Since August 31, Bangladesh coast guards have found the bodies of 45 people, mostly women and children, who have drowned fleeing Myanmar, amid a rising exodus from their Rakhine State. They were trying to escape a recent surge of violence in “rickety inland fishing boats.”
More than 400 Rohingya Muslims and Hindus have reportedly been killed inside the Rakhine State.
The latest crisis erupted after some Rohingya rebels attacked 30 police stations on August 26. These attacks, condemned by the US, France, UK, and India, triggered a military crackdown that has led to widespread killings, rape, and torture of Rohingya.
In recent days, nearly 125,000 Rohingya have fled the violence to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Thousands more are thought to be trapped in an unoccupied zone between the countries.
This time for the first time, the refugees include persecuted members from the Hindu and Christian communities as well. The situation has been further compounded by Myanmar laying landmines across a section of its border with Bangladesh for the past few days to prevent the return of Rohingya Muslims fleeing into Bangladesh.
The United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) has even suspended aid work in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, citing safety concerns. The suspension of food assistance operations would affect 250,000 internally displaced and “other most vulnerable populations.”
Myanmar authorities still in denial
Earlier, on August 29, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that satellite data accessed by the rights body had revealed widespread fires burning in at least 10 areas in Rakhine State, where local residents and activists have accused soldiers of shooting indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women, and children, and carrying out arson attacks.
Myanmar authorities, on the other hand, claim that Rohingya “extremist terrorists” have been setting these fires during fights with government troops. HRW reports they could not obtain any comments on this issue from any government spokesperson.
Rakhine, the poorest region in Myanmar, is home to more than a million Rohingya Muslims who have faced decades of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are not considered citizens. There have been waves of deadly violence in recent years. The current upsurge has been the most significant since October 2016.
It is high time that the rest of the world exerted more pressure on Myanmar
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has noted that Myanmar intelligence agencies over the last few days have cleverly moved from using the term “extremist Bengali terrorists” to drawing an Islamic terrorist connotation.
Expatriate members of the Rohingya community living in Britain have however indicated that they have no links to jihadi groups and all that they want is equality before the law, freedom to live in peace, freedom to move about so that they can work, earn a living, and feed their children. They also want to be recognised as citizens who belong in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh.
Annan weighs in
This latest round of violence has come just days after an international commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan submitted a report on August 24 to the Myanmar authorities. The Rakhine Commission was formed by Annan last year to look into ethnic reconciliation and improving the state’s welfare, at the request of Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The report stressed that different religious communities in Rakhine are scared of each other and that the segregation caused by the violence have made things worse. It said further, that “unless current challenges are addressed promptly, further radicalisation within both communities is a real risk.”
It also highlighted the need for “a calibrated approach -- one that combines political, developmental, security, and human rights responses to ensure that violence does not escalate among the marginalised people and inter-communal tensions are kept under control.”
It also urged the government to increase investment in the Rakhine province to help alleviate poverty, and recommended restrictions on freedom of movement be ended. Annan has also recommended reviewing the citizenship law, which currently does not recognise Rohingya Muslims as citizens.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, consistent with the anxiety expressed by Kofi Annan, has condemned the coordinated attacks of August 25 by radical Rohingya Muslims on security forces but has also noted that the Myanmar political leadership had a duty to protect all civilians “without discrimination.”
Pope Francis has also issued an important statement about the persecution of “our Rohingya brothers” and reiterated that they “be given their full rights.”
The rest of the world
In a goodwill gesture, the Thai PM has said that his country was preparing to receive various displaced people and “send them back when they are ready.” The Thai intent to eventually repatriate the refugees to Myanmar has not been the case in Bangladesh, which continues to be saddled with more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have stayed on for decades. Most of them have, however, taken steps to integrate with the host community, thus avoiding tensions.
The international community, particularly members of the European Union, Australia, and the US who are trying to curb illegal migration into their own countries need to understand that Bangladesh has taken in more refugees than we should.
It is high time that the rest of the world, particularly members of the UN Security Council, exert more pressure on Myanmar to discontinue its policy of persecution. Let them, in the coming session of the UN General Assembly, starting from this September, seek a way out through the Kofi Annan report and adopt required measures to contain the crisis and stop ethnic cleansing and genocide.
They need to understand the implications of the views shared by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who conveyed his “deep concern regarding reports of excesses during the security operations conducted by Myanmar’s security forces in Rakhine State,” and urged restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
Leaders from Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Maldives also shared the same concern. Unfortunately, the US, Canada, China, Russia, and India have not officially and firmly stressed the need for Myanmar to uphold human rights and end the humanitarian crisis. That is also true of Western Europe.
Two of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Laureates -- Professor Muhammad Yunus and Malala Yousaf Zai -- have urged her to stop the “tragic and shameful treatment” of Myanmar’s Rohingya population.
Yunus, in particular, in an open letter to the UN Security Council president, has asked the council to intervene and take decisive measures to stop this human tragedy and persuade the Myanmar government to implement Annan’s recommendations.
He also pointed out that the Myanmar government should realise that efforts would be undertaken to make international support and finance conditional to major change in their policy. This was particularly welcome after Aung San Suu Kyi blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the violence in Rakhine State but made no mention of the nearly 125,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled over the border to Bangladesh since August 25.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]