Double jeopardy

The Indian government’s position on the Rohingya refugees is keenly watched as members of the minority Muslim community in Myanmar are massacred or driven out of that country.

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

Rohingya refugees walking through a paddy field after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 6.

Rohingya refugees walking through a paddy field after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 6.

MAKE no mistake. It is genocide. With 1,20,000 people having fled to Bangladesh within a fortnight, 2,00,000 stuck in no-man’s land between borders and 1,000 killed (United Nations figures), it is the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis of mammoth proportions. The latest wave of ethnic cleansing by Myanmarese security forces alongside Rakhine extremists or ultranationalist Buddhists has resulted in an exodus of the ethnic minority Rohingya to Bangladesh. While Bangladesh already has 4,00,000 Rohingya refugees and might not want more, its border guards have been allowing the Rohingya to enter. Hundreds of Hindus escaping the violence and blockade in Rakhine have also reportedly arrived in Bangladesh. But India is branding the Rohingya on its territory as “illegal immigrants” and threatening to deport them to Myanmar where they face certain death.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar in the thick of the violence. While international pressure mounted on the Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Modi’s government was also being watched to see what it would do for the most persecuted community in the world. “Prime Minister Modi must also use his visit to push the Myanmarese authorities to allow full and unfettered humanitarian assistance to people in need. Nothing can justify denying life-saving aid to desperate people. At the same time, PM Modi should also reaffirm his own government’s commitment to protect Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in India who have been recently threatened with deportation,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India.

The Indian government has mandated the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register and provide assistance to refugees from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar. There are 16,500 Rohingya registered with the UNHCR in India, and the government claims there are 40,000 of them in the country, but India does not recognise them as refugees and is now making a volte-face.

In August, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju disregarded the UNHCR recognition of Rohingya and said he had instructed the States to start the process of deportation. In a circular issued to all State governments and Union Territory administrations on August 8, his Ministry said the “detection and deportation of such illegal immigrants from Rakhine state, also known as Rohingyas, is a continuous process”. The Ministry advised all States and Union Territories to “sensitise all the law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps in identifying the illegal immigrants and initiate the deportation process expeditiously and without delay”.

“I want to tell the international organisations whether the Rohingyas are registered under the UNHCR or not, they are illegal immigrants in India,” said Rijiju. The Supreme Court sought the government’s stand on the issue when a plea filed by the Rohingya refugees Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir came up before a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud on September 4. The bench refused to issue an interim stay on deportation. The next hearing was listed for September 11. While the advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the refugees, asked for an assurance that the state would not take any steps to deport the Rohingya, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta refused to make any such statement.

“Proposed deportation is contrary to the constitutional protections of Article 14 (Right to Equality), Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) and Article 51(c) of the Constitution of India, which provides equal rights and liberty to every person. This act would also be in contradiction with the principle of non-refoulement, which has been widely recognised as a principle of Customary International Law,” the plea said. The international principle of non-refoulement is part of customary international law and is binding on India. It forbids states from forcibly returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations. India is also a state party to other international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which it must comply with this principle.

A worried lot The Rohingya who were gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest against the violence in Myanmar were a worried lot. Ever since the government directive, police visits to their camps have become a daily affair. Intelligence Bureau officials ask them to gather around with their families before proceeding to photograph each and every family in the camp. Alarmed by the frequent police visits that have criminalised the Rohingya in the neighbourhood, many of them have been sacked from employment, and several landlords have refused to extend the rent agreements for the following year. On Eid, the Rohingya in Faridabad got two buffaloes in donation. But local goons came and forcefully took the buffaloes away and brutally beat up 10 Rohingya.

“If we are a burden or threat to India, as the Indian government imagines, then please take us out of India but not to Myanmar, to any country where we can live peacefully. When we look at the comments of Indian people below any news regarding the Rohingya, we feel we may be killed any time and we are totally not safe here,” said a Rohingya refugee, requesting anonymity. Several of the Rohingya stayed away from the protest in order to avoid the CB-CID, whose officials intimidated them. They also doubted whether Modi’s visit to Myanmar would bring them any relief. “When the Myanmar government shows one-sided fabricated evidence against us to Modi ji , which it is bound to do, our conditions will only worsen,” one of them said.

News of death and destruction from Myanmar only added to their woes. While the Myanmarese government claimed the death toll was 400, the Rohingya themselves said it was nothing less than 3,000. As journalists, researchers and aid workers were denied access to the western State of Rakhine, there was no way to verify these numbers. But the images of death, destruction and migration coming out from the area told a gruesome story.

On September 6, Modi and Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to work together to tackle terror and parroted the same lines after their meeting in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw. In a joint statement with Modi, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked India for the strong stand it had taken against the “terror threat that came to our country”, in reference to Rohingya Muslims. “Together, we will ensure terror is not allowed to take root in our country, on our soil or in neighbouring countries,” she said.

“We share your concerns about extremist violence in Rakhine State and violence against security forces, and how innocent lives have been affected,” Modi said. He said that India understood the challenges and praised Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the “Myanmar peace process”. He said it was important to work together towards the security “of our land and maritime borders”.

Situation in Myanmar According to news reports, as many as 19 corpses were found floating in the river Naf, which connects Myanmar to Bangladesh, after the boat carrying them capsized in the end of August. The dead included children. The elderly and the injured (with bullet and shrapnel wounds) were carried through heavy rain and marshy land on makeshift carriages of bamboo and baskets tied together with belts and dupattas. Children were seen carrying younger children on their backs. Hundreds of men and women squatted on their haunches on the banks of the waterbodies with what was left of their worldly possessions—an umbrella, a hen, a steel tiffin box. Black smoke billowed out on the horizon from Rohingya hamlets set on fire by the military. Charred and twisted corpses in villages entirely gutted in the fire gave an impression of where a home might have been. Some of these bodies were beheaded. Reportedly, the Myanmar Army has laid landmines near the country’s border with Bangladesh to prevent the return of the refugees.

Scores of people were “missing” or hiding in the hilly regions of Rakhine State, unable to either escape through the border or enter any village. “Army personnel in plain clothes along with extremist Rakhine are shooting anybody they see, so it is very risky,” said Ali Johar, a member of the Rohingya community in Delhi. “Either the military will kill us or we will die of starvation,” the father of Maung Maung Khant, another Rohingya in Delhi, told him over phone on the ninth day of the recent cycle of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

The current wave of ethnic cleansing supposedly began on August 25 in Rakhine State when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police stations, checkpoints, government offices and an army base. But the Rohingya say raids had started in three villages from August 20: any male above 12 years of age was arrested and some were brutally beaten to death. The community realised that the military wanted to finish all Rohingya members and whether they protested or not they would be killed. The insurgent group ARSA, or Harakah Al Yaqeen, meaning the Faith Movement, emerged in this climate of desperation and claims to fight for the “liberation of persecuted Rohingya”.

The ARSA declared the “Burmese Brutal Military Regime” a “terrorist organisation” for causing “terror and destruction to ethnic Rohingya population”. On August 24, it released a statement saying that the Rohingya community in Rathedaung had been blockaded for more than two weeks, leading to starvation deaths. It also said that a dozen people had been killed in the township in two days by Myanmarese security forces along with Rakhine extremists. “As they prepared to do the same in Maungdaw, and conducted raids and committed atrocities in some Rohingya villages in the township last night [August 24], we had to eventually step up in order to drive the Burmese [Myanmarese] colonising forces away,” it said. The ARSA’s official Twitter handle described it as a legitimate step to “defend the world’s persecuted people and liberate the oppressed people from the hands of the oppressors!”

Human rights violations Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) showed 17 sites burnt between August 25 and 30. On August 31, it spotted 700 buildings destroyed in the Rohingya-majority village of Chein Khar Li alone. Around 40 villages were completely destroyed, said Sabber of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative in Delhi. However, the Myanmarese government accused the Rohingya of setting fire to their own homes. But it did not provide any evidence to support the allegations, nor did it ever prove similar allegations made during the burning of Rohingya areas between October and December in 2016.

According to HRW and others, the Myanmarese security forces deliberately set those fires. “Independent monitors are needed on the ground to urgently uncover what’s going on,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of HRW. “The U.N. Fact Finding Mission should get the full cooperation of the Burmese government to fulfil their mandate to assess human rights abuses in Rakhine State and explore ways to end attacks and ensure accountability,” he said.

In February, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report that documented the human rights violations against the Rohingya, including mass killings and gang rapes. In March, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned that Myanmar might be seeking to expel all the Rohingya from its territory. On March 24, a three-member fact-finding mission was constituted to probe alleged human rights violations. The resolution was drafted by the European Union and co-sponsored by 43 other countries. India, along with Myanmar and other countries, disassociated itself from the resolution. An information committee set up by Aung San Suu Kyi accused members of the Rohingya community of fabricating the rape charges, calling them “fake rape”. Officials of the Myanmarese government have been threatening to deny visas to members of the fact-finding team and derail the mission.

On August 23, the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State were released. Chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the commission was founded as an impartial body to propose concrete measures to improve the welfare of all people in Rakhine State. It was composed of six local and three international experts. “Unless concerted action—led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society—is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State,” said Kofi Annan. It turned out to be almost prophetic when violence broke out two days later.

Since August, international aid agencies have been denied access to Rakhine State. The U.N. World Food Programme said it had not been able to distribute food in northern Rakhine since mid July. “A total of 2,50,000 people, including internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations, [are] without regular food assistance,” it said. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi accused international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of helping Rohingya militants. A group of 16 NGOs, including Consortium Dutch NGOs, Oxfam and Care International, denied such charges and urged the government to re-establish access to conflict-affected areas in order to ensure the delivery of life-saving services.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern over reported Myanmar security excesses and underlined the responsibility of the government to provide security and assistance to all those in need. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, urged all sides to renounce the use of violence and called on the state authorities to ensure they operated in line with their obligations under international human rights law. He said: “Unfortunately, what we feared appears to be occurring. Decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”

International pressure Countries with large Muslim populations, including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, called upon Aung San Suu Kyi to rein in the violence. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said: “The security authorities need to immediately stop all forms of violence there and provide humanitarian assistance and development aid for the short and long term.”

“There is a genocide there,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul during Eid. “Those who close their eyes to this genocide perpetuated under the cover of democracy are its collaborators.”

The Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai released a strong statement against the violence. She said: “Every time I see the news, my heart breaks at the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. I call for the following: Stop the violence. Today we have seen pictures of small children killed by Myanmar’s security forces. These children attacked no one, but still their homes were burnt to the ground. If their home is not Myanmar, where they have lived for generations, then where is it? Rohingya people should be given citizenship in Myanmar, the country where they were born. Other countries, including my own country Pakistan, should follow Bangaldesh’s example and give food, shelter and access to education to Rohingya families fleeing violence and terror. Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world. Largely Muslims, they have been denied citizenship rights in the Arakan country they have inhabited for centuries, making them vulnerable to rights violations. Beginning in 1978, several cycles of mass violence unleashed by the military forced tens of thousands of them to flee to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. Those who could not flee were left to face mass murders, gang rapes, burning of entire villages and torture in camps.

Instead of using the term Rohingya, the Myanmarese government calls them “Bengali”, which is the term preferred by ultranationalist Buddhists, implying illegal migrant status in that country. Aung San Suu Kyi calls them the “Muslim community in Rakhine State”. She has been severely criticised for not only allowing but also abetting the persecution of the Rohingya in her country. In an interview with BBC, she denied that there was ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and walked out of the interview muttering: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

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