening, organiser Abdullah Faliq issued a rallying cry to the audience, many of whom struggled to find a place to sit or stand in the hall.
“How many of us here wrote to our MP?” he asked, to which less than a dozen people raised their hands.
“How many of us called or wrote to the Burma [Myanmar] embassy here in the UK?” Faliq continued, to which even fewer hands raised.
“How many of us went to a demonstration recently?” he asked further, eliciting a more enthused response.
Faliq and the others addressing the crowd made no attempt to disguise their fear that the current attention to the Rohingya’s plight is at the mercy of a news cycle that could easily move on to other issues, robbing the victims of violence in Myanmar of the opportunity to have their voices heard and allowing its government to get away with alleged abuses.
Speakers at the event, titled ‘Silent Genocide’, recalled previous instances where they said the world looked away or did not act soon enough, resulting in detrimental consequences.
The examples of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia were brought up time and again at the event.
“What we don’t want is for the story and the cause to just fizzle out,” said Harun Khan, the chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella organisation.
“[The issue] will live for a couple of days and eventually the news stories will die down,” he added before imploring those present to keep the momentum going on social media.
The vast majority of those at the mosque were Muslims of Bangladeshi heritage, but the campaign movement’s organisers say they are trying to bring together diverse strands of the Myanmar opposition movement.
They include the Burma Campaign UK and its director Mark Farmaner, once a key supporter of the campaign to free Aung San Suu Kyi, but now a critic of the Myanmar de facto leader’s response to the crisis.
An activist with decades of experience on Myanmar, Farmaner described his recent conversations with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s behaviour is inexcusable, I campaigned for more than a decade for her release from house arrest, I pressured the government, I went around the world calling for her release … and I am so disappointed with how she has behaved.
“I’ve spoken to this about her myself; she did not seem sympathetic … I said to her, please go and see for yourself what’s going on in northern Rakhine State to the Rohingya, but she refused.”
Nevertheless, Farmaner cautioned against the focus on the once dissident leader, which he said distracted from the military’s culpability for the abuses against the Rohingya.
The head of Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing, is responsible for military operations in Rakhine state and the armed forces of the country operate independently of its civil administration.
Britain’s ties with Myanmar are historical, as the country’s former colonial power, and have also strengthened more recently after Myanmar’s military rulers loosened their grip on power to allow more civilian participation in government.
The British government provides 300,000 pounds ($396,000) in direct military aid to Myanmar in addition to burgeoning trade ties since the country held its first free election in 2015.
Myanmar soldiers have also visited the UK to take part in training courses paid for by the British government.
When Al Jazeera approached the British Foreign Office for its position on the ongoing situation in Rakhine and allegations of abuse, it was directed to a statement made by International Development Secretary Priti Patel, which did not directly address the accusations levelled against Myanmar’s military.
“The appalling violence in Rakhine must stop now. Britain urgently calls upon the security forces to de-escalate the situation in Rakhine and the government of Burma to allow immediate and full humanitarian access and support for the people and communities affected,” Patel said.
The campaigners at the London Muslim Centre do not believe the British government has been forceful enough in its condemnation and a large number of British MPs agree.
A letter calling on Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to take action against Myanmar was authored by opposition Labour MP Rushanara Ali and signed by 157 of her colleagues.
“While there is no single measure which can persuade the military to halt its attacks, any leverage that can be used must be used,” the letter reads, further calling for an end to military cooperation between the UK and Myanmar.
For Rohingya advocates such as those in East London, there is a sense that the crisis is set to worsen and that campaigning is the very least they can do.
The past week has seen sporadic but nearly daily protests in London and other cities across the UK.
The largest, on Sunday, drew thousands flooding the streets outside the Myanmar embassy and attracted protesters from across the country.
“After the protest, we aim to continue to pressurise our local MP, the government and the people that hold the power that can make the required change,” said Taslim Loonat who had made his way from the Midlands town of Walsall.
“We want to continue to highlight the atrocities that are being carried out to ensure this genocide does not become the norm.”