ODVV Interview: A new round of violence against...
Violence against the Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar who have mostly resided in the Rakhine state, spans several decades, and has precipitated episodes of involuntary exodus driving hundreds of thousands of them to neighboring countries, notably in 1978, 1991-92 and 2016. The government in Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens, and they are in effect stripped of education, employment and health services.
The United Nations considers the Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted minority, and has described the government’s conduct toward them as “ethnic cleansing.” Scholars have documented a historical pattern of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims dating back to 1948. Estimates by UN experts hold that since the Buddhist extremists and the army initiated the “clearance operations” in August 2017, as many as 10,000 Rohingya have been killed.
Nearly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees are currently sheltering in Bangladesh in the city of Cox’s Bazar, where the world’s largest refugee camps are situated. Bangladesh is itself grappling with chronic poverty, hard-pressed to procure resources for the local inhabitants. As of 2019, poverty rate in the country was 20.5 percent, including at least 12.9 percent of the population who live under extreme poverty. This means providing adequate nutrition, medical supplies, sanitation and drinking water to the sizable community of refugees is an onerous task for the burdened government.
Costas Laoutides is an associate professor of international relations at Deakin University in Australia. He specializes in international conflict analysis and resolution. He has studied the plight of the Rohingya Muslims extensively, and together with Anthony Ware, is the co-author of the 2018 book “Myanmar's 'Rohingya' Conflict” published by Oxford University Press.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Dr. Laoutides to explore the impacts of the February 2021 coup on the living conditions of the Rohingya people, the prospects of the safe repatriation of the refugees hosted in Bangladesh to their home country, international responses to the ordeal of the vulnerable minority and legal action investigating the allegations of genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar army.
Q: Media reports suggest the situation for the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state has become more unfavorable and precarious since the military coup in February 2021. Mass arrests of Rohingya citizens trying to leave Rakhine, strict curbs on their freedom of movement, and stern warnings about the consequences of cooperating with the Arakan Army campaigning for self-determination of the ethnic minorities in the region are some examples. Will the military junta dial down pressure on the repressed Rohingya or do you expect a worsening of their living conditions?
A: The Rohingya Muslims are the most marginalized and oppressed minority in the second poorest state – Rakhine – of the Union of Myanmar which deteriorates socially and economically by the day as a result of the military takeover a year ago. Although the situation deteriorates, I find some solace to the fact that the National Unity Government in exile consisting of democratically-elected members of the parliament has already recognized the Rohingya as part of the people of the Union.
Having said this, there is some way to go in order to reach a collective status, but the NUG’s approach demonstrates a commitment to the human and minority rights of the Rohingya. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this commitment will translate into tangible policy in a future democratic Myanmar post-coup. As for the military, they have a proved record of mass atrocities against the Rohingya, thus a new round of violence is always a possibility, but at the moment the main challenge they face in Rakhine is the Arakan Army, so the focus is on them.
Q: Over a million Rohingya refugees are currently being hosted by Bangladesh. Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, reported in December that most of these people are awaiting an opportunity to return to their home country with dignity where they can be entitled to basic citizenship and human rights. Does Bangladesh retain the resources to continue sheltering this sizable population of refugees? Is the de facto government in Myanmar ready to welcome them back?
A: In Bangladesh, there is a growing frustration for the perpetuation of the refugee camps. They host the largest camp in the world and recently, I saw surveys where refugees in Cox’s Bazar stated their readiness to be settled into a third country. The relocation of Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island, against their will, indicates how precarious the situation is, but also shows that Bangladesh is running out of resources, which in turns allows space for ill advice to the detriment of the Rohingya.
I am not sure whether by de facto, you refer to the junta or the NUG. However, the junta is not willing, and I do not think has the capacity, to implement any repatriation plan. The fact is that they cannot deal with nearly 500,000 internally displaced people in Rakhine presently, let alone the million-plus Rohingya from Cox’s Bazar. There have been some discussions in recent days in Naypyidaw, but I do not expect anything meaningful to come out of this.
Q: Do you foresee any amendment to the 1982 Citizenship Law that has been exploited as the legal grounds to perpetuate discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims, in effect rendering them stateless “foreign residents” the government is not bound to protect?
A: Change will come only if there is restoration of democracy in Myanmar with the implementation of the new constitution, which is at the drafting stage by the NUG. There is work to be done to ensure recognition and representation of the Rohingya in the new constitution, but I think this is the only way if we assume that Myanmar will remain united.
Q: Despite being recognized by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted minority, the Rohingya Muslims appear to be beset by international invisibility and neglect. The UN Security Council has not convened a meeting on the situation since February 2019 and has not issued any formal document to address the crisis since November 2017. The International Court of Justice’s investigations into possible crimes against humanity perpetrated by the army have not come to a conclusion yet. Is the world failing in its responsibility to support a vulnerable ethnic minority facing continuous abuse?
A: There are a number of different issues that overlap on the Rohingya crisis. The international community has been slow in responding. Although there was action at the humanitarian level, difficulties prevailed in getting an orchestrated and prolonged response by the UN Security Council. This has to do with certain geopolitical realities but also with the unwillingness of the Myanmar government, both the elected and now the junta, to deal with the situation.
At the Security Council level, Myanmar neighbors China with the latter being the number one foreign investor in the country. For China, the core international norm of non-interference with domestic affairs of other countries is sacred, and it has demonstrated consistency in its views within the UNSC, not only for Myanmar but for other similar crises. It is worth noting here that China did try to break a deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2019 and pledged nearly USD1 billion for the repatriation of the Rohingya, but this agreement did not proceed. This shows that the Myanmar government even before the junta was not willing to engage in an in-depth dialogue for the repatriation of the refugees.
For major Western powers like the US and the UK – previous colonial ruler and pen-holder in the Security Council regarding Myanmar issues – Myanmar is not a red line in geopolitical terms; it is not Taiwan or South Korea, thus the level of engagement and commitment does not go beyond targeted sanctions and condemnation in international fora.
This leads us to the ability of small countries like The Gambia and the International Court of Justice, which along with the International Criminal Court investigations in Bangladesh, are two examples of the growing promise for engagement with the Rohingya crisis. However, even if these cases go ahead and if the alleged perpetrators are found guilty, this will not resolve the root causes of the conflict. Certainly, such a decision of apportioning responsibility for acts of genocide will strengthen the Rohingya case and must be followed, but it should not be seen as panacea – at the end of the road.
Q: How do you think the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the most inclusive coalition of Muslim-majority nations, has contributed to raising awareness of the plight of Rohingya and addressing the brutality they are facing? In 2020, The Gambia, an OIC member, brought a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice alleging that the government in Naypyidaw had violated the provisions of the Genocide Convention. A new hearing of the court was scheduled for February 21. Are these efforts sufficient and going to yield concrete outcomes?
A: These steps are very important to raise awareness for the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Rohingya exodus of 2017. Concrete outcomes would include, if found guilty after a fair trial and process, the conviction and punishment of the perpetrators of such crimes. However, as I pointed out earlier, such an outcome will be a step toward addressing the question of the Rohingya. OIC is a large and very influential organization which can focus on engaging the powers of peace in Rakhine and promote coexistence between ethnic Rakhine [residents] and Rohingya Muslims.
Already, the Arakan Army has demonstrated a consistent approach of including the Rohingya in their plans for an autonomous, self-determining Rakhine. My view is that presently, there is a golden opportunity to promote and consolidate the structures for coexistence in Rakhine. The Arakan Army at the moment can keep the Tatmadaw out, hold the ultra-nationalists, [namely] anti-Rohingya voices, under control, and bring the Rohingya in any future plan for autonomous rule. Thus, OIC may consider how to engage in order to support long-term peace in Rakhine.
Q: Is it realistic to attribute the indifference of the international community to the Rohingya crisis to the general trend of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination that is gaining ground worldwide and being hardwired in the collective mindset of the Western public?
A: In the 2017 crisis, apart from the Rohingya, there were atrocities and executions against Hindus. Currently in Myanmar, Christians are executed too by the junta. Yet, the response by the international community remains horizontal toward the different religious groups. Islamophobia can be a contributing factor for the inadequate response, but I do not think is the catalyst for this.
Q: Many scholars studying the Rohingya crisis have described the ordeal of the persecuted minority a product of Buddhist ultra-nationalism and violence. This is while Buddhism is known for its espousal of non-violence and peace. But the developments of the recent years point to a spike of intolerance connected with Buddhist ideologies, in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere. Do you see what has been going on in the Rakhine state, the arson attacks, incineration of villages, mass killings, sexual assault and other crimes against the Rohingya Muslims from the perspective of an inter-religious conflict, or are there other explanations?
A: Radical ultra-nationalist Buddhism is here to stay but its impact on the conflict is recent post-2010. The Rohingya conflict is old and there have seen several violent incidents before 2010 when the transition in Myanmar began. The main root here is how ethnicity has been employed as a marker of belonging to the political community of Myanmar. The gradual introduction of national races opened up the discussion of which races are indigenous, meaning that they were present on the land prior to the arrival of the British in 1823, and which are not. There has been a systematic argument that the Rohingya came with the British and therefore are foreigners which do not belong to the political community of Myanmar.
This ethnic exclusion has been augmented by the radical Buddhists who depict the Rohingya as the spearhead of the Islamization of Myanmar. As you point out, similar views exist in other Buddhist countries. Such agents exploit the local conflict dynamics to promote their own agenda of ethnic and religious purity. It is noteworthy that after a period of decline, the military junta has recently adopted a language that defends the importance of religion. Obviously, they are trying to appeal to the religious audience and generate a pool of support.
Q: How do you think the ongoing crisis can be attenuated and it is ensured that the basic rights of the Rohingya people are restored?
A: There is a golden opportunity with the presence of the Arakan Army and its commitment to all people of Rakhine. There are voices in Rakhine by the youth who defend and promote peace and coexistence. For this to flourish, there is need for structures that promote justice, human rights and equality on all levels. In such an environment, the dignity and the human rights of the Rohingya, along with the dignity and human rights of the Rakhine and all other communities in Rakhine state can be restored.
By Kourosh Ziabari