What was your general impression after visiting the Rohingya refugee camps?
Amnesty has been working on the Rohingya issue for a very long time and our assessment has been that the Myanmar military has been committing crimes against humanity on the Rohingya population for a long time. What happened in August last year was very large-scale ethnic cleansing. And we have documented in the last year most of the cases – not just using testimonies, but using video evidence and satellite imagery of the brutal atrocities that have been committed.
Despite having read all that and seen it from a distance, and of course having experience of this in so many parts of the world, I think going to the camps was still quite a harrowing experience. I think it’s quite exceptional what has happened to the Rohingya… it’s coming on the back of systematic apartheid – we have called it apartheid over the last decade. So yes it was a very difficult experience to go through for me.
What is Amnesty doing to put more pressure on the Myanmar military and government?
Well, that’s our primary focus. Amnesty’s work globally and inside Myanmar fundamentally is to hold the Myanmar government to account for the mass atrocities they have committed…and we are doing this in multiple ways. We are using all the legal routes possible, including the UN Human Rights Council, Security Council, and International Criminal Court. We are working to create more public pressure in terms of media campaigns.
Do you think the Myanmar government is responding to the pressure?
Well, sadly not. That does mean that we should redouble our efforts. We can’t lose hope because the Rohingya people have no ability to do this on their own.
One thing that comes out from all the studies we have done and talking to the women and the families is that at the end of the day, the home for the Rohingyas is Rakhine…they have no other home. So there is no question that they want to go back. The challenge is under what conditions.
One of the things that we are saying to the prime minister is we are going to put absolute pressure that the conditions should be that the security issue, the livelihood issue, the land issue, the housing issue, and very importantly the identity, pathway to citizenship, freedom of religion, freedom of movement are ensured.
The prime minister and the Bangladesh government should make these prerequisites and we would put international pressure for that, and we are also talking directly with Myanmar government. The prime minister should be quite firm.
Then doesn’t the Bangladesh government risk repatriation never taking place at all and the Rohingyas becoming a long-term responsibility?
On one hand, it’s a risk. On the other hand, I don’t believe that anybody in Bangladesh would like the Rohingya to go back and face similar crimes and atrocities again. So in a sense it’s a risk but I would call it more a prerequisite.
The Myanmar government is not that easy to pressurize because they are used to isolation and ultimately it’s not Suu Kyi who is controlling this, it’s the Myanmar military. So we really have to find a way into the vulnerabilities of the military and that is what we should be looking at.
Do you think the international community has done enough to address the crisis?
No, definitely not. I think there is a lot more that can be done. The US government and we have worked together to create pressure and the US Congress is putting some targeted sanctions against some of the military authorities. But the pressure has not been enough to compel things to change, so obviously it’s not adequate. The pressure should be comprehensive - it should trade-related, finance-related...The Myanmar government should be made to feel the pain of the actions they have committed so far and they are obviously not feeling that enough.
If you look at Myanmar, it looks like there are no serious plans actually to go through with the repatriation process and whatever steps Bangladesh is taking involves hosting the Rohingya in the short term. If this is how it will continue, where do you see things standing in two to three years’ time?
I don’t think things are going to change dramatically in a couple of years…It will be a slow paced process. But within the next couple of years Bangladesh will have to find ways of providing support that go beyond humanitarian assistance. Our study which Brac conducted showed that the public support is strong…The public also understands that this is not a short term problem and that this will be with us for a while. I would be the last person to say that pressure should be off Myanmar because ultimately people want to go back. They have a right to go back so we should keep the pressure on. But in these two to three years we have to ensure the basic livelihood and education of these people. You can’t expect people to live in the camps in the current conditions. It’s not realistic. It’s causing a lot of tensions with the host community. It has caused tension within the Rohingyas themselves. I mean, it’s not dignified either.
What are your thoughts about plans to relocate them to Bhasan Char?
The prime minister mentioned it to us today and I understand they presented it to the UN and the international community for the first time…because until now there wasn’t much information available. So we have to wait and see because there is a technical probe from the UN which is looking at the technical issues around the stability of the island…the strength of the sand bar, etc. But more than that, there is the issue of the logistics of moving so many people in such a short time.
People do not want to move that easily. Will they have access to services there? Will they have some ability to have some freedom of movement because they are stuck on an island? All of these are questions which need to be clarified by the government.
We were a bit skeptical when we first heard of it because it sounded like it’s not really a solution. Everybody fully understands that Bangladesh doesn’t have spare land, that’s the biggest challenge for Bangladesh so, we don’t want to be kind of dismissive out of hand.
It’s good that the government has put together a proposal, but in that proposal, the key question is, does it respect the rights of the Rohingyas?
Amnesty has had a difficult relationship with the government in the past, with the war crime trials and general human rights issues. Where does that stand now?
Today’s discussion was on the Rohingyas. We are working on that issue particularly at the moment so that was what we were focused on. The broader human rights concern for Amnesty is well known. We have been clear about it. None of those have disappeared overnight and there are longer-term questions involved. I think what is important today is that we opened up a line of communication with the prime minister and highest levels.