Three years ago, the ethnic conflict in Myanmar began turning into a genocide against the minority Rohingya population as military-led violence swept the northern Rakhine State, where the community is concentrated. The pogrom that began on August 25, 2017, was later referred to as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
After insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army perpetrated attacks against the security apparatus in the Rakhine State, the retaliation by the Myanmar army was brutal, prompting the Muslim-majority Rohingyas to flee in large numbers. Thousands of Rohingya houses were razed to the ground in the counter-insurgency operations launched by the military, leading to a mass exodus.
United Nations (UN) investigations later confirmed the involvement of the security forces in “widespread theft, extortion, arbitrary arrests and forced labor, in addition to the ill-treatment and sexual violence perpetrated against the Rohingyas.” All these grave crimes, as per the UN, “culminated in the mass executions of the Rohingyas by the Myanmar military and militias.”
The military apparatus, invoking security reasons, also suspended mobile communication in the State’s major townships and the Chin region in June 2019 for an eight-month period, which was the longest internet shutdown in the world.
In the initial stage of the crisis, Myanmar state counseller Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to punish the perpetrators of the violence. However, she has since resisted any attempts towards an investigation into the crimes of genocide committed by the military. The army’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing even asserted before the US ambassador that the Rohingya Muslims are not natives of Myanmar.
Several international bodies, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN, have revealed in detailed investigations that at least 55 Rohingya villages were bulldozed after being emptied out through violent attacks against the local population. It was also reported that the Myanmar military built its own bases in the areas where Rohingyas had previously lived for generations. Those who remain in Rakhine are still harassed and asked for documentary proof to justify their presence. Amnesty reported last year that as many as “600,000 still in Rakhine State are at risk of further crimes and urgently need protection.”
The security personnel culpable for the prolonged violence have also not been held to account within the country. This January, the Myanmar government appointed another so-called panel investigation, which found the allegations of human rights violations by the security forces “baseless”. On April 11, 2018, seven soldiers were reportedly sentenced to a 10-year prison term for their involvement in the Inn Din massacre. However, the military court granted them early release in less than a year, while asking for further investigations into the 2017 crackdown. The Myanmar army also claimed on November 26 last year that soldiers involved in the Gu Dar Pyin crackdown have been “punished”.
However, the reality on the ground is in stark contrast to the statements of the government and the army on ensuring justice to the Rohingyas. The indifference of the government was clear when state head Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague last year and rejected almost all accusations leveled against the government. She claimed that the allegations of the “genocide of Rohingyas, were all incomplete and misleading”.
The ICJ had summoned the Suu Kyi-led government after a prosecution request for an investigation into the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Rohingyas was filed by Gambia in November 2019. In a landmark ruling this year, on January 23, the ICJ remarked that the approximately 600,000 Rohingyas who currently remain in Rakhine face serious risk of genocide. It further asked the government of Myanmar to “prevent acts of genocide, stop destroying evidence, and report back within four months, and then every six months after that.”
25th August : Wading through flood water, children in No Man’s Land proclaim themselves as #Rohingya #genocide survivors, demand justice and an end to #refugee life. #zeropoint pic.twitter.com/p47dBNzAmn
— Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) August 25, 2020
However, as per Ro Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, justice has been denied to the community. “The entire world witnessed the genocide in Myanmar which continues even today. The world leaders have discussed and condemned yet the perpetrators are perpetrating genocide. It is happening due to lack of action. The world is failing us. “Never Again” is just a slogan,” Lwin told Peoples Dispatch.
Since August 25, 2017, close to 750,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar due to fear and persecution at the hands of the military, which continues to be headed by General Aung Hlaing.
In December 2019, 175 Rohingyas, included 69 women and 22 minors, were detained in the Tanintharyi region after reportedly attempting to flee the country by sea. Their mass arrest was condemned by rights organization worldwide, who stressed that charging the already persecuted Rohingyas under immigration laws and punishing them with long prison-terms amounted to a violation of their right to free movement.
“Later on, in May 2020, about 100 Rohingyas were returned by the arrangements of local authorities but they all were jailed for six months with hard labor. No one has access to see their situation in the prison. They were not allowed to hire a lawyer to defend themselves. The laws in Myanmar do not protect the Rohingyas,” Lwin said.
Nasir ud din Prince, general secretary of the Socialist Students Front in Bangladesh, claims “Cox’s Bazar is holding the largest refugee camp. Without minimum living conditions, the pandemic is making things worse for them. Bangladesh has no option but to turn them down, which is not the solution. World leaders, sign bearers of peace, including the UNSC, has failed to facilitate their safe return.”
Repatriation of refugees
Repatriation attempts were made at least twice to bring the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. The first repatriation bid was made in November 2018 and then in August 2019. A Joint Working Group was also set up but failed to conduct its second meeting, which was scheduled in February this year.
Additionally, the refugees’ safety after they are repatriated to Myanmar is not assured. Claims that the repatriation attempts are premature and the Rohingyas are unwilling to go back highlight the ineffective role played by the international community in ensuring that the Myanmar authorities guarantee their rights as citizens of the country.
In fact, Myanmar has even refused to acknowledge the majority of these refugees. While Bangladesh has sent information on 60,0000 Rohingyas present in the country, the Myanmar authorities have verified the records of only 30,000.
“Repatriation will not happen soon or later. Myanmar needs to agree with the demands made by Rohingya survivors. Myanmar is not going to fulfill the demands we have made. So the only option is to take all possible action against the Myanmar government and military,” said Lwin.