It’s Time for the Rohingya to Return

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 25

In late August of 2017, Rajuma stood in a riverbank, alongside dozens of other Rohingya women, when soldiers ripped her baby from her arms, and threw him into a fire. Later, the same Myanmar state soldiers would gang-rape Rajuma and murder her mother, sisters and brother, according to reporting from The New York Times. Rajuma’s story is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been subjected to mass murder, rape and torture, with the United Nations proclaiming the group under threat of genocide. Now, two years later, most of the Rohingya have ended up exactly where their oppressors claimed they were from: Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Myanmar. Many of them lack formal education and come from rural fishing communities. Ethnic tensions have existed for centuries between the Rohingya and the state’s majority-Buddhist population, with much of it stemming from British colonization in the 19th century and catalyzing during World War II. The British showed little respect for Buddhism and the pre-existing political order, which caused Buddhists in the region to naturally resent them. However, most minority groups, including the Rohingya, were pro-British. During World War II, many Buddhists supported the Japanese, who invaded the region in 1942, while the Rohingya remained loyal to the British, who promised them their own state after the war. The British reneged on this promise, of course, leaving some Rohingya to lobby for northern parts of the state that were majority Muslim to join East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after Burma won independence in 1948. This initiative failed, and caused the new Burmese government to see the Rohingya as disloyal.

The idea that the Rohingya are disloyal and “Bengali” outsiders continues to this day. In fact, Myanmar’s government still refuses to call the group “Rohingya,” because their name translates to “of Arakan,” a region within Myanmar, thus legitimizing their claim to the land. Since independence, the Rohingya have regularly been subjected to discrimination, violence, and arbitrary detention. The violence peaked in late August and early September of 2017, after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group that claims to fight for Rohingya rights, attacked police posts and attempted to raid an army base. That is when Myanmar’s army responded with what UN fact-finding missions have called ethnic cleansing, causing around 700,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, a poor and overpopulated country, embraced Rohingya refugees upon arrival, with border officials turning a blind eye towards making the Rohingya apply for refugee status (since many fled without the necessary paperwork). However, after two years of hosting, the country, especially its poor, are starting to feel the effects of adding refugees to an already overcrowded country. Despite what Myanmar may think, Bangladesh does not think of the Rohingya as Bengalis. The government has restricted Rohingya refugees’ freedom of movement and access to the Internet, and in August 2019, attempted to repatriate refugees back to Myanmar. Not surprisingly, almost no Rohingyas wanted to return, since Myanmar still refuses to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing and dubiously claims that the Rohingya set their own homes on fire in order to elicit “international sympathy”. Myanmar estimates 200 refugees returned, and even that may be generous. Experts say Rohingya will return home when they feel that the state has acknowledged its crimes. Thus, accountability and repatriation are intertwined.

Some steps towards accountability have been taken, very recently. On November 11, 2019, Gambia filed a suit against the Myanmar government for crimes against humanity in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Gambia did so on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim-majority or Islamically-influence states, which is funding the lawsuit. However, the court is unlikely to accept the suit. The ICJ was established to settle disputes between two states, disputes that typically refer to economic matters and almost never include crimes against humanity. Those are typically reserved for the International Criminal Court (ICC)--which Myanmar is not a party to, and thus cannot be prosecuted in. If the ICJ accepts the case, their decision would transform international human rights law. Unfortunately, it would also disrupt the entire international legal system--which would prove an enormous problem for the United Nations, who “like their structures,” according to Hardy Vieux, Legal Director for Human Rights First.

While the Gambia suit holds promise, the plight of the Rohingya is still by-and-large a forgotten one. International leaders may condemn the human rights abuses, but almost none are willing to take substantive action. And unlike other diaspora communities, there are few Rohingya who can advocate for their people on a global scale, resulting in international apathy. In fact, at the November 2019 ASEAN conference, which organizes Southeast Asian countries to discuss economic and political issues, the 7-page statement included no mention of the Rohingya. The Rohingya want to return home, as long as they can live safely, and remaining in Bangladesh would pose an enormous burden on the country. The ideal solution is repatriation. Implementation, however, requires a coordinated international effort.

The first step involves additional litigation. Ideally, the UN Security Council would create an international tribunal to prosecute bad actors, since a tribunal entails real enforcement mechanisms and is within the jurisdiction for crime against humanity litigation. Conventional logic would suggest that China is likely to veto such a tribunal, since it has trade relations with Myanmar and prosecution would set a bad precedent for their persecution of minority groups. However, other member states could argue that China would benefit from endorsing a tribunal--if international pressure on China’s persecution of the Uighur increases (as it has been, although not from the U.S.), they could use their support of the Rohingya as a deflection mechanism.

Additionally, the U.S. can take further steps to pressure Myanmar’s government. This can be done directly and indirectly. The US should impose political sanctions on all members of Myanmar’s government and military (which effectively controls the government), including Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, yet has turned a blind eye to the persecution of the Rohingya. It should also pressure allies India, Japan and Thailand to limit trade relations with Myanmar until they take steps to genuinely repatriate the Rohingya and pay reparations. It is unclear if the current administration would be willing to take steps to do so, given its lack of concern for human rights violations. However, it could be possible with the right amount of public pressure. The real problem is that rising powers in the region ignore the human rights abuses, because Myanmar offers a new market and an addition to their sphere of influence, especially with Japan and India. However, pressure from the US may make Myanmar less enticing.

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