by CR Abrar
IT IS worth noting that, after years of dithering, last September the government of Bangladesh framed a strategy paper for dealing with the Rohingyas who have taken shelter in Bangladesh. Any rationale being would agree that any strategy should be devised taking into consideration the existing reality. Although the document appears to be confidential and thus hard to access, it may not be out of place to remind ourselves of the ground realities that currently exist in Burma, particularly for the Muslim community.
A recent report of the International Crisis Group titled ‘the Dark side of transition: violence against the Muslims in Myanmar’, published on October 1, 2013, is of significance. This reputed think-tank noted that the ‘depth of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and the inadequate response of the security forces, mean that further clashes are likely.’ This independent report contextualises its findings in the ‘Burman-Buddhist nationalism and the growing influence of the monk-led “969” movement that preaches intolerance and urges a boycott of Muslim businesses.’
The clashes of June and October of 2012 unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim riots that is no longer restricted to the Arakan region. In 2013 minor incidents involving members of the Muslim community led to outbreak of riots in other parts of the country. For example, in mid-march this year in the central Burmese town of Meiktila a dispute between a Buddhist buyer and a Muslim shop owner escalated into a two-day riot resulting in widespread destruction of Muslim neighbourhoods, leaving at least 44 people dead, including twenty students and several teachers butchered at an Islamic school. The members of law enforcement agencies have been alleged to have abetted the violence. Such performance of the Burmese security forces was no isolated event. In a separate report released in April 2013, the Human Rights Watch observed that the security forces not only collaborated with the Buddhist monks but also took part in killings of Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in the Arakan state last summer and that such massacre was well planned.
About three weeks ago, under pressure from the international community, Burma’s president Thein Sein announced ‘zero tolerance’ of such sectarian violence. There is very little evidence of improvement in the situation on the ground. In fact, during the president’s visit to the strife-torn western Arakan state the Buddhist rioters killed a 94-year Muslim woman and 70 homes were torched.
The discriminatory practices against the Muslims continue to remain in force. Wire agencies have reported that Muslims are denied their basic religious freedom. For example, in mid-October (last week) the heads of Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships banned Eid congregation, and threatened the Muslims with dire consequences if attempts were made to do so. In Buthidaung Section 144 was declared only on the Muslims that banned gathering of more than five persons at a given time and place. In addition, mosque and madrassah authorities were advised to keep the gates shut.
The Burmese political parties, monk associations and other community organisations have been engaged in a systematic campaign to deny the existence of the Rohingyas as an ethnic group, thereby repudiating their claims to citizenship rights in Burma, which was wrongly taken away under an illegal decree in 1982. There is a sustained campaign to demonise the Rohingyas and demands for their expulsion are gaining momentum. The ICG has astutely observed that ‘considerable pent-up frustration and anger under years of authoritarianism are now being directed towards Muslims by a populist political force that cloaks itself as religious respectability and moral authority.’
It is disconcerting to note that the pro-democracy political forces in Burma have remained ambivalent and quiet as the persecution of Muslims continues across the country. The failure of the icon of liberty, Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to take a bold stand against the systematic violations of rights and injustice perpetrated on the Muslims in her country has put into question her hard-earned moral authority.
The oblivious attitude of the Burmese authorities has irked its ASEAN partners. This has been particularly so as the country is due to take over the steward’s role of ASEAN in 2014. On October 17, the president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights observed that ‘the underlying tensions that stem from discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities pose a threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition and stability.’ The APHR expressed its anxiousness that the proposed European Union resolution that is due to be presented to the UN General Assembly on human rights situation in Burma take due cognisance of the plight of the Rohinygas. In support of its position, this august body referred to credible reports of continued harassment, arrest and torture of Rohingya population by state security forces, displacement of 140,000 people, and moving them to makeshift camps with limited access to food, health care, education and other basic rights and services. It also expressed concern of the Burmese government’s moves of segregating the communities and the bias of the judicial processes that disproportionately impose harsh sentences on Muslims. The APHR vice-president has underscored that it is of importance that the UNGA resolution on Burma ‘does not gloss over great failures of this transition.’
The conditions in Burma have created a situation for the Muslims to flee the country. Some are undertaking perilous journeys on rickety boats to other countries of the region including Bangladesh. Needless to mention, such journeys under duress take disproportionate toll on women, children and the elderly. Often, the women and children fall victim to trafficking and men to bonded labour. In almost all cases the Rohingyas are faced with compassion fatigue, expulsion and forcible repatriation. In their treatment of the Rohingyas, most states are in breach of basic tenets of international humanitarian and human rights law including that of the principle of non-refoulement.
The concerns expressed by independent and credible bodies including that of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights in the past few weeks should make any average observer of Burmese affairs conclude that the Muslims fleeing the country do not deserve to be termed as economic migrants. They are to be treated as refugees in need of protection. They are subjects of persecution not only of the militant religious xenophobic non-state actors but also of a state that is essentially pursuing the much disparaged apartheid policy.
It is in this context one may consider the approach and the contents of the strategy paper. Claims have been made that instead of depending on investigative institutions (i.e. intelligence agencies) as was done in the past this document was prepared following an inclusionary approach. However, there are reasons to argue that concerned stakeholders have been left in complete darkness as and when the strategy paper was prepared.
The approval of the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs is reported to have come after a two-day trip to Cox’s Bazar by some members of the committee in August. It is not known if the mission had met any person other than those in the Ukhia Kutupalong refugee camp, Gundum border check point of the Border Guard Bangladesh and Teknaf land port. One wonders if the honourable members of the standing committee found it appropriate to meet representatives of the thousands of undocumented Rohingyas who live in makeshift camp or outside, without any protection and services from any quarters.
One would ask if those who framed the strategy paper felt it necessary to engage with specialised reputed international NGOs such as the Medicins Sans Frontieres, Action against Hunger and Muslim Aid. It will also be interesting to note if the UN agencies, bilateral and multilateral development partners who fund bulk of the refugee management expenses were consulted in preparing this important document. The suggestion of engaging external actors in our own policymaking may appear to be perfidious to some quarters. Those nationalists may be reminded of the crucial role that external actors have played not only in framing municipal laws in combating trafficking and overseas employment and migrants’ welfare in the recent past but also in establishing and strengthening the National Human Rights Commission.
In that context, may one then ask if relevant national stakeholders such as the NHRC, the Law Commission, local NGOs, women’s organisations and refugee and rights activists were consulted in framing the strategy paper? No less important is the question whether there was any effort to coordinate with the parliamentary standing committee on the disaster management and relief ministry that has thus far been at the forefront in managing the recognised refugees. These questions beg answers.
In addition, one would expect that the strategy paper espoused international humanitarian principles in providing shelter to the wretched Rohingyas discarding the national security perspective that dominated the government’s Rohingya agenda in the recent past. In that context the obvious expectations would be the government’s firm commitment to the principle of non-refoulement.
Given the empathy that the recent plight of the Rohingyas has generated globally, it is hoped that instead of sealing off the border through beefing up security apparatus, appropriate institutional and legal mechanisms will be put in place so that those fleeing persecution can apply for asylum. It is understood that the strategy paper intends to identify, locate and register the undocumented Rohingyas. One would expect the purpose of such exercise would not be malevolent that would lead to bringing the Rohingyas to the closed camps for forcible repatriation but would pave the way for the undocumented Rohingyas to access due procedure for status determination and also to access food, shelter, basic health services and justice pending durable solution with dignity. It is further expected that the agencies mandated by the world community for the protection of refugees and stateless persons would be duly involved in the implementation of the strategy and so would be the specialised INGOs and national NGOs on health, sanitation, nutrition and education.
The developed world and the UNHCR have their own cases to answer on the Rohingya question. Why the world community was not alerted to ethnic cleansing of a different kind that resulted in the steady stream of tens of thousands of Rohingyas to this country? Why have not the UN agency so far been forthright in demanding access to the undocumented Rohingyas who have remained outside any protection system? Would it not be legitimate to ask both the UNHCR and the countries of the West why third country resettlement has not been pursued in the Rohingya case with the same zest as the case of the Bhutanese Lhotshampa refugees who were based in Jhapa camps of Nepal were pursued? Was the Muslim identity of the Rohingyas the deterring factor in doing so or did the problem lie in successive Bangladesh governments’ non-endorsement of the plan on the ground that third-country resettlement would draw more Rohingyas to this land?
Thus far, there has been a collective failure in providing protection and upholding international humanitarian and human rights principles in dealing with the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Burma. As the situation for Muslims in that country becomes further uncertain it is about time the world community get its act together to deal with the emergency. In devising strategies to deal with the issue one must not lose sight of the ground realities at source. It is hoped that the Bangladesh strategy paper would not do that either.
CR Abrar teaches international relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka. He is the president of Odhikar.