The ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people has entered a new phase. As direct violence has subsided, indirect violence persists as Rohingya villages continue to be razed. In their place, Myanmar, also known as Burma, is erecting military bases and hyper secure refugee detention centers that resemble concentration camps.
The international community has been slow to respond, and often responses are rhetorical rather than practical.
The two nations best poised to pressure Myanmar to adopt a more humane approach to the treatment and return of Rohingya refugees, India and China, appear to be more concerned with larger geopolitical power plays than ensuring positive peace for Myanmar and the Rohingya.
Even though coverage of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing has subsided, the Burmese government has remained steadfast in its plan to deny basic human rights to the Rohingya people. It continues to do so with impunity.
The latest wave of violence against the Rohingya people started in late 2016, when Burmese security forces began attacking Rohingya villages in response to a series of attacks against government troops.
The military eventually forced out over 650,000 Rohingya from their homes in the Rakhine State located in the northwest region of Myanmar. Most of them fled to Bangladesh, although some also fled to India.
The Rohingya people have been continually discriminated against in Burmese laws, and have been excluded from being granted full citizenship.
They are functionally a stateless people.
Persecution with Impunity
The international response thus far has been sluggish and muted.
The United National Security Council called for an end to the violence to no avail, and other forceful responses have been nonexistent.
Although U.N. officials have argued that the persecution against the Rohingya people may constitute genocide, there has been little discernible follow-up. All this, for Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin, who spoke to Al Bawaba, amounts to mere talk. “Instead of talking,” the international community “should take practical action,” Lwin stated.
On the ground, resolving the issue of the Rohingya people have been largely left to India and China, the two biggest regional powers.
Both countries have larger ambitions in mind, and have thus far treated the plight of the Rohingya as a secondary concern to other internal or geopolitical plays.
Modi’s Disdain of the Rohingya
India, led by Narendra Modi, has been trying to forcibly remove thousands of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.
According to Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Modi’s brand of Hindu-nationalism and Islamophobia has endangered both the Rohingya people and India’s democratic legitimacy.
Modi thinks the Rohingya will “infiltrate Indian territories in future. That’s the reason they want to take a strong stand from the beginning including deportation of existing Rohingyas. This is to send a message that they are not welcome…”
They are also reportedly seeking closer relations with the Burmese army and other anti-Muslim militias, said Dr. Sahoo.
- Violence Against Rohingya ‘May’ Constitute Genocide: UK Report
- Rohingya Flee Myanmar, Only to be Exploited in Bangladesh: UN
The conditions for Rohingya refugees in India are also abysmal. “The conditions are inhuman, and there is no access to either schools or hospitals,” Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, the counsel for the Rohingya petitioners told the Supreme Court in advocating their position.
Dr. Sahoo argued that “India’s democratic credentials are its best strengths/safety valves vis-a-vis an undemocratic China. Therefore, it is in India’s natural interests that it promote those values in its neighbourhood by making more proactive engagements than it is doing now… It is in this context, one expected India to take far more proactive stand on the protection of Rohingyas and reduction of conflicts in Rakhine.”
China’s Morbid Ambivalence
China has not appeared to defend the rights of the Rohingya either.
Although China presented the world with a three-step proposal to end the persecution of the Rohingya people, critics have pointed out China’s close relationship with the Burmese government preclude it from mediating an end to the persecution of the Rohingya.
Writing for The New York Times, Nicholas Bequelin argued that “China has stood behind Myanmar as it has thwarted a United Nations fact-finding mission to Rakhine to investigate human rights violations there. It has faithfully echoed Myanmar’s crude official narrative justifying attacks on the Rohingya on the grounds of ‘fighting terrorism’ and preserving ‘national security.’”
China voted against UN General Assembly resolution that called for end of violence, granting of full citizenship to the Rohingya, and appointing a special UN envoy to the region.
China’s aim to become a global power has included massive investments in Myanmar, which arguably gives it more leverage than any other country. But it appears these investments, in the billions of dollars, were not given on the condition of ensuring the rights of the Rohingya people.
Chinese investment has then potentially emboldened the Burmese government to continue its ethnic cleansing campaign.
“China has the diplomatic, humanitarian and economic resources to make a real difference in the lives of the Rohingya,” says Bequelin.
“But its current maneuvering — which seeks to intervene only to preserve impunity for horrific crimes — is putting them to dangerous use. This is hardly the sort of behavior worthy of a great power that in the words of Mr. Xi, aspires to make ‘greater contributions to mankind.’”
Repatriation into Concentration Camps
Bangladesh, struggling to support nearly 700,000 refugees, has consistently pushed for the repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar, however much of the world has been hesitant to back the move.
Although a push at the beginning of 2018 to begin repatriation of Rohingya refugees was delayed, officials in Bangladesh have restarted the process and handed over a list of 8,000 Rohingya names to be initially shipped back to Myanmar. In response, thousands of Rohingya refugees have said they refused to be repatriated.
This is because the conditions they may be returned to are just as inhumane as when they fled.
A rigorous process of satellite imaging from several humanitarian watchdog groups and monitoring organizations have revealed a massive project to raze Rohingya villages and replace them with military bases, concentration camps and other private developments.
IRIN News, in collaboration with a U.N satellite imaging group, UNOSAT, found evidence of a government-backed initiative to completely level Rohingya villages and replace them with new, militarized projects.
Further, Amnesty International reports that “satellite imagery also shows how new refugee reception centres – meant to ‘welcome’ Rohingya who return from Bangladesh – are surrounded by security fences and close to areas with a heavy presence of military and border guard personnel. A massive new transit centre to temporarily house returning Rohingya is built on top of a burned Rohingya village in Maungdaw Township, and also shows signs of heightened security.”
Amnesty also reports that “there are serious concerns that the Myanmar authorities are planning to house Rohingya in the centers for a prolonged period and restrict their freedom of movement.” In practical terms, this means the Burmese government is constructing concentration camps for the Rohingya, a practice the government has a history of deploying for the Muslim minority group.
Much of the re-building efforts in Myanmar have reportedly gone to private sector firms, who may be developing on destroyed Rohingya lands, but are not evidently re-building for the Rohingya people’s return.
Given the overwhelming evidence, it appears the persecution of the Rohingya people will continue if they are repatriated.
With the Rohingya people stuck in a country that is trying to send them back to be ethnically cleansed, and the only regional powers unable or unwilling to defend them, the Rohingya people are alone.