Rohingya

In search of a solution

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar rest after crossing the border in Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, on October 16. Photo: ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on September 21. Photo: FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP

Myanmarese Foreign Minister Kyaw Tint Swe (left) with his Bangladeshi counterpart Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali ahead of their meeting in Dhaka on October 2. Photo: A.M. AHAD/AP

Bangladesh calls for a “sustainable return” of the Rohingyan refugees and demands the effective involvement of the U.N. and the strategic collaboration of other stakeholders for a viable and long-term solution to the crisis.

MEN broke down in tears embracing the bodies of their children who had died crossing the mountainous border point. Women wailed looking at the endless sea, remembering their dear ones who had drowned in the Bay of Bengal. Young women, mostly clad in burqas, stood numb like statues not knowing where their husbands or parents were and preferring not to talk about the cruelty they had faced before fleeing to Bangladesh from Rakhine State in neighbouring Myanmar.

According to the United Nations, more than 5,20,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh since August 25 after a military crackdown in Rakhine State following a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an Army base by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant outfit, on that day. According to Rohingyan and U.N. agencies, the Myanmar Army and local Buddhists burned down village after village, shops, markets and fields belonging to the ethnic minority who have been living in Arakan, later named Rakhine, for generations.

There may be up to another 1,00,000 people waiting to cross over, says the International Organisation for Migration. Those who arrived have found temporary shelter in Cox’s Bazar and partly in Banbarban district, both bordering Myanmar. At least 150 people, mostly children and women, drowned either in the Naf river, which connects Bangladesh and Myanmar, or in the Bay of Bengal as their boats capsized in rough weather.

Those who survived the massacre and the perilous journey by sea and land to reach Bangladesh have harrowing tales to tell: of their houses set on fire by the Myanmar Army and its civilian associates, of family members killed in front of them, of girls taken away to be raped, and of children thrown into blazing fires. Hospitals in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong are struggling to cope with people injured by gunshots, burns or landmine explosions.

The number of Rohingya in Bangladesh camps is swelling by the day. Most of them look pale, malnourished and traumatised. An overwhelming number of women were raped and need reproductive and sexual health care, said local and international aid workers.

Local relief workers and international aid agencies said some 200 babies were born in unsafe and unhygienic conditions in no-man’s-land during September-October. They all risk death unless proper care is given.

Whatever compulsions Myanmar may have, the military crackdown is seen as a clear case of ethnic cleansing aimed at driving out the Rohingya from their ancestral homes. Brutal attacks were organised and systematic, designed to drive out the Rohingya and prevent them from returning, said a U.N. report from Geneva on October 11.

Troubled history

The Rohingya have had a troubled history in Myanmar. For generations they have called Myanmar their home but were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, which denied them almost all rights and rendered them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practise their religion or work and have little access to medical care, food or education. The U.N. has labelled these people “one of the world’s most persecuted religious minorities”. While the overwhelming majority of the Rohingya are Muslim, slightly over 500 Hindus have also crossed the border fleeing violence.

This is not the first time the Rohingya have fled their homes. Thousands fled to Bangladesh to escape atrocities in 1978 and again in 1991-92, though some of them returned after a bilateral agreement was signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sectarian violence between the majority Buddhists and the minority Muslims erupted again in 2012, at a time when Myanmar was making the transition from a dictatorship (for half a century) to a democracy, resulting in another 1,00,000 fleeing.

Although officially the Rohingya number 11 lakh, the exact population is not known. It is alleged that the authorities in Myanmar have deliberately excluded them from census operations since 1962.

Bangladesh’s burden

Bangladesh has accepted the Rohingya now on humanitarian grounds, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of others from Myanmar who came earlier. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina termed the exodus “an unbearable human catastrophe” and “ethnic cleansing”. She said it reminded her of 1971 “when the Pakistani forces burned down our houses and killed our people, [and] around 10 million people crossed the border into India”.

As hundreds of thousands were driven out of their homes, a statement by Myanmar’s powerful military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, caused further concern. He asked the people to unite against “Bengali terrorists”, referring to the attackers of August 25.

Bangladesh, which strongly denounced the August 25 “terrorist attacks” on police and Army camps in Myanmar, reacted sharply to the allegation. Although it offered help to flush out terrorists in joint operations, Myanmar refused the offer. Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmud Ali accused Myanmar of running a “malicious propaganda”.

U.N.’s role

For the first time, world attention has been focussed on the plight of the Rohingya. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the crisis as the “fastest growing humanitarian catastrophe”. The U.N. human rights body called the massacre a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. The global outcry was so loud that the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who once earned appreciation for her heroic struggle for democracy in Myanmar, has had to face bitter condemnation.

But the U.N. Security Council, as in other cases across the globe, has failed to endorse any united action plan to stop the catastrophe. Three years ago, when the Security Council held a discussion on the 20th commemoration of the Rwanda genocide, China and Russia joined other members of the Council in voicing their concern against the genocide. But in the case of the current violence against the Rohingya, the two countries have sided with Myanmar.

Guterres, in his speech to the Security Council, demanded that Myanmar end military operations and open humanitarian access to its conflict-wracked region.

China has a long-established influence on the military junta in Myanmar. It has apparently softened its stance and agreed to “mediate” between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the crisis.

India has also been cosying up to the regime in Myanmar of late. However, as an ally, India has said it will remain with Bangladesh in dealing with the refugee crisis. Both countries have started sending relief materials for the Rohingya refugees.

While the Islamist tilt of the Rohingyan militant outfit ARSA, led by one Attaullah, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, is a matter of great concern, many observers see the military aggression against the Rohingya in a different light. The attacks were carried out just a few hours after the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State made its recommendations public. The commission was mandated to examine the complex challenges facing Rakhine State and to propose answers to those challenges.

“The military crackdown resembles a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“This is the worst crisis in Rohingya history,” said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which works to improve the conditions of the ethnic minority. “Security forces have been burning villages one by one, in a very systematic way. And it’s still ongoing,” said Lewa.

Tricky repatriation

Myanmarese Minister Kyaw Tint Swe, who visited Dhaka on October 2, gave an assurance on the repatriation of the refugees. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Mahmud Ali, however, made it clear that his country had not agreed to Myanmar’s proposal of following the criteria in the 1992 agreement to take back the displaced people. The 1992 deal was signed after an influx of more than 2,50,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh following violence in Rakhine. Myanmar had agreed to the return of those who could “establish their bona fide residency in Myanmar”. But only a handful of refugees could be repatriated because of the tricky identification process.

Explaining Bangladesh’s position, Mahmud Ali said the principles and criteria of repatriation under the 1992 joint statement were not “realistic” as the situations of 1992 and 2017 “are entirely different”. He also alleged that Myanmar was “trying to defuse the international pressure” and claimed that its government and state media were projecting the entire issue as “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Bengali terrorism”. The Minister said although Bangladesh had repeatedly requested Myanmar not to use the term “Bengali” to describe the Rohingya, its request had gone unheeded. He insisted that the Rohingya were “a problem of Myanmar and it must be solved by Myanmar itself”.

The Myanmar Army, said the Foreign Minister, had begun a large-scale operation code-named “Area Clearance” to confront “terrorists” but in fact was continuing with the inhuman oppression of the Rohingya. “Around half of the Muslim villages in Rakhine State have been burned down, and the burning is still going on,” Mahmud Ali remarked on October 10. He wanted continued engagement of the world “until a peaceful means is found to resolve this humanitarian crisis”.

For a permanent solution

Sheikh Hasina sought expeditious U.N. and global intervention to protect the civilians in Rakhine and take effective steps for a permanent solution to the protracted crisis. She called upon the U.N. Secretary-General to send a “fact-finding mission” immediately to Rakhine.

Sheikh Hasina, in her U.N. General Assembly speech on September 22, also suggested a few steps to end the “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine. “Firstly, Myanmar must unconditionally stop the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State immediately and forever,” she said. She also called for the establishment of “safe zones” in Myanmar under U.N. supervision to protect all civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity and for the implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. She also demanded a “sustainable return” of all the forcibly displaced people to their homes in Myanmar safely and securely and with dignity.

Many analysts are of the view that Bangladesh alone cannot solve the crisis which goes deeper in history and has far-reaching implications. For a viable and long-term solution, the crisis demands the effective involvement of the U.N. and the strategic collaboration of other stakeholders.

Of paramount importance now is negotiation, not conflict. Myanmar, which is now a democracy where the role of the military is still dominant and where the religious and ethnic divide is painfully sharp, made its first welcoming move by holding an inter-faith dialogue on October 11. It is also essential to impress upon the powers that be Myanmar that lack of a political solution may give rise to extremism, which will further destabilise the region.

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