In recent days, Rohingya Muslims in hundreds and thousands have fled to Bangladesh. Their influx into Bangladesh saw a fresh increase as bloodshed in the Rakhine State of Myanmar has escalated.
The latest influx follows a month-long brutal military crackdown on the Rohingyas. The United Nations has said that the violence may be considered ethnic cleansing.
Bangladesh estimates that nearly 400,000 Rohingya refugees are living in refugee camps and makeshift settlements in the district of Cox’s Bazar, which borders the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Their numbers swelled last October when more than 70,000 Rohingya began arriving in Bangladesh in the wake of systematic rape, murder and arson by the Myanmar soldiers. The Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long been criticised for its treatment of the more than one million Rohingyas who live in Rakhine and are denied citizenship and access to basic human rights. The atrocities that are tantamount to ethnic cleansing forced them to flee Myanmar not only to Bangladesh, but also to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government against the Rohingyas in Rakhine have forced Rohingyas to flee their homeland since the late 1970s.
The Rohingyas are Muslims and an ethnic minority group living primarily in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and account for nearly a third of the state’s population. The Rohingyas differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. The Rohingyas trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Bengal and the Rakhine territory were governed as part of British India. Myanmar, in 1989, have refuted the Rohingyas’ historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s ethnic groups. Now, the Myanmar authority terms the Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants, despite the fact that many Rohingyas have resided in Myanmar for centuries. The problem started with the Myanmar government’s refusal to grant the Rohingyas citizenship status, and as a result the vast majority of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. The then military government introduced a citizenship law in 1982 with strict provisions that stripped the Rohingyas access to full citizenship rights. Until recently, the Rohingyas have been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as “white cards,” which Myanmar’s regime began issuing to many Muslims (both Rohingya and non-Rohingya) in the 1990s. The white cards allow some limited rights but were not recognised as proof of citizenship. In 2014, the government held a UN-backed national census. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify them as “Rohingya,” but later the government decided that the Rohingyas could only register if they identify themselves as Bengalis amid Buddhist nationalists’ threat to boycott the census. Again, under similar pressures protesting the Rohingyas’ right to vote in the 2015 constitutional referendum, the temporary identity cards were cancelled in February 2015, denying the white card holders (Rohingyas) the right to vote which they were permitted to do in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 general elections. In addition, the Myanmar government policies regarding marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement have institutionalised systemic discrimination against the Rohingyas.
In the recent past, violence broke out in 2012, when a group of Rohingya men were allegedly accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. Groups of Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people, displacing thousands of them. Human Rights Watch described the anti-Rohingya violence as amounting to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a “campaign of ethnic cleansing.” It has been reported that many Rohingyas have turned to human smugglers, choosing to pay for transport out of Myanmar to escape persecution. Furthermore, in 2016, a series of attacks on security posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border revived ethnic violence in Rakhine state. The local government and authorities blamed Rohingya militants for the attacks, prompting an inflow of military and police forces to support a manhunt for those responsible and to tighten security. Dozens of people were killed in raids and thousands crossed into Bangladesh between October, 2016, and early January, 2017. Presently, deadly fighting between Myanmar’s security forces and a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army began when the latter attacked army and police outposts near the border on Friday, prompting a swift crackdown by Myanmar’s government. The New York Times on 30th August, 2017, reported by quoting the UN International Office of Migration that the number of Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh since border clashes escalated five days ago has reached at least 18,500, most of whom are women, children and elderly people. Here, it needs to be mentioned that Bangladesh already hosts about 400,000 Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar in recent years. In the current ongoing violence, the Hindus with similar ethnicity of Rohingyas are also not being spared. In recent days, many of them also crossed over to Bangladesh to save their lives.
All these years, the international responses to the humanitarian crisis has been somewhat mixed. In the beginning, a country in the region, Malaysia, refused to provide any kind of refuge to the people reaching its shores but agreed to “provide provisions and send them away.” Later, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide temporary refuge to the Rohingya. Thailand, a country bordering Myanmar stated that it would provide humanitarian assistance and would not turn away the boats that wished to enter its waters. The Philippine government also expressed their willingness to provide shelter for up to 3,000 “boat people.“ An African country, Gambia, also expressed their concerns and wished to take in stranded boat people. The United States of America, since 2002, has allowed 13,000 refugees from Myanmar. The Turkish government has urged the United Nations to intervene and try to put an end to the violence perpetrated by the authorities in Myanmar.
The Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has called on the US to put pressure on Myanmar to stop the influx of Rohingyas amid an outbreak of fresh violence in Rakhine. The call came during her recent meeting with visiting US Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs. The other notable recent developments are the migration office’s director general who called for international aid for those seeking refuge in Bangladesh, and also called for the violence in Rakhine to end. His remarks echoed calls earlier this week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who condemned the violence committed by Myanmar and stated that the Myanmar government should “issue clear instructions to security forces to refrain from using disproportionate force.” At the United Nations on Wednesday, the ambassador of Britain called a Security Council meeting about Myanmar because of the violence, saying, “there is a threat to international peace and security, and it is right that the Security Council should take time today to be briefed on that and consider whether there is more that we should be doing.” However, he seemed to be sceptical when asked what could be done, and said, “I doubt that there will be unanimity to do anything, as there are certain countries on the Council that tend to resist anything else, but I think it’s an important moment to take stock.”
The above indicates that the international community has been shying away from this humanitarian crisis for quite some time for reasons that are unknown. Only recently, international concern and protests are there against the atrocities of the Myanmar authorities against the Rohingyas. Even the international agencies like the UNO and its other arms like the UNHCR were not very vocal until the recent escalation of the crisis. Nevertheless, these are feeble responses. The reason could be the emergence of the unipolar world after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Now, everyone looks up to the United States of America for the solutions of all international crises or there seems to be a belief that, as the most powerful nation, it has assumed the responsibility of solving crises around the world. However, at different points in time, the United States has expressed its concern about the Rohingya issue with the Myanmar government by sending high officials to Yangon for finding solutions to the crisis through peaceful means. The United Nations also took several initiatives on the issue by having dialogues with the authorities in Yangon. But the most interesting fact is that other global and regional powers like the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India did not take any substantive move or echo any protests to resolve this humanitarian crisis. Such attitudes and behaviour of the parties that matter in the global scenario reveal that, nowadays, policies are mostly guided by economic interests. Other issues and problems including humanitarian causes and human rights have become secondary to economic interests, or in other words, human consideration has virtually become a non-issue.
On the other hand, the voices of protests of the global civil society, and human rights activists also appear to be weak or silent. The reasons for this apparent silence could be that these institutions and groups now lack vision, strategy, and commitment to lodge protests and movements around the world against injustices that are being committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Inaction or inadequate response to this humanitarian crisis is leading to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. They are quickly turning into a lost nationality living in different countries of the world with a stateless status. The other danger is that they are already opting for violent means to establish their rightful claim and to protect human rights in Myanmar. There is also the possibility that global terrorist organisations will get themselves involved amongst the Rohingyas and thereby spread terrorism, especially in regional countries, which will consequently worsen relationships between those nations. However, the atrocities of extreme proportion that are being committed, and inadequate action or somewhat perceived inaction on the part of those who matter in the world and the regional politics towards saving the Rohingyas from ethnic cleansing remind us of the phrase that the Rohingyas perhaps are the “Children of a lesser god’.
[The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude.]
The writer is Professor and Chairman, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh