Who cares for Rohingya community?

Left to fend for themselves, many Rohingyas stranded at sea will die


Rustam Shah Mohmand May 19, 2020
The writer has served as ambassador to Afghanistan and is a former interior secretary

Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world. Mostly residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, the Rohingyas have faced the wrath of the government for years. But the military-dominated current regime has crossed all limits in making life difficult for these Muslims numbering almost 400,000.

Having lived for centuries in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are not recognised as legal citizens of the country. On the flawed assumption that they are illegal citizens, they are denied access to education and basic healthcare systems. They are not fit for any government jobs and have no claim on buying or owning property. In recent years, besides these restrictions, they have been forced to leave the country. Alternatively, they have faced detention and torture. Countless Rohingyas have been put to death by the military since 2017. They have no recourse to the judicial systems either and are marginalised socially, politically and economically.

As a matter of state policy, the Rohingyas villages have been wiped out, their homes destroyed and their properties confiscated.

Such ruthless persecution is genocide under international law. Confronted with multiple threats, the Rohingyas have been seeking shelter in regional countries for some years now. About one million have sought asylum in neighbouring Bangladesh. They have been accommodated in makeshift camps mostly in Cox’s Bazaar. Many others have travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, etc. An unknown number have died at sea in their boats or fish trawlers as they attempted to seek refuge elsewhere.

Now finally Bangladesh has closed its doors on refugees from Myanmar. Its Foreign Minister has declared his country would accept no more Rohingya refugees. This has created alarm because currently about 500 Rohingyas are stranded at sea, desperately looking for any piece of land where they would be allowed to disembark. In early April this year, the Bangladesh coast guard officials rescued a boat carrying 390 Rohingyas in the Bay of Bengal. These Rohingyas had been denied entry by Malaysia. About 100 had reportedly died of starvation while those remaining were in critical condition because of malnutrition.

The remaining Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state continue to face an extreme form of discrimination. Rakhine state is an open prison where detentions, murder, and blowing up of houses is a common practice. Organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch have been constantly reminding the world of the plight of Rohingyas but the global community has only shown an attitude of indifference to the human rights violations by Myanmar’s military and very little has been done to stop the genocidal policies of the regime. Emboldened by the lack of concern shown by the international community, the regime seems determined to pursue its goal of expelling all remaining Rohingyas from the country.

One ugly dimension of this sordid story is that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the State Councillor, has remained quiet over this abominable policy of inflicting pain and misery on a helpless ethnic minority.

The world at large and organsations such as the UN have not been able to pressure the regime in Myanmar to soften its attitude and accept the reality of Rohingya as its lawful citizens who have lived in the country for centuries. The regional countries who bear the brunt of the fleeing Rohingyas should have initiated concerted political measures to highlight the atrocities that the regime commits on its helpless citizens. In the absence of any real accountability, the genocide is unlikely to stop.

But until the time the world takes any serious notice of a brazen policy of persecution of innocent citizens — and that is highly unlikely — the regional countries must consider adopting a tough response to the policy of apartheid pursued by the regime in Myanmar. This could take the shape of suspending trade, banning visits, knocking at the doors of the UN and other world bodies exposing the regime’s policies targeting its own population. The world must demand an end to the atrocities against the Rohingyas along with their rehabilitation and reconstruction of their villages, infrastructure and businesses. The regime must be made to lift the restrictions on the minority’s movement as well as allow them to enjoy the same rights as admissible to other citizens. The government must be prevailed upon to allow those who have been forced to leave the country to return to their homes and villages. Alternatively, the government must be made to face tough UN sanctions. That perhaps would be the last resort. Bangladesh should take the lead in organising such an effort at the international level, and in the meantime it should also allow those stranded at sea and facing death, to enter its territory. After granting asylum to one million Rohingyas, it could also allow another three or four hundred starving and displaced people into its territory. Dhaka could solicit financial assistance of other regional countries in meeting the cost of the upkeep of Rohingyas on its territory.

In a rare criticism by a UN official of the conduct of Aung San Suu Kyi, the outgoing special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee lee asserted that she was not an icon of human rights nor of democracy. Lee also observed that the regime of which Suu Kyi was part of must be investigated for war crimes. Human Rights Watch has also emphasised that Suu Kyi and the regime have been overseeing the harassment, detentions and destruction of Rohingya villages since they launched a campaign of persecution in 2017.

Left to fend for themselves, many Rohingyas stranded at sea will die. Those facing persecution in Myanmar will continue to live in sub-human conditions while the ones who have left the country would continue to live a life of misery and suffering. The conscience of the world needs to be jolted. If Muslim countries as well as other humanitarian organisations fail to come to the rescue of the beleaguered Rohingyas then the impoverished ethnic minority will never forget nor forgive the inaction shown by the 1.6 billion Muslims and the many global organisations that espouse the cause of the oppressed.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2020.

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