A slow recitation of the Holy Quran with an unvarying and quavering voice was coming from a flimsy, makeshift tent at the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh’s southern city, Cox’s Bazar, now a forced residence for more than a million Rohingya refugees since they fled the brutal “clearance operations” launched by Myanmar military in Rakhine state in August last year.
The voice was coming from the 60-year-old Fatima Begum, a Rohingya refugee who has been living in a squalid tent for the last one year. I approached Fatima’s tarpaulin tent standing with difficulty with the help of bamboo sticks, which make this rickety structure highly vulnerable to monsoon rain and landslides.
Fatima continued reciting from the scripture, paying little attention to the stranger. I took advantage of the first pause and asked her about the reason for their fleeing to Bangladesh from Rakhine. She said, “How could I live there? They (the Burmese army) burned down my house.”
A sudden silence gripped Fatima. But seconds later she started to cry like a baby. “They were chasing my husband, and he was running. He was caught and slaughtered like a cow in a slaughterhouse. My two sons met the same fate. All happened before my eyes in broad daylight.”
Silence again and a shocked Fatima started staring at me with a different look and replied louder, “Ar ar e kangur Jaium?” or “How do I go there?”
Nobody has an answer for Fatima but what is before us is the clear picture of a deteriorating humanitarian catastrophe, with more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims having fled to the neighboring Bangladesh within a short span of time.
While thousands of such dreadful stories from most Rohingya Muslims are unfolding in the media across the world, along with the news of shameful denial from Myanmar authorities, Bangladesh and Myanmar have planned to operate a forced repatriation. The attempt has, however, been foiled for the time being due to worldwide pressure and vehement protests by Rohingya refugees on the grounds of security and basic rights.
- Issues to resolve for viable repatriation
Experts all over the world are repeatedly warning that without ensuring a credible trial of all the atrocious acts committed so far, citizenship rights for Rohingya, and guaranteed safety under an international watchdog, any sustainable repatriation cannot be done.
UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour said in a statement on March 6 this year that the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar was still going on while the country’s authorities were ridiculously claiming that they were ready to receive the ones who had fled. Gilmour condemned the dubious role of Myanmar.
At the 38th session of the Human Rights Council on July 4 this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that as of mid-June, there had been 11,432 new arrivals in Bangladesh in 2018. He said: “All the newly arrived refugees who have been interviewed by the OHCHR (The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) described continuing violence, persecution and human rights violations, including killings and the burning of Rohingya homes.”
The United Nations (UN) FactFinding Mission published in August this year also found that the crimes in Rakhine state, and the manner in which they were perpetrated “are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.”
The Guardian, on Aug. 27 this year, ran a story on the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s report, according to which an estimated 25,000 people have been killed and 700,000 have fled over the border to Bangladesh.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report published on Aug. 29, 2017, showed satellite images of widespread fires burning in at least 10 areas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, following the military crackdown, while in a report entitled “We Will Destroy Everything”, the Amnesty International (AI) said in June this year: "The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population was achieved by a relentless and systematic campaign in which the Myanmar security forces unlawfully killed thousands of Rohingya, including young children."
The rights group accused the Myanmar military of sexual violence, torture, forced displacement and burning of markets and farmland to force communities into fleeing. Amnesty also named 13 high-ranking officers including the army’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing as being most culpable, and argued that they should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
But Myanmar is still denying those colossal offences perpetrated by its army (Tatmadaw), denying the citizenship right to Rohingya, giving no assurances to repatriating Rohingya regarding safety in their places of birth, and rejecting the presence of any international watchdog to monitor the issue of safety after repatriation. On the contrary, the farcical inquiry carried out by Myanmar’s military and government found the army innocent of any atrocious acts.
A Nobel Peace Laureate and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, also failed to apply her power or moral responsibility to stop the violence. Rohingya are still branded as outsider “Bengalis” and “illegal residents” by Myanmar authorities.
Rohingya Muslims still living in the Rakhine still have to endure systematic inhuman oppression. While preparing to brief the UN Security Council on the situation in late October this year, Chair of the UN Fact-Finding Mission Marzuki Darusman told reporters that the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Rohingya who remained in the Buddhist-majority country following last year's crackdown “continue to suffer the most severe” restrictions and repression. “It is an ongoing genocide that is taking place.”
How can a peaceful and viable repatriation be possible without resolving these burning issues? Unfortunately, without resolving them, both countries have agreed to start the repatriation without the slightest consultation with the victims, the Rohingya. As the first phase of the plan, around 2,200 Rohingya were supposed to cross the Bangladeshi border on Nov. 15, 2018 with a huge risk of facing the same cycle of perils. Fortunately, the move was cancelled.
- Why the rush in repatriation?
The Myanmar side is trying to speed up the repatriation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, as this South Asian country wants to fix its tarnished image by showing the world that they are cordially willing to receive the returning Rohingya, even though this all seems very indecent on the part of the Suu Kyi administration, as they are still denying Rohingya the right to citizenship.
Why is Bangladesh also behaving so hastily? Firstly, Bangladesh is a poor country affected by socio-political unrest most of the time especially ahead of the upcoming national polls that will be held on Dec. 30, 2018 after 10 years of harsh governance by the Awami League (AL), including the last five years through a one-sided election in 2014 that was boycotted by most of the opposition parties including the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Now, on the eve of the polls, the ruling AL wants to show its efficiency in resolving the country’s most pressing issues, and the opposition, going through a critical period of difficulty keeping its main leader Begum Khaleda Zia behind bars, is trying to dig up the blemishes and weaknesses of the government. The plan for a speedy repatriation and resettlement of Rohingya is in fact the result of this political tussle.
The Rohingya crisis remains an issue of paramount importance for Bangladesh as the huge number of refugees -- over 1,1 million now; living in the shaky makeshift camps located in Cox’s Bazar and Tekhnaf, two vital tourist zones of the country -- are coming at an enormous cost to Bangladesh’s socio-economy and environment.
- Tone of media reports changed
Moreover, the reporting format of the local media has also changed. At the preliminary stages of the Rohingya exodus in August last year, the local media were focusing mainly on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. As a result, tens of thousands of people as well as political and humanitarian organizations and NGOs became involved, on a massive scale, to raise funds for Rohingya. Even the imams (spiritual leaders) at thousands of country’s mosques appealed to the worshipers for donation. Thousands of donation seekers countrywide collected funds in busy streets for the Rohingya refugees.
Now, the local media are highlighting stories such as environmental disasters in the hilly areas of Southern Bangladesh and crimes like drug selling and prostitution by Rohingya refugees, all of which contribute to the already heavy pressure on the government for solving the crisis.
Nowadays Bangladeshi journalists consciously or unconsciously feel comfortable reporting on environmental pollution in the wake of the rising popularity of the issue of environment or climate change. I have met so many journalists in Cox’s Bazar and noticed an excessive passion to focus on environmental disasters allegedly caused by Rohingya, and this aspect of the crisis is now overshadowing the humanitarian one.
- Perils awaiting Rohingya in Rakhine
Myanmar’s snobbish authorities did not allow the UN Fact-Finding Mission to inspect the reports on the atrocities in Rakhine, let alone other bodies such as AI, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the HRW, and Doctors Without Borders (DWB).
So, in the absence of any international watchdog, how can we trust that the same Myanmar authorities would behave gently toward the repatriated Rohingya?
So it is almost sure that, without ensuring safety, a fair trial of genocide and crimes against humanity, Rohingya Muslims will most probably face the same cycle of perils, because as part of the present plan, Myanmar authorities will be resettling them in internment camps run by the army, until the burned down villages in Rakhine become -- what Myanmar authorities call -- “model villages”.
Unfortunately, two big players of the UN Security Council -- China and Russia -- have been supporting Myanmar and imposing obstacles that stand in the way of any meaningful move by the UN and other international bodies to force Myanmar to stand trial as well as resolve this crisis. In particular China remains the biggest supporter of Myanmar’s atrocities.
We also hear from various non-verified sources that the lands and properties left by the fleeing Rohingya in Rakhine have already been distributed among Buddhists and Hindus. Chinese-supported economic projects are aiming at utilizing the abandoned Rohingya lands in the region, a Rohingya activist and journalist, Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, wrote in The Washington Post on Nov. 13.
Moreover, a recently signed multi-billion-dollar port agreement between Myanmar and China at a strategic town along the coast of the Bay of Bengal will also affect a vast portion of the emptied Rohingya lands.
Not to mention also that the Muslim identity of Rohingya is clearly a great disadvantage in a world with an alarmingly rising trend of Islamophobia.
Nonetheless, the world community must ensure justice to Rohingya for by rehabilitating them with dignity and citizenship rights and a credible trial of the offenders. Otherwise, the possibility of militancy developing among the persecuted community in the future cannot be ruled out. A UN peacekeeping mission can also be sent to Rakhine state before repatriation. But frankly speaking, the painful reality is that a peaceful Rohingya repatriation is possibly impossible.
Since Fatima also strongly feels that this is the case, she has no dreams of returning to Rakhine. Her only dream is to meet her murdered husband and sons in the Hereafter. She wants to be resettled in paradise, and not in Rakhine. That is why she wants justice in Allah’s court and the Holy Quran is her sole comfort and company.