WHO ARE THE ROHINGYA? AND WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
The Rohingya are a community of Muslims living in Rakhine state in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. They make up around 1/3 of the Rakhine state’s population, and they are known as one of the most persecuted minorities on Earth.
Even the term “Rohingya” is up for debate in Myanmar’s largely Buddhist population; while Rohingya leaders and political figures trace their roots and culture back hundreds of years, Myanmar’s Buddhists merely refer to the community as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”. Today, they are most commonly seen as refugees.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, described the Rohingya as “one of, if not the most, discriminated people in the world”. At the start of 2017, there were about one million Rohingya in Myanmar (with the majority residing in Rakhine state), with their very own culture and language. Myanmar, however, is primarily Buddhist. The country has denied the Rohingya citizenship, and has even excluded them from the 2014 census. The government deems them illegal immigrants of Bangladeshi origins, not citizens of Myanmar.
It hasn’t always been like this, however. When Myanmar gained independence from the British in the year 1948, with the passing of the Union Citizenship Act, the Rohingya were not included in the list of ethnicities which could gain citizenship, but those families who had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations were given the possibility to apply for foreign identity cards. This limited their opportunities both at school and at work. Some Rohingya also served in Parliament, but the community turned stateless with a new citizenship law in 1982. According to this legislation, Rohingya could only gain citizenship if their families had lived in Myanmar before 1948 and if they were fluent in one of the national languages. Because of this law, the Rohingya people’s rights to marry or practice their religion, along with other basic civil rights, were severely restricted.
WHY ARE THEY REFUGEES? AND WHY ISN’T THE U.N. DOING SOMETHING?
The reason the Rohingya are now funnelled to Bangladesh is because they were forced to take refuge there, after the crackdowns of the Rakhine State that have been ongoing since the 1970s. Myanmar security forces have raped, tortured, and murdered Rohingya refugees during these crackdowns.In October of 2016, nine members of the border police force were killed, an event for which fighters belonging to an armed Rohingya group were blamed. What ensued was a mass attack on the Rakhine State and a stream of human rights violations, such as arson and extrajudicial killing. The government denied all allegations.
A UN-backed International Independent Fact-Finding Mission discovered that the 600,000 Rohingya that had been left behind in Myanmar “may face a greater threat of genocide than ever”. In January 2020, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to prevent and fight against genocide committed against the Rohingya while it further investigated violations of the Genocide Convention.
Myanmar, however, has not let the UN conduct further inspections within the country’s territory, while Bangladesh tried to repatriate Rohingya refugees unsuccessfully. Until the living conditions in the Rakhine state are conducive to the safe return of the Rohingya, repatriation to Myanmar is dangerous and borderline fatal. While Myanmar has demonstrated itself willing in 2017 to “welcome back” Rohingya refugees, it has not made any effort to provide a safe environment for the community.
WHAT IS BANGLADESH’S ROLE IN ALL THIS?
Around 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to find refuge in Bangladesh in August 2017, and at the time, the country already hosted circa 400,000 largely undocumented Rohingya refugees. As a response, Bangladesh built the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camps located in Cox’s Bazar. This area is now known as the world’s largest refugee settlement. Bangladesh was left to shoulder the Rohingya refugee crisis alone, while South and Southeast Asian countries chose to ignore the situation. Although Malaysia hosts over 100,000 refugees that are registered with the UNHCR, the government has declared that it will not accept any more, and other nations, such as Thailand, send the Rohingya to detention centres upon arrival.
Bangladesh’s efforts did not come without a cost. The Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camps put an enormous strain on Bangladeshi resources, while the local government imposed stringent restrictions on the Rohingya refugees, such as denying formal education and completely cutting off internet access. The camp is severely overcrowded, and communicable diseases, sexual, and domestic violence are rampant. Some refugees have even been killed by security forces native to Bangladesh. What is more, the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp installed by the government actually trapped Rohingya refugees inside while a fire killed over 15 people and displaced other 50,000 on the 22nd of March, 2021. A witness, Khaled, 38, said:
“Everyone was rushing to the main entrance of the camps, which is the only exit route. Other sides are surrounded by fencing. When my son got separated from us, he tried to go back to our shelter searching for us. This is where we found his burned body. We were able to identify him only by his red pants. If there had been no fence, people could have escaped using different routes.”
Climate change is another crucial issue to understand current dynamics. A 91cm rise in sea levels could flood over 20% of the country. Within that percentage is a lot more than 10% of coastal land, which includes Cox’s Bazar. In Bangladesh, 80% of its yearly rainfall occurs between June and October — and by the very end of Monsoon season, at least 25% of the country is under water.
WHAT IS BHASAN CHAR?
These statistics are partly why the country’s relocation of over 20,000 Rohingya refugees since December 2020 is bewildering. With heavy rains closing in, Bhasan Char (a Himalayan silt island located in the Bay of Bengal) can hardly be seen as a permanent solution to the Rohingya Refugee crisis. The name of the island itself should ring some bells of alarm: “floating island”. Indeed, the featureless landmass that did not exist until about two decades ago is crossed by more than a few tidal channels. These sort of silt islands are completely inundated during Monsoon season, and face serious risks of erosion. One child described it as “an island jail in the middle of the sea”.
This issue is not recent. The Bangladeshi government ordered the resettlement of Rohingya refugees to the island in January 2017, and spent $275 million on rendering it a “liveable” space, despite the United Nations refugee Agency’s concerns. Even Human Rights Watch deemed it “a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making”
Nonetheless, in August 2019, the Bangladeshi government decided to expand on the Ashrayan Project (Ashrayan-3) in order to build over 100,000 homes, as well as to construct flood-protection embankments from 2.7 m to 5.8 m tall. During the time the government deemed the island “ready for habitation”, no foreign journalists were allowed to travel to the island — and the few who actually got to the island before the imposing of these restrictions reported the presence of town-like structures in the making, such as tea stalls and roads.
What is more, the government has blocked mobile internet service in Bhasan Char and built a fence around its perimeter. It is only natural that journalists and activists started to question the transparency of the Ashrayan Project and the relocation of Rohingya families to the island, as no real “deadline” actually exists for the relocation of families from camps on the borders of Myanmar to Bhasan Char, and Fortify Rights (a human rights advocacy group) discovered that at least a dozen families did not know that they were on the relocation waiting list and actively opposed moving to the island.
While Bangladesh temporarily halted the relocation of families to allow the U.N. to intervene, the visit was postponed and has yet to be rescheduled. In order for Rohingya leaders or foreign journalists to access the island, the U.N. first has to provide a thorough assessment of the living conditions — here, the question is not if the U.N. will ever reach the island, but whether the island will still exist by the time U.N. officials can evaluate living conditions.
WHAT IS THE ICJ DOING RIGHT NOW? WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THE HEARING?
The hearing was ordered in order to decide whether or not to take measures to protect the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar. The ruling on the allegation of genocide, however, could take years — years in which the situation will get worse and crimes with genocidal intent will intensify unless the case’s ruling time is cut short.
WHO IS AUNG SAN SUU KYI? AND WHAT HAPPENED AT THE ICJ HEARING?
Aung San Suu Kyi is the State Counsellor of Myanmar. She is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner (a title she received in 1991) who, between 1989 and 2010, became an international symbol of non-violent resistance in her 15 years of detention as she struggled to bring democracy to her country. In the year 2015, she led her party, NLD (National League for Democracy) to victory in the country’s very first contested election in over 20 years.
Her image as “international bringer of peace”, however, was shattered by her response (or rather, the lack of it) to the Rohingya refugee crisis. She never acknowledged neither the horrifying conditions of the Rohingya in Myanmar, not the genocide, murder, and rape that occurred within the Rakhine state. At the International Court of Justice’s hearing in the Hague, she outright defended the army’s actions and claimed she was merely attempting at governing a country with a multi-ethnic, complex background. She described the violation of the Rohingya’s basic human rights as “intercommunal violence” against “insurgents or terrorists”, and merely mentioned a possible use of “disproportionate force”. She even chose not to use the term Rohingya, referring to the marginalised community as, according to Myanmar’s government, such ethnic group does not exist. Ms Suu Kyi quickly turned from a symbol of democracy and human rights to a genocide apologist. On the second day of a three-day hearing, she said that:
“Genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.”
Ms Suu Kyi followed this claim by listing all the ways the government was trying to alleviate the Rohingya’s state of poverty. When confronted by foreign accusations, the State Counsellor chastised “impatient International actors” for not having a well-rounded understanding of Myanmar’s intricate history. She continued by saying:
“It would not be helpful for the international legal order if the impression takes hold that only resource-rich countries can conduct adequate domestic investigations and prosecutions.”
Furthermore, Ms Suu Kyi explained that the violence of August of the year 2017 was triggered by the coordinated attacks of a Rohingya Muslim militant organisation, and that the army’s actions amounted to operations aimed at clearing “a locality of insurgents or terrorists”. What is yet another slap to the face is that Ms Suu Kyi did not even hint at the fact that Myanmar had prevented the UN’s investigators from entering northern Rakhine.
Lili Virag Szuhay Murciano