How has your experience been visiting the Rohingya camps?
I feel very sad to hear the stories of the Rohingya women and men, who have been tortured, raped, murdered, their villages burned down by the Burmese military. These are acts of genocide. They were attacked by the Burmese military [who aimed] to destroy a culture, a people. We were told that there were no such people as the Rohingya people. And yet, we come here and we see here in Bangladesh, in refugee camps, [nearly] one million Rohingya people. We went up to the no man’s land and we looked across at 2,000 or more Rohingya people sitting in the no man’s land.
So, the Rohingya people have a long history here [in the region]. We believe that denying people’s identity and their citizenship, murdering and killing them, silencing them... is indeed genocidal. We want to bring the Burmese government and military to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to make them responsible for what’s happening.
Your fellow Nobel laureate, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has been heavily criticized for her role in the crisis. How far do you think she is responsible?
Our sister laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has a moral obligation to all people of Burma [Myanmar]. We ask her to speak out and stop the violence being propagated by the Burmese military. We feel that if Aung San Suu Kyi does not speak out to support her people – the Rohingya people – then she should resign. Because we can’t allow this situation of war where leaders in the Burmese government are allowing murder by the Burmese military.
In what ways are the women more vulnerable during conflicts like these?
The Rohingya women, as well as the children, are the worst victims of the genocide. We have spoken with several Rohingya women at the camps and the no man’s land. They described how they were tortured, how they were raped. This is not a new thing. I remember coming to the [Myanmar] border 17/18 years ago, with Bishop [Desmond] Tutu, and we travelled up to the refugee camps on the Burmese border. We spoke to the Christian community there – the Karen people – where many women told us how they had been raped by the Burmese military, how their homes had been destroyed, how they were treated as human porters to walk through lands which had land mines. They had nothing. That was way back then. There’s a long history of Burmese military’s abuse of human rights. We must not allow this to continue.
What can be done to help Rohingya women – who have been victims of sexual violence – and the huge number of orphaned children to secure their future?
Whenever you have a situation like this, where over a million refugees from Burma [Myanmar] have come into Bangladesh, we are faced with enormous problems. The Bangladeshi prime minister has reacted to this in a magnificent way by welcoming the refugees, and the people of Bangladesh have also welcomed them. We visited the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner; we were very grateful to hear how they [the refugees] had been housed and sheltered... it’s amazing what the humanitarian groups have done here, and what the government has done. We can be very proud of that. There’s much more to do, but what they have done has been absolutely incredible in six months. We know that there is protection being put in place so the little children are looked after and protected.
But the aid contribution should be beefed up more to meet the increasing demand. Besides, good care and protection must be provided to the orphaned children. There are some problems in the camps, and the children must be kept out of such hazards.
Are the Rohingya women and children who faced violence in Rakhine also in danger in Bangladesh?
The women, who are victims of gender-based violence, and the children, who witnessed genocide and experienced the terrible torture of Burmese military in Burma [Myanmar], are still traumatized. They are in better and secure place now, but it’s hard for a woman to forget the experience of being raped or gang-raped. It’s hard for a child, too, to cope with experiences like this. So they need special care and protection.
After the Oxfam controversy, there has been much debate about aid workers exploiting vulnerable women and children during crises. Do you think there are such dangers here?
We are more conscious around the world of rape. What’s coming out of what happened to the Rohingya people is that there has been massive torture and the Rohingya women have been raped by Burmese soldiers. That’s an attempt to destroy the man as well as the culture. Rape is a big problem, and we are beginning to understand it and deal with it. And our organizations are learning how to protect the children and put in place good systems to take care of them.
Has the international community done enough to address the crisis? What more should it do?
There’s much the international communities can do. This problem can be solved through dialogue and diplomacy. These problems that we’re seeing around the world – of injustice, abuse of human rights, abuse of international laws, militaries torturing and killing... this must stop. We have to stop this, stop war. The alternative to this is dialogue and negotiation.
In many countries, we have good diplomats, and the diplomats should be doing everything they can, to talk and solve these problems for Burma [Myanmar], for Bangladesh. We have the prime minister here [Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina], who has done a lot for the refugees... [has to be] speaking to the Burmese government and sorting out how the refugees can be helped before the monsoon comes, and how they can have rights to citizenship, civil rights, and human rights, and safety, so that they feel they can go back to what is their country. No one wants to live in a refugee camp for 50-60 years, their children not getting education... that’s no life for anyone. So this has to be solved through the international communities, through the diplomats.
I know India and other countries around can help by first challenging the violence of the military. We will be appealing to countries to help us take the steps to bring Burma [Myanmar] to the ICC, to stop this genocide. And that’s responsibility of countries who have shown moral leadership. We need moral leadership from our political leaders and our spiritual leaders in the world today to solve these problems.
If we want to reap the harvest of peace and justice in the future, we will have to sow the seeds of non-violence, here and now, in the present. The international communities have to move to bring support and justice for the Rohingya people, and stop this genocide.