By Eric Vandebroeck
Two years ago, all hell broke loose on the heads of the Rohingya as Myanmar military launched so-called 'clearance operations' which were really a search and destroy mission against any Rohingya person in northern Rakhine state. In 2018 already a United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission found sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior military officials for grave crimes, including genocide, in Rakhine State.
Then on 8 August 2019 in a staggering verdict, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in a new report (A/HRC/42/50) stated that there will be no long-term peace in Myanmar and no return of Rohingya refugees unless there is accountability for the “brutality” of the Asian country’s military forces.
And while the latter report was first announced on 4 July 2019 during a meeting in London it should not come as a surprise the sudden willingness of the government of Myanmar to start bringing 3,000 Rohingya refugees who are facing increased hardships back, so they as is claimed, can live on their ancestral land in Myanmar whereby Min Thein, director of Myanmar’s social welfare ministry, added that security measurements are now in place for returning refugees.
That is until a revealing BBC report was aired on 9 Sep. exposing it in what best can be described as a sham. An experienced BBC correspondent Jonathan Head was able to find evidence that, far from welcoming the Rohingya back, the authorities In Rakhine state have been erasing all trace of their villages. And validates why Rohingyas are scared of returning home as Myanmar by no means has created a conducive environment.
The BBC saw four locations where secure facilities have been built on what satellite images show were once Rohingya settlements all while officials denied building on top of the villages in Rakhine state this in spite of the presentation of evidence that proved otherwise.
As Jonathan Head reports: "The only visible preparations for a large-scale refugee return are dilapidated transit camps like Hla Poe Kaung, and relocation camps like Kyein Chaung. Few refugees are likely to overcome the trauma they suffered two years ago for that kind of a future. It raises questions over the sincerity of Myanmar's public commitment to take them back.
I was able to meet a young displaced Rohingya on my way back to Yangon. We had to be discreet; foreigners are not allowed to meet Rohingyas without permission. He has been trapped with his family in an IDP camp for seven years, after being driven out of his home in Sittwe, one of 130,000 Rohingyas displaced in a previous outbreak of violence in 2012.
He is unable to attend university, or to travel outside the camp without permission. His advice for the refugees in Bangladesh was not to risk coming back, and finding themselves similarly confined to guarded camps." Thus the so-called repatriation plan is nothing but a scheme designed to whitewash the Myanmar military’s crimes and to help it escape accountability."
In a report published on 16 Sept. the UN fact-finding mission said that 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar continue to live under threat of genocide.
Above Kyein Chaung relocation camp in northern Rakhine State, where Rohingya refugees could be resettled. But an existing Rohingya village was demolished for this, one of the dozens erased from the landscape since 2017."
The politics of statelessness
In effect, the battle for independence was also a battle for ethnic supremacy, and that lies at the heart of this current crisis. The Rohingya were never accepted.
“They are not really Burmese. They are Bangladeshis,” said Aung San Suu Kyi to former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, as featured in his new book today.
This is an example of how the present-day Myanmar government misrepresents existing real and invented disputes about the Rohingya.
Rohingya's initially came to be lumped in with Indian Muslims (specifically Chittagonians) in Burmese and Rakhine nationalist rhetoric in the 1930s and 1940s and thus the Muslim population came to be considered the colonizing other. This whereby Buddhist Rakhines in the colonial legislature in Rangoon post-1937 already began to differentiate themselves from their Muslim neighbors, but it was really in the Japanese invasion when the battle lines were drawn and the Muslims (who supported the British) and the Buddhists (who supported the Bamars & Japanese) separated into distinct communities.
Trying to bring the ongoing discussion to a conclusion in August 2017, a commission chaired by Kofi Annan issued a comprehensive set of recommendations, including lifting all restrictions on the Rohingya, and offering them a path to citizenship, that, if implemented, could go a long way toward improving the Rohingya’s safety and legal standing in Myanmar.
Reference is here to Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law that says only people of 135 ethnic groups identified by the state are citizens of the country. These are the groups which settled in Myanmar before 1824 when the British first occupied the country. Despite generations of residence in Myanmar, the Rohingya are not considered to be amongst these official indigenous races and are thus effectively excluded from full citizenship.
Setting aside the absurdity of counting ethnic groups for a moment, the figure of 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar as suggested by experienced Myanmar researcher Bertil Lintner is propaganda, crafty by the Tatmadaw to divide various ethnic groupings into smaller constituent units. Late British censuses counted around 20 groups.
The first official list of all 135 national races was produced just prior to the 2014 national census. The list mentions a dozen different “national races” in Kachin state, nine in Kayah state, 11 in Kayin state, 53 in Chin state, nine separate ethnic Bamar groups, one in Mon state, seven in Rakhine state and 33 in Shan state.
Some like Lintner suspect the military divined the supposed number of national races through numerology. When the SLORC junta declared there were exactly 135 national races, some analysts noted that the three digits – 1, 3 and 5 –summed equal the number 9, the military’s supposedly lucky number symbolizing unity.
Under previous military regimes, major decisions were almost always taken on dates whose digits added up to the number 9. The 1988 military takeover occurred on September 18 of that year. Then pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest on July 18, 1989, while the later annulled 1990 election her party won was held on May 27. At one point, Myanmar even had 45 and 90 kyat banknotes.
Using numerology as a guide to national peace and unity in a nation with as many diverse ethnic groups as Myanmar, and where civil war has been raging since independence in 1948, hardly seems like a sensible way forward. A more realistic, fact-based approach, one which examines why all previous attempts to establish peace and reconciliation have failed, is clearly needed.
Whether the country should be a federal union, as most ethnic minority groups demand, or maintain a highly centralized national structure, as the military believes necessary to prevent disintegration on ethnic lines, the issue will not be settled any time soon if there are as many as 135 seats representing each supposed national race at the peace talks table.
As for the rationale for rendering the Rohingya stateless boils down to a consensus that the Rohingya are uninvited guests who have overstayed their welcome.
Countering the narrative of the leaders of Myanmar recent historical studies have shown that Arakan, rather them being only recent illegal immigrants, was first settled and established by "Bengalis," as inscriptions pre-dating the Mranma expansion into the Arakan littoral make clear. Not to mention that (as suggested by scholar Kyaw Min Htin) the referent "Rakhine" has been shown to have been floating and evolving in terms of its meanings. In other words what is now considered the Rohingya ethnicity emerged in Arakan, to begin with.
Arguing that arbitrarily choosing 1823 as the cut-off date resonates with a political purpose and the chosen date appeals to Burmese ethnonationalism because it negates what occurred under subsequent British colonial rule. Whereby it is an irony that Myanmar claimed territorial sovereignty over Arakan without actually giving citizenship to a section of people.
The opportunity military planners in Myanmar were waiting for
According to the UN investigation giving military planners in Myanmar the opportunity they were waiting for on 25 August 2017 a rag-tag group of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, appeared out of the darkness armed mainly with sticks and machetes and stormed some thirty police posts, killing about a dozen Myanmar security personnel in Rakhine State (also known as Arakan State) in western Myanmar. Apparently (according to the UN investigation), the Myanmar military responded with overwhelming force and brutality, reportedly killing and raping civilians indiscriminately and burning villages. Within a few weeks, under the pretext of “clearance operations” against a population it accuses of having immigrated illegally from Bangladesh and harboring extremists and terrorists, the military forced more than half a million Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they joined another half-million or so who have fled the apartheid-like conditions and periodic pogroms of recent years.
Yet despite the allegations of the military and some Buddhists in the country that this group is linked to IS there are no links between insurgent groups and Islamic jihadist groups, and to in addition label ARSA as “Bengali terrorists” to justify excessive force is distorted and manipulative. ARSA does not have broader goals related to Islamic fundamentalism, and their stated purpose is to aid the Rohingya and secure their rights as citizens of Myanmar. The response of the Tatmadaw has also been disproportionate, killing hundreds through “area clearance operations” and displacing over eighty-eight thousand people. Lastly, the recent Fact-Finding report released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that the Myanmar government has published photos and names of 1,300 supposed ARSA terrorists without due process and that throughout their interviews, no Rohingya mentioned ARSA as a factor in feeing Rakhine state. Overall, ARSA is a low-level insurgency group inflicting minimal casualties on Myanmar forces. Although posing a threat to government forces, the Tatmadaw has responded in kind with premeditated and ruthless retaliation against the civilian Rohingya population. This negates the Myanmar government narrative that the violence in Myanmar is the result of a Rohingya insurgency. The term “ethnic cleansing” is a broad term to denote cases where an ethnic, national, or cultural group is being threatened with erasure by another group. This term has been applied to the Rohingya on numerous occasions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the situation in Rakhine state as ethnic cleansing including that of genocidal intend.
Press freedom besieged
In December 2017 two Reuters reporters were jailed for doing their job. Their “crime” was investigating the military's crimes in Rakhine and finding credible evidence of mass executions of Rohingya by state security forces In January 2019 the appeal of these reporters, sentenced in 2018 to seven years in jail, was rejected, a decision with far-reaching consequences for Myanmar’s reputation and freedom of expression The ruling is thither evidence of the state's determination to bury the truth about the 2017 atrocities in Rakhine. In May 2019 the reporters were pardoned and released from prison, but then conviction stands and there was no apology for the gross miscarriage of justice or for the year and a half of separation from their families. Whereby striking was also that most opposed to freeing two reporters was Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD and "the Lady" seem to have forgotten how freedom of expression was once a core value. Critics assert that she has become increasingly authoritarian, isolated, and intolerant of criticism.
Ronan Lee published a study showing that the state media publication, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, has actively produced anti-Rohingya speech in its editions and influenced violent narratives about the Rohingya Muslims circulating on social media. It shows how official media contributed to a political environment where anti-Rohingya speech was made acceptable and where rights abuses against the group were excused. While regulators often consider the role of social media platforms like Facebook as conduits for the spread of extreme speech, this case study shows that extreme speech by state actors using state media ought to be similarly considered a major concern for scholarship and policy.
The military believes that as long as it can concoct a scenario of plausible deniability, invoke terrorism, play up IS links, and conceal the evidence of crimes against humanity, it can avoid accountability. What makes the Rohingya crisis unique in comparison to the long list of historic ethnic insurgencies is the way in which the Central Burmese called Bamar have organically rallied around the government and military. From anti-government rallies, the last year has for the first time seen mass pro-government rallies. Thus large numbers of Bamar across many classes have been involved in online harassment campaigns of anyone who opposes the brutal treatment of the Rohingya.
Some 65 percent of the population is ethnic Bamar, but there are more than 100 other ethnicities, dozens of which have taken up arms over the years." The large number of non-Bamar parties comprising members of single ethnic groups is a testimony to the fact that the non-Bamar nationalities prefer to go their own way.
Suu Kyi's current Bamar led government’s and military’s premise seems to be that “a rising Bamar tide will lift all ethnic boats”, but in reality, that isn’t the case. In 2017 a guide at the Shwedagon Temple in Yangon vigorously defended Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, a Buddhist nationalist group) and the military campaign against the “Bengali," asserting that the term “Rohingya" is invented to gain international sympathy.
The Rohingya as invented to gain international sympathy narrative
As I pointed out before the above Ma Ba Tha narrative is also applied by some scholars, like when a Harvard university student wrote in the Diplomat “[I]n even a cursory survey of Rohingya history, it is clear that the Rohingya are not an ethnic, but rather a political construction…. At stake are issues of legitimacy. The international community’s use of the term ‘Rohingya’ validates the narrative of essentialising a Muslim identity in Rakhine state”.
They argue that despite a general understanding that a part of the Arakan Muslims had deep roots in the country and that Rakhine history cannot be understood without its social and religious complications with Bengal from the past down to the present, a pervasive Rakhine narrative about Muslims in Arakan has viewed them as ‘guests’ who have betrayed the trust of their hosts by claiming territorial ownership. The claim of a distinctive ethnicity made by Rohingyas is, therefore, considered by them as fake.
Many such analyses give a false sense of complexity that seeks to water down murderous ethnic cleansing and deny any political urgency. Also, as I pointed out in a section titled "The Rakhine/Rohingya ethnicity conundrum" a good example of that is represented by an otherwise respected scholar Jacques P. Leider.
Rakhine histories here are part of a self-consciously political project to appropriate Arakanese cultural heritage as their exclusive national patrimony, motivated by the dramatic collapse of Arakanese power at the hands of Bamar and British invaders and colonizers. Within the Tatmadaw's ideology, which supplanted "The Burmese Way to Socialism," is considered a "national race" is vitally important to be considered equal under the law and in the eyes of the state. The answer isn't to place Rohingya within this, but to end it. The problem is that the Burmese defend their apartheid state under the guise of "national sovereignty," and neither the U.N. or any world power has any interest in compromising that liberal shibboleth for the sake of a couple of million persecuted Muslims.
A recently published article offered some striking imagery of the two-year Rohingya crisis in three timelapse satellite GIFs.
What to expect next?
Myanmar's position on the Rohingyas’ designation is as hardline as ever. Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, said that “action” will be taken against media and officials who had described the refugees as “nationals” in their reports or comments ahead of the failed repatriation.
The Ministry of Construction had apparently used the “nationals” term in a statement quoted by state-owned media, including the TV and radio station MRTV, the Mirror, Myanmar Alin and the Global New Light of Myanmar. The MRTV report was aired on August 12 and several newspapers ran it the next day, followed by corrections on August 14.
The UNHCR thus must be aware that nearly all the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are there to stay, despite recently giving over 500,000 of them fraud-proof, biometric identification cards, supposedly as a first step “to safeguard their way home.”
“Most of these people are stateless and most of these people have not had any form of identification document, so far the vast majority of the Rohingya refugees, this is the first ID, a first proof of identity that they have,” UN spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva in July. What he failed to mention was that by admitting that the refugees previously had had no formal ID cards, they would also be unable to prove any previous residence in Myanmar and therefore (apart from the token 3,000 Rohingya refugees Myanmar suggested they are willing to take) not be eligible for repatriation as far as Myanmar authorities are concerned.
At the same time, resentment against the Rohingyas is growing in areas south of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where most of them are encamped. According to local sources, the influx of refugees, and international refugee workers, has caused a spike in prices of basic commodities. Many locals also fear they will lose their jobs as refugees increasingly sneak out of the camps seeking work for lower-than-local wages. Forest areas near the densely populated camps have been denuded for building materials to construct homes and shelters for the refugees. All this while more Rohingyas made attempts at entering Bangladesh by crossing the River Naff.
Bangladesh’s newfound hardline approach to Rohingya is unhelpful and misguided, as it assumes responsibility for the Rohingya’s residence in Bangladesh lies with the Rohingya themselves instead of Myanmar’s authorities.
However, how much it would cost Bangladesh as host of the camps if none of the refugees are returned to Myanmar was not mentioned in the UNDP/PRI report, and that now appears to be the most likely, and from Dhaka’s perspective, worst case scenario.
Agencies like the World Food Program have launched a relief operation to aid thousands of Rohingya refugees whose possessions have been swept away in the torrential rains that hit Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh this week.
And the UN seems clear what it wants to do, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer who is one of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission three international experts, cited a number of options: having the Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, establishing an ad-hoc tribunal on Myanmar or having countries with universal jurisdiction use it to deal with the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who fled military crackdowns to Bangladesh. In parallel, she said, through the Genocide Convention a demand can be made to the International Court of Justice for compensation and reparations to the Rohingya.
During a 17 Sept. news conference in the Palais des Nations a UN panel stated that Myanmar incurs state responsibility under the prohibition against genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as for other violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And that Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, could face prosecution for crimes against humanity committed by the military.
The finding of “state responsibility” means that Myanmar should be brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for failing to honor its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention, one of few international human rights instruments it has ratified.
“The scandal of international inaction has to end,” said Mission Expert Christopher Sidoti.