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THE ROHINGYA CRISIS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE

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January 17, 2017

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As I write this, the Rohingyas have recently been thrust back into the forefront of international controversy.

On the 9th October this year, border guard police posts were attacked by armed individuals who the Burmese Military allege were Rohingyas. From the 12th of November till today, the military have continuously escalated attacks against Rohingya villages with evidence provided from satellite imagery, cited by the Human Rights Watch, showing the destruction of Rohingya villages.

In response, the Rohingya communities, together with the local population, in Malaysia organised a mammoth rally on the 4th of December 2016, calling upon the Myanmar government to end the violence against the Rohingyas. The rally was attended by Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib Abdul Razak, Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) president, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang

In many ways this crisis is perhaps one of the greatest human tragedies of our time. This tragedy does not simply encompass the number of people who have been displaced, fleeing from the violent persecution of the Myanmar government, but also the constant struggle that the Rohingyas have had to unfortunately endure to fight for their identity, human dignity and their own history.

The Rohingyas have rightly been described as the world’s most persecuted minority.

Throughout this history of persecution, numerous sources have analysed and documented much of the atrocities which have been committed against the Rohingyas,. Some of these will be recounted here in order to give emphasis to the magnitude of suffering that these unfortunate people have had to undergo.

The Myanmar government has continuously denied this and has turned a deaf ear towards the many calls for an end to the persecution. More than that, there is an argument to be made that there is an underlying trend that seeks to also undermine the narrative of the Rohingya Crisis which, if not addressed soon, may leave them in a more sorry state than they are already in.

THE ROHINGYA GENOCIDE: AN HONEST REFLECTION

Recently, it was reported that former United Nations Secretary General Kofi-Annan has seemingly refused to label the plight of the Rohingyas as a genocide, advising people to be “very, very careful” when using the term.

This sentiment is a reflection of an earlier statement in which the Incumbent State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a visit by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry, had cautioned against the use of “emotive terms” that would make the situation more difficult.

Kofi Annan has had a chequered history when it comes to issues of genocide however, and therefore, it is worth noting that he is not the ideal candidate to seek counsel from on matters pertaining to genocide. Under Kofi Annan’s administration, the U.N. earned a negative reputation in regards to how it handled crisis such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Citing an article online from the Heritage Foundation “as head of United Nations peacekeeping operations in the mid-1990s before he rose to Secretary General, Annan never apologized to the victims of the Rwanda genocide, whose slaughter was the consequence of the U.N.’s failure to intervene, or to the families of Muslims massacred at Srebrenica while under the protection of U.N. soldiers. Annan’s lack of humility in the face of great human tragedy has been one of his greatest shortcomings as a U.N. leader.”

However when one considers not only the evidence that have been highlighted during recent events, but also the many decades of substantiated allegations of systematic efforts to undermine the Rohingya population, it takes a very selective, purposeful interpretation and disingenuous character to not see that it is indeed genocide.

Genocide is defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Going from historical evidence, the Rohingyas as a people were recognized as citizens of Burma when it became independent in 1948 and they had enjoyed the rights which all citizens enjoyed. The Rohingyas were also during this period, even able to serve in parliament and participate in other political institutions. It is also worth noting that the Rohingyas even had their own broadcasts over national radio three times a week, using their own mother tongue, and even held positions in the country’s security forces and other ministries, as well as being permitted to form their own communal, professional and student associations bearing the name Rohingya.

Many of these policies were introduced during the time when Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the leader of the nation. It merits questioning then, if her father had taken a more inclusive stance towards the Rohingya, why is Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance such a contrast? Is her stance reflective of those who she has now chosen to listen to?

When did everything go so terribly wrong?

The first instance of discrimination towards the Rohingya minority began after the military had consolidated power and subjected the 1.3 million Rohingyas to land confiscations, arbitrary arrests, extortion, torture rape and murder, and other equally vicious attacks, with records indicating that such events happened as early as 1978, under the guise of an illegal immigration crackdown. This first major incident forced an estimated 200,000 people to flee to Bangladesh where they were then forcibly repatriated back. About 10,000 died during this process and another 10,000 remained In Bangladesh, as cited by the Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The next and perhaps most significant occurrence was in 1982 when the Myanmar government passed a law declaring that most Rohingyas were non-citizens. Those who were unfortunate enough to be in this category were asked to prove that they have lived in Myanmar for 60 years, a fact that was impossible to prove given that the Rohingyas had initially crossed the border into Myanmar without paperwork and were subsequently denied documentation. This also in turn is an attempt to deny the long historical link of the Rohingyas to the Arakan state which was at one time an independent Kingdom which was inhabited by people of different ethnicities, including those of Burmese, Bengali, Arab and Persian descent. The Rohingyas in fact are a distinct community with their own language and cultural identity that had been formed from the interaction among these various groups. Arakan was eventually annexed in 1784 by a Burmese Ruler of the Konbaung Dynasty, and while the Rohingyas faced hardships and persecution during these
times as well, there were periods in history which showed peaceful co-existence between the Rohingyas and the Burmese.

These facts have been rejected on many levels in Myanmar, with the government claiming that the Rohingyas are migrants from Bangladesh and have no rights to indigenous identity in Myanmar.

There is a larger and more significant impact from the denial of the right to citizenship and the right to self-identity to the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas now have effectively been denied all means of representation within Myanmar, both legal and political. They are unable to participate in national and local elections and have no platform to represent themselves. Citing from the European Commission’s Department on Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection, they have also been banned from travelling without authorization and prohibited from working outside their villages. They also cannot even legally get married without permission from authorities and because of these restrictions to movement, they lack access to needs such as medicine and education

It is in this regard that many have begun referring to Myanmar as an open-air prison.

In 1991, history began to repeat itself when 250,000 people fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh and once more the Bangladesh Government conducted another round of repatriation in September 1992. At present there is an estimated 32,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh in two camps managed by the UN Refugees Agency.

Even in Bangladesh, the authorities’ refusal to provide any form of civil documentation has left the Rohingyas high and dry. Their lack of legal status in Bangladesh and other countries which they had fled to, has made it near impossible for the Rohingyas to attain any form of legal status and representation, which means that advocacy options to seek justice for this group have been especially challenging.

It was in 2012 when the violence hit a crescendo. A rumour was spread that a Buddhist Rakhine woman was raped and murdered by three Rohingyas and a number of Rakhines attacked a bus carrying Muslim passengers on 3rd June 2012. The ensuing violence had resulted in 140,000 Rohingyas being displaced. Years after the incident, over 100,000 people remain displaced with many living in abhorrent conditions.

In 2015, the Rohingyas made international headlines once again where the persecuted people attempted to flee to other countries on boats which they had obtained through the services of illegal human traffickers. This was one of the largest exoduses involving the Rohingyas and can be described as a colossal tragedy.

The tragedy revealed how desperate the Rohingyas had become , with many of them entrusting themselves to these human traffickers who saw the plight of the Rohingyas as an opportunity to steal whatever little wealth the Rohingyas had with them as they sought to escape persecution and obliteration. Many did not survive the journey, falling prey to deceitful traffickers who sold the Rohingyas off to camps where they became forced labour or met other equally deplorable fates. There were some instances in 2015 where the traffickers who were on the verge of being caught by the authorities, had abandoned their boats, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves against the harsh elements of the sea, with many succumbing to malnutrition

The struggles of the Rohingyas do not end when they complete their perilous journeys crossing the ocean to their perceived salvation. It only continues further.

In Malaysia’s experience of dealing with the crisis, as of June 2014, there were approximately 146,020 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the Malaysian branch of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the vast majority of them (135,025) coming from Myanmar. Within that group, about 37,850 identified themselves as Rohingya. Out of this number, 9761 were Rohingya children.

In addition to these registrations, the UNHCR asserts that there is an estimated population of 15,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers who are yet to be registered with the UNHCR, though the local Rohingya refugees and activists believe that the number is much higher. Many of these Rohingyas have lived in Malaysia for close to two or three generations, residing throughout Malaysia, skirting through the country’s security network and deeply concerned about their ability to make ends meet, especially when they are seen as “illegal immigrants”.

While Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as such is not obligated to accept all asylum seekers, it has been accused of violating the principle of non-refoulment, or not returning refugees to the country of their persecution. Some Malaysian officials have also purportedly made statements against signing the Refugee Convention to prevent a greater influx of Rohingyas with one Minister going so far as to say that they are a “threat” to local businesses.

This negative attitude towards the Rohingyas has become more prevalent since 2015. Various segments of society label them as illegal economic immigrants instead of what they really are, which is refugees and asylum seekers. It explains why Malaysian authorities have turned away many boats, not wanting to be inundated with illegal immigrants that they just cannot cope with. For those Rohingyas who have landed on Malaysian shores, they are denied access to public sector employment, health care facilities and other basic amenities. Since they have no legal status, it has become very difficult for Rohingya children to seek education which has been cited as an “egregious violation of the Convention on the Rights of a Child, which protects children against discrimination, regardless of immigration status”

In spite of all this, Rohingyas in Malaysia survive. Many are employed legally and illegally in the informal sector. In the case of the illegals, Malaysian law enforcement more often than not turns a blind eye on the matter. On the whole, Rohingyas in the country are extremely vulnerable and easily exploited.

Their vulnerability was underscored in 2015 by an episode that came to light in the wake of the aforementioned boat crisis of the same year. No less, but perhaps more than 30, mass graves were discovered at identified slave labour camps in the South of Thailand in the Songkla Province and in Wang Kelian, which is the border shared between Malaysia and Thailand. Survivors of the camp tell stories of utterly inhuman conditions that they had been forced to live in, as well as the alleged use of coercion and violence to extort more money from the Rohingya families.

If Rohingyas suffer so much pain and misery, it is largely because their government, the Myanmar government, has continued to marginalise and oppress them. This intolerably cruel treatment of the Rohingyas is, in the words of the well-known human rights campaigner from Myanmar, Maung Zaini, “ a slow-burning genocide.”13. More and more governments and people are beginning to see what is happening to the Rohingyas in those terms.

Any attempt to see it in any other way — like what Kofi Annan and Aung San Suu Kyi have been trying to do — is disingenuous. It makes a mockery of Rohingya suffering. It is a travesty of the truth.

Citing from researchers at the Queen Mary University of London’s International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), the Myanmar state has “been central in stigmatising the Rohingya, allowing hate-speech, Islamophobia, the publication of inflammatory newspaper reports and nationalism to flourish”. Their research has also revealed that many of the violent acts were “planned and organized by local authorities supported by local civil society organizations and politicians and Buddhist leaders” which have “contributed to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. Efforts to segregate the Rohingya communities from the Rakhine communities have also been documented by numerous other sources, with the Rohingyas being “forced into squalid camps in an overcrowded detention complex on the outskirts of Sittwe”.

But perhaps the most damning evidence of all is the current state of the Rohingyas themselves which is evident and clear for anyone to observe. Given the continuous harassment and abhorrent conditions they are forced to live in, lacking access to food, medication, and education, one can surmise that the Myanmar government is employing a strategy to systematically weaken the Rohingyas. “Systematic Weakening is the genocidal stage prior to mass annihilation. Physically and mentally weakened and living in broken communities, devoid of social cohesion, the Rohingya have been stripped of agency and human dignity”.

It has also been asserted that the Myanmar government and local Buddhists have been guilty of committing four out of the five acts of genocide spelled out in the United Nation’s Genocide convention of 1948 such as “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”.

What we are witnessing here is the beginning stages of an attempt to wipe out a people and their history and their means to reclaim their dignity are slowly, but surely, being eroded away.

 

THE ON-GOING STRUGGLE

When examining the Rohingya crisis, it is mind-boggling the extent to which the Myanmar government and some critical detractors of the Rohingyas would go, when attempting to justify the atrocities committed towards the Rohingyas, mainly citing the 2012 rape of the Rakhine Buddhist woman and the violent tensions which had persisted after. This has been used by many bigots as a justifiable reason why an entire community of nearly 2 million people deserve to be persecuted and be forced to endure sub-human treatment.

What is equally astonishing is perhaps the response of the International media and foreign governments. Many have labelled the issue as “sectarian” and “communal”, ignoring the role of the Myanmar government in contributing to the many deaths and systematic destruction of the Rohingyas, but such misleading labels imply that the Rohingyas are still able to seek legal recourse within the institutional framework of their country, which they clearly cannot as many are stateless.

As mentioned previously, Aung San Suu Kyi plays a complicit role in this attempt to manipulate the narrative framework on how we should interpret the Rohingya issue. Apart from her assertion not to use “emotive terms”, she has been cited advising the U.S Ambassador to Myanmar against using the term ‘Rohingya’ to describe the Muslim people of Rakhine province in Myanmar because her government does not recognize them as citizens and as her representative goes on to further elaborate “We won’t use the term Rohingyas because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups”, a statement which further compounds the complicity of Suu Kyi and her administration’s role in the persecution of the Rohingya.

And while the International community has long acknowledged the persecution of the Rohingyas, international bodies such as the United Nations have never really taken concrete measures to address the issue.

There are perhaps other reasons why there is so little effort by the wider international community to highlight the Rohingya issue with the attention it deserves. The Rohingya issue has been largely considered an internal issue within the Myanmar State. With ASEAN as a whole not taking an active role in directly confronting the Myanmar government, preferring to stick to its non-interference policy that has come to define much of South East Asian intra-regional relations, the Rohingya issue has not developed much traction and this in turn has persuaded many states outside the ASEAN region not to take an affirmative stance.

Another factor to consider is perhaps a contentious one which may touch on certain sensitivities. The Rohingya issue has largely developed a very Muslim face. With many of the calls for support and show of solidarity coming from the Muslim segments of ASEAN, it has only served to perhaps reinforce the Islamophobic stance of the Myanmar government and in turn has discouraged other religious groups from speaking out on the issue and seeing it as a humanitarian crisis. This in turn may eventually have a long term effect upon inter-faith relations in the region, especially Buddhist-Muslim ties.

This particular narrative also feeds into the larger geopolitical concerns of terrorism, whereby the Rohingya issue may become also fertile ground for terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State ( Daesh) and regional movements to justify violent attacks against non-Muslim groups in the region, as a form of retaliation. “Gen. Zulkifeli Mohd Zin’s visit to Myanmar on the 5th December 2016, which was part of a farewell tour of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states before his retirement, warned that the Rohingya Crisis could create a “situation which will be exploited by Daesh to expand its influence and power in the Southeast Asian region,” in one of his statements.

It is true that terrorism is a paramount security concern but to link terrorism with the Rohingya Crisis muddles the discussion further as it frames the persecuted people as security concerns, instead of the victims that they are. The Myanmar government and critics of the Rohingya case are more than happy to bandwagon on this narrative of terrorism and national security, accusing elements within the Rohingya Community of being in league with groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda, and of committing acts of terrorism. This is a popular fallacy that has hounded the Rohingya community for a long time now and is still popular in the contemporary discourse.

While there may be indications to suggest acts of violence among a small number of Rohingyas, it is very troubling how anyone can possibly hold on to the ridiculous and inhumane notion that because of a few security concerns that stem from a miniscule fraction of the Rohingya community, this justifies the targeting of the 1.3 million Rohingyas and subjecting them all to ethnic cleansing.

In Malaysia, the vocal support of Prime Minister Najib Razak for the Rohingyas was welcomed by many of the persecuted people, but it has also highlighted the Malaysian government’s neglect of the welfare and the well-being of a section of its own indigenous people, the Orang Asli. It is perhaps too early to assert this, but this neglect may have tainted the legitimacy of the Malaysian’s government protest to Myanmar about the Rohingyas.

The final factor is perhaps money. Many countries in ASEAN, such as Malaysia, have placed quite a number of investments in Myanmar. So have countries outside ASEAN. China for example has invested heavily in Myanmar. So have the European Union and the United States of America. Because of their massive economic interests all these countries are not prepared to antagonise the Myanmar government. After all Myanmar is a new huge pot of gold for investors the world over.

 

THE NEED FOR CONCRETE ACTION

There is no point in mincing words anymore. The Rohingyas are in a very sorry state and their very existence is being pushed to the brink of extinction by the purposeful action of the Myanmar government.

ASEAN has long held to its policy of non-interference as a principled approach to intra-regional relations, but that same principle is being employed to dissuade ASEAN states from effectively addressing the Rohingya issue. If ASEAN continues to hold on to this principle, one cannot help but assert that ASEAN itself is complicit in the crimes against the Rohingya people.

This is why Malaysia and the ASEAN governments must take a more principled position and should continue increasing pressure upon the Myanmar government to cease the massacre of the Rohingyas and restore their fundamental rights as human beings.

The rights of the Rohingya to self-identity should be respected and citizenship should be rightfully accorded to them.

Through collective affirmative action the international community can perhaps be drawn to effectively engage with the Myanmar government.

It should also be made clear that the Rohingya issue is an issue of humanitarian justice, and therefore all religious groups which share a principled commitment to justice and human dignity, should be encouraged to speak out against atrocities such as this.

Solidarity with the Rohingyas is one thing, but without any concrete action plans to deal with this genocide, the Rohingyas may never escape their persecution and may be condemned to exist in limbo outside conventional state-frameworks.

The genocide would then be complete, if we allow this slow systematic destruction of the Rohingyas to continue.

It has been decades. It is time to stop this injustice.

9th December 2016

About the Author:

Hassanal Noor Rashid is the Program Coordinator for the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a non-governmental organization which seeks to develop global awareness of the injustices within the existing system with the aim of evolving an alternative international order which will enhance human dignity and social justice. He holds a Masters of International Relations from Monash University, Australia, and has written on various issues pertaining to contemporary international relations and global injustices. In regards to the plight of the Rohingyas, Hassanal had written an article entitled “Stop Persecution; End the Exodus” in response to the 2015 Rohingya Refugee Crisis.

 

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