“The grievances and unresolved plight of the Rohingya have festered for far too long and are becoming an undeniable factor in regional destabilization … The authorities in Myanmar must take determined action to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and to provide security and assistance to all those in need.” António Guterres Secretary General of the United Nations
An important principle of a dignified life which promises to make life comfortable and respectable for every human being on this planet is: “Live and let live”. But, in today’s world of chaos and tumult, this principle has died its own death, replaced now by the dogma ‘let me live only at your expense’. Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that has suffered decades of persecution in western Myanmar, can be quoted as the most suitable example for this state of affairs. Viewed by the UN and the US as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya flee their homes every year in a desperate attempt to reach Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. They have been the target of violence perpetrated by both the state as well as Buddhist nationalist groups. Human rights organizations describe their systematic targeting as ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Although an unparalleled refugee crisis has been brewing since 2012, when Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people and displaced tens of thousands in retaliation for the alleged rape and killing of a Buddhist woman, events of October last year, when police stations were attacked by allegedly the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), added an impetus to this problem. The latest mass exodus comes after attacks on police posts and an army base in the western region of Rakhine – Myanmar’s least developed state, with more than 78 percent of households living below the poverty threshold. An army crackdown triggered by an attack on August 25, allegedly by ARSA, on Myanmar security forces and the response of a ‘clearance operation’ launched by security forces supported by Buddhist militia has led to the killing of at least 400 people, reports of arson and violence in Rakhine villages and the exodus of nearly 125,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh, leading to an upsurge in this long running humanitarian crisis.
The picture that we see in Myanmar today is that of a regime of ethnic cleansing. This latest round of pogrom is the result of the international community’s abject lack of action as it has not only failed in stopping the persecution of the Rohingya but a renewed vigour in the atrocities of the state agencies of Myanmar in order to ensure that the State of Rakhine is emptied of them has also been witnessed.
And the rest of the world, apart from some episodic comments from the United Nations, has done nothing palpable to restrain the wanton persecution by the State of Myanmar of one of its ethnic minorities.
The United Nations believes the Myanmar government’s response to the crisis may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity which makes it abundantly clear that the formation of the Annan Commission, which presented its “final report in August, was merely a ploy. Tun Khin, the President of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, while commenting on the formation of Annan Commission in his article “Only international pressure can save Rohingya now” writes:
“One positive step by the government was the establishment of a commission chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, it excluded any Rohingya from being members and had a limited mandate, not being allowed to look at human rights violations. At times, it seemed like a delaying tactic and was used as an excuse by the government for delays in changing policy and refusing to allow in the UN investigators.”
But, alas, the unending and unabated sufferings and plights of Rohingya have failed to awaken the world conscience. When the Myanmar military launched offensive against Rohingya last year, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate leader of the country, launched a propaganda offensive defending the military and refuting that any violations of human rights were happening. Flashing “Fake Rape” signs were on her Facebook page and website. The UN later confirmed the most harrowing details of mass rape of Rohingya women.
With Suu Kyi’s silence and her calling the latest atrocities against Rohingya “a huge iceberg of misinformation” during a phone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan, the persecuted people looked towards the international community for help, but they also failed them. Despite the establishment of the investigation by the UN into possible crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya, and possible crimes against humanity and war crimes against other ethnic groups, no pressure has been put on the military. In fact, the opposite has happened.
In Europe and Asia, Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military, is given red carpet treatment as an honoured guest. The EU has an arms embargo against Burma, but European companies are still supplying the military with other equipment.
As the international community is trying to sell him equipment instead of trying to prosecute him for violating international law, then how will he stop his rouge army to stop the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya?
Suu Kyi’s silence on this issue is also intriguing. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide describes five acts, any one of which, when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, amounts to genocide. With the obvious and often explicit purpose of destroying this group, four of them have been practised more or less continuously by Myanmar’s armed forces since Aung San Suu Kyi became de facto political leader.
In her Nobel lecture, Aung San Suu Kyi remarked: “Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” The rage of those Rohingya people who have taken up arms has been used as an excuse to accelerate an existing programme of ethnic cleansing.
She has not only denied the atrocities, attempting to shield the armed forces from criticism; she has also denied the very identity of the people being attacked, asking the US ambassador not to use the term Rohingya. This is in line with the government’s policy of disavowing their existence as an ethnic group, and classifying them – though they have lived in Myanmar for centuries – as interlopers. She has upheld the 1982 Citizenship Law, which denies these people their rights.
Not only has she snubbed and obstructed UN officials who have sought to investigate the treatment of the Rohingya, but her government has prevented aid agencies from distributing food, water and medicines to people displaced or isolated by the violence. Her office has accused aid workers of helping “terrorists”, putting them at risk of attack, further impeding their attempts to help people who face starvation.
On one level, Rakhine represents a development crisis. The state is marked by chronic poverty from which all communities suffer, and lags behind the national average in virtually every area. Protracted confl ict, insecure land tenure and lack of livelihood opportunities have resulted in signifi cant migration out of the state, reducing the size of the work force and undermining prospects of development and economic growth. Movement restrictions on the Muslim population hurt the economy. The failure to improve inter-communal relations, enforced segregation and the simmering threat of violence and instability continue to deter private sector investment. Although Rakhine is rich in natural resources, the development of extractive industries – such as oil and gas-related investments in Kyawkpyuh – have not generated a signifi cant number of new jobs nor other benefi ts for local residents. Both Rakhine and Muslim communities feel marginalised and disempowered by decisions taken in Naypyitaw.
Rakhine also represents a human rights crisis. While all communities have suffered from violence and abuse, protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made the Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. Some ten percent of the world’s stateless people live in Myanmar, and the Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world. The community faces a number of restrictions which affect basic rights and many aspects of their daily lives. Approximately 120,000 people are still left in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The community has been denied political representation, and is generally excluded from Myanmar’s body politic. Efforts by the Government to verify citizenship claims have failed to win the confi dence of either Muslim or Rakhine communities.
Finally, Rakhine is also a security crisis. As witnessed by the Commission during its many consultations across Rakhine State, all communities harbour deep-seated fears, with the legacy of the violence of 2012 fresh in many minds. While Muslims resent continued exclusion, the Rakhine community worry about becoming a minority in the state in the future. Segregation has worsened the prospects for mutual understanding. The Government has to step up its efforts to ensure that all communities feel safe and in doing so, restore inter-communal cohesion. Time alone will not heal Rakhine.
Unless current challenges are addressed promptly, further radicalization within both communities is a real risk. The situation is particularly urgent in northern Rakhine State, where an emerging militant group attacked three Border Police posts on 9 October 2016, and where subsequent military and police operations led to tens of thousands of Muslims fl eeing across the border to Bangladesh. While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarised response is unlikely to bring peace to the area. What is needed is a calibrated approach –one that combines political, developmental, security and human rights responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and inter-communal tensions are kept under control. If the legitimate grievances of local populations are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Addressing the development and human rights crises will help address the security crisis. Solving these three, interrelated crises would be a challenge for any Government. It is important to recognise that Rakhine is one of several ongoing confl icts in Myanmar, and that the Government is simultaneously attempting to carry out far-reaching reforms across various sectors. As such, the Government is often stretched to its limits. It is also important to acknowledge the initiatives that this Government and its predecessors have already taken to address the issues in Rakhine.
Excerpted from the Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State entitled “Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine”
The Role of OIC
The plight of the Rohingya has already featured prominently on the agenda of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s meeting of Foreign Ministers. In fact, the OIC held an Extraordinary Session earlier this year in Malaysia dedicated entirely to the situation of the Rohingya. But, one concern might be that the OIC does not have a good record when it comes to conflict resolution. It is fundamentally handicapped in this regard, as it does not have the means by which to enforce its will. Resolutions are passed with little fanfare and go largely unnoticed outside the Muslim world. Often, their sole purpose is to mollify local populations.
Nevertheless, in this case the OIC may prove significantly more effective. As the world’s second largest intergovernmental organisation, with a membership of fifty-seven states spread across four continents, and with a new dynamic secretary general in the form of Dr Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, the organisation will have the verve to intervene on the issue that the UN is clearly lacking. And there are simple measures the OIC could pursue.
Firstly, the OIC can work with the UN and Myanmar authorities to investigate the allegations that militant Islamist groups are attempting to penetrate and hijack the Rohingya struggle. Though such allegations are anaemic at best, they offer a convenient excuse to the Myanmar authorities to pursue their policy of collective punishment while placating the international community and forcing it to turn a blind eye. Particularly now that ISIS is losing territory in the Middle East and are looking for new regions in the world where their poisonous ideology might find fertile ground.
Secondly, the persecution of the Rohingya has a sectarian dimension, as some of the key instigators promote these abuses in the name of a militant interpretation of Theravada Buddhism. The OIC, as a religious-based organisation, can reframe the conflict-resolution efforts of the international community in terms of an inter-faith dialogue amongst religious communities and their global leaders. The OIC itself claims to represent the global Muslim voice, and so it should be able to bring in leading global Muslim personalities who would already be acceptable and respected by the Buddhist leaders of the country.
Finally, the OIC can help relieve pressure on neighbouring countries that have taken in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and so on. The government of Bangladesh is justified in trying to ensure that the Rohingya do not become a permanent presence in their own country, as they simply don’t have the resources to absorb the kinds of numbers that are fleeing. The OIC could therefore organise a coordinated global effort to provide countries like Bangladesh the basic essentials to ensure the Rohingya are comfortable during their short tenure before they are able to return to their homeland.
The OIC does not have the happiest history when it comes to living up to its own founding principles. But on this occasion, they may well be able to succeed where the UN has failed. The Rohingya situation is providing it with an opportunity to redeem itself. And it can start with such simple measures which will have a real positive impact on the lives of so many people. Let us hope it seizes this opportunity with both hands.
1. solace: comfort, consolation, relief
2. tumult: uproar, ruckus, hubbub, ado
3. dogma: belief, tenet, rule
4. brewing: developing, looming, ominous, impending
5. exodus: mass departure, escape, fleeing
6. arson: firebombing, torching
7. pogrom: massacre, carnage, genocide [IDM: night of the long knives] 8. episodic: intermittent, sporadic, fitful
9. palpable: discernible, tangible, incontrovertible
10. wanton: deliberate, spiteful, unjustifiable, vacuous
11. ploy: ruse, stratagem, gambit, contrivance
12. harrowing: distressing, heart-rending, appalling
13. disavow: deny, disown, disclaim, eschew
14. interloper: intruder, infiltrator, unwanted
15. snub: affront, spurn, brush off