The process of ‘cleansing’ Myanmar’s Rakhine state (also known as Arakan) of ‘Bangalis’ (read Rohingyas), has taken in towering proportions during the rule of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize for her struggle to restore democracy. And shockingly, the regional and global powers have chosen to turn a blind eye to the drive to wipe out a minority community of Myanmar. Only Britain has urged the UN Security Council to take up the matter for discussion. On Sunday, 3 September, the British foreign minister called upon Ms Suu Kyi to bring an immediate end to the atrocities.
In the meantime, the US, Russia, China, India, the ASEAN member states, and the Arab countries remain silent. Among the Muslim countries, Turkey has been vocal and has assured the displaced refugees of assistance.
Neighbouring Bangladesh’s stance remains complicated and unclear, though it has been giving shelter to over a hundred thousand Rohingya refugees for the last few decades. Its blurred policy reflects fear, ambiguity and lack of consistency. The government has adopted a policy against accepting any more Rohingyas on the reasoning that we lack the capability to accommodate any more refugees in this densely populated country. Nevertheless, thousands of Rohingyas have gathered at the border areas in search of shelter.
In the past there had been talk of the security forces working jointly with Myanmar to control arms and drug smuggling across the border, but for the first time Bangladesh has proposed a joint operation against the so-called Islamic militants and other extremists. This proposal was made on 28 August, just a day after the government had summoned the Myanmar Charge d’Affaires to lodge a protest against the new wave of refugees that had been created. There can be no acceptable explanation as to what sudden uprising of Islamic militants took place in Myanmar for the Bangladesh government to backtrack and take take a complete U-turn in its policy. Such a stance is more likely to go in favour of Myanmar’s Rohingya annihilation drive.
Given the experience of our independence war, it is only natural for Bangladesh to adopt a stern stance against any form of genocide anywhere in the world. Yet we are simply ignoring the genocide sparked off by a policy of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, much on the lines of the Sri Lankan genocide during the Rajapakse regime.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in October last year during an operation that went on for over a month, 85 thousand Rohingyas were driven out of the country. And this time during the operation that began on 25 August, in just a matter of a week, 58 thousand were forced to abandon their homes, according to the UN as quoted by BBC. Unofficial sources, however, put this number at 100 thousand over a span of 10 days. This itself indicates the cruelty of that country’s security forces.
This state of Myanmar is the home of the Muslim Rohingya community. In January this year BBC reported that Aung Sun Suu Kyi said that the Buddhist population in Arakan were scared that they were shrinking in numbers. According to the latest census, there are around 1.4 million Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan at present. That means they have driven away 10 per cent of the Rohingya population from there over the past one year.
Not only is the media banned from this state, but even relief workers are not being allowed to enter. On Friday, 1 September, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed his concern at the news of excesses being committed by the Myanmar security forces, saying that control is required to avert a humanitarian disaster. He also called upon the authorities to allow aid to reach the distressed persons.
There is no full-fledged and reliable account of what sort of operation the Myanmar security forces are carrying out there. Human Rights Watch has used satellite imagery to analyse the situation. The images showed that the army had burnt down 99 per cent of the 700 or so houses in a village near Rathedong town. Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asian division Phil Robertson told BBC that this destruction took place early morning on 25 August. London’s weekly Observer on Sunday, 3 September, reported that there were significantly less men than before among the refugees, with a larger number of women and children. Quoting Rohingya refugees, the paper said the reason behind this was that the men were being picked out and killed indiscriminately.
The Observer and BBC report that the rebel group of Rohingyas which launched an attack on the Myanmar security forces in October last year and on 25 August this year, was a new organisation called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). These reports state that though there is a long history of ethnic violence and agitation in Myanmar, there hadn’t been any rebellion. However, Bangladesh’s local media reported on activities of a group called the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Organisation. There are allegations in political circles that this organisation has a link with Bangladesh’s Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami. And yet surprisingly, there are strong allegations that the local Awami League member of parliament in Cox’s Bazar is lending full support to the Rohingyas there. In fact, it is alleged, that the local people’s representatives have long been unlawfully including Rohingyas in the voting list and also arranging passports for them.
In October last year there were allegations of a fresh wave of violence by Myanmar security forces, who were reportedly raping, looting, committing arson and genocide, yet Bangladesh failed to adopt any tangible diplomatic move in this regard. On 3 February this year, a delegation of the human rights commission reported on the annihilation of Rohingyas by the Myanmar forces, based on accounts of over 200 Rohingya refugees who had fled into Bangladesh. Even before that, in June 2016 the UN human rights high commissioner had termed Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingyas as possibly being crimes against humanity. The 34th session of the US Human Rights Council was held on 27 February to 24 March this year in Geneva. It was decided there to conduct an inquiry into the serious allegations of human rights violations by the Myanmar security forces. Myanmar did not permit the international inquiry committee to enter the country. Yet though Bangladesh has the scope to make diplomatic efforts on a global scale, to protect the Rohingyas and ensure trial for the genocide and injustices that are taking place, there is no visible action in this regard.
The question is, why is Bangladesh not taking initiative in this regard? One possible explanation is the lack of support from the regional big powers. Both India and China have an eye on Myanmar’s mineral resources and there the Rakhine state is perceived to be rich in these resources. Alongside the economic and commercial interests, both the countries vie to be close to Myanmar for geo-political strategic reasons. Perhaps that is the reason behind Bangladesh hesitation.
Then there are those who feel that because of the long-standing ties between Myanmar and China, Bangladesh feel it may get China’s sympathy if it appeals for assistance. They reason that China is eager to have Bangladesh as an ally in the Indian Ocean, given its global ambitions. However, critics feel that the Bangladesh government is unwilling to encourage international exposure of these human rights violations as its own human rights records are not very clean.
Right to citizenship is at the root of the Rohingya problem. Recognition of their citizenship was also highlighted at 34th session of the UN human rights council, expressing fear of the Rohingyas being rendered stateless. The citizenship issue was also highlighted in the report drawn up by the commission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Bangladesh should shrug off all hesitancy and become active concerning the Rohingya issue at global forums. The security council is scheduled to discuss the Myanmar issue this month. The members of the security council must be asked to take a stand against the inhuman and ethnic cleansing policy of Myanmar and arrange for the relief and repatriation of the hundreds of thousands refugees.
The international investigation report is supposed to be submitted at the 36th session of the UN human rights council to start on 11 September. A firm stand must be taken regarding that report too, so that no one escapes responsibility for the genocide. Bangladesh knows only too well the depth and extent of genocide. There is no alternative but to adopt a moral stance against this.
Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and Consulting Editor of Prothom Alo. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant (Content) Prothom Alo English Online.