By Rana Basharat Ali Khan*
Arabs were the earliest people to travel to the east by sea. They were in contact with Arakan even during the pre-Islamic days. The Arakanese first received the message of Islam from the ship wrecked Arabs in 788 AD. Such ship-wrecks were occurred over and over in the coasts of Arakan and Chittagong.
Early Muslim settlements and the propagation of Islam were documented by Arab, Persian, European and Chinese travelers of 9th century. Burmese Muslims are descendants of Muslim peoples who settled and intermarried with the local Burmese ethnic groups. Muslims arrived in Burma as traders or settlers, military personnel and prisoners of war, refugees and as victims of slavery.
The Arab influence increased to such a large extent in Chittagong during mid-10th century AD that a small Muslim kingdom was established in this region, and the ruler of the kingdom was called Sultan. Possibly the area from the east bank of the Meghna River to the Naf was under this Sultan.’
Islam developed slowly but surely in natural way. Many early Muslims also had held positions of status as royal advisers, royal administrators, port authorities, mayors, and traditional medicine men.
It is settled that Rohingyas are the son of the soil of Arakan/Rakhine. Their presence in Arakan, Myanmar is deeply rooted. Nobody can deny their existence. But the rulers of Burma tried time and again to establish that Rohingyas are Bengali settlers and they are not entitled for Burmese citizen.
Tensions between the Bengali-speaking Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state have existed for decades—some would say centuries—but the most significant inflection point came in 1982 when Burma’s junta passed a law that identified 135 ethnicities entitled to citizenship. The Rohingya were not among them, though they had enjoyed equal rights since Burma became independent from British rule in 1948. Almost overnight, they were stripped of their citizenship.
2017 Rohingya persecution
In the years since then, the Rohingya were persecuted, steadily lost their rights, and were the victims of violence. The 2017 Rohingya persecution in Myanmar occurred in late part of that year when the Myanmar military forces and local Buddhist extremists attacked the Rohingya people and committed atrocities against them in the country’s north-west Rakhine state.
The atrocities included attack on Rohingya people and locations, looting and burning down Rohingya villages, mass killing of Rohingya civilians, gang rapes, and other sexual violence. During the persecution, the military and the local Buddhists killed at least 10,000 Rohingya people, burned down and destroyed 354 Rohingya villages in Rakhine state, looted many Rohingya houses, committed widespread gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence against the Rohingya Muslim women and girls. The military drive also displaced a large number of Rohingya people and made them refugees.
Violence broke out in northern Rakhine state on August 25, 2017, when so called militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that has killed at least 1,000 people and forced more than 500,000 to flee their homes. The UN’s top human rights official said on 11 September that the military’s response was “clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks and warned that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority appears to be a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Refugees have spoken of massacres in villages, where they say soldiers raided and burned their homes.
Satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch has shown evidence of fire damage in urban areas populated by Rohingyas, as well as in isolated villages. The UN estimated on 7 September that 1,000 had been killed. Bangladesh’s foreign minister, AH Mahmood Ali, said unofficial sources put the death toll at about 3,000. More than 310,000 people had fled to Bangladesh by 11 September. Those who have made it to the border have walked for days, hiding in jungles and crossing mountains and rivers. Many are sick and some have bullet wounds.
Aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in overstretched border camps, where water, food rations and medical supplies are running out of stock. Most refugees are now living in established camps, makeshift settlements or sheltering in host communities. Nearly 50,000 are in new spontaneous settlements that have sprung up along the border, where access to services is especially limited. There are also fears for Rohingya people trapped in conflict zones. On September 4, 2017 the UN said its aid agencies had been blocked from supplying life-saving supplies such as food, water and medicine to thousands of civilians in northern Rakhine state.
Rohingya Muslims have been exposed to methodical harassment and serious human right misuses by authorities for years. On August 25, 2017 the struggle had created an unparalleled humanitarian disaster with over half a million families in worried need of shelter, food, and water. These Rohingya Muslims have no freedom of movement, access to food, water, healthcare, and education. Meanwhile, there were Muslim women who were raped by the army and the common men and then they were killed by them.
On April 5, 2018, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte recognized the existence of a genocide against the Rohingya people. He told media that the Philippines is willing to shelter some Rohingya refugees, if Europe will also shelter some as well.
In August 2018, the United Nations recognized Rohingya persecution as genocide and ethnic cleansing, and called for arrest and prosecution of Myanmar’s top generals responsible for crimes against humanity. It also concluded that government of Aung San Suu Kyi is covering up crimes against Rohingya and failed to offer them protection.
The 2017 persecution against the Rohingya Muslims has been termed as ethnic cleansing and genocide. British prime minister Theresa May and United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it “ethnic cleansing” while the French President Emanuel Macron described the situation as “genocide”. The United Nations described the persecution as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. In late September that year, a seven-member panel of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal found the Myanmar military and the Myanmar authority guilty of the crime of genocide against the Rohingya and the Kachin minority groups.
In August 2016, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was invited to head a commission in addressing human rights violations in Rakhine. The Kofi Annan Foundation also published the complete final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State which was accepted by the Myanmar government in August 2017, citing 10% of the world’s stateless people as having originated from Rakhine. On 24 August 2017, the commission issued its final report, which included recommendations to improve development in the region and tackle questions of citizenship for the Rohingya.
UN investigators issued a report in late August accusing Myanmar’s military of acting with “genocidal intent” and calling for the country’s commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted under international law. A US government probe into Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority was not aimed at determining whether genocide or crimes against humanity had been committed, but those responsible could still be held accountable for those crimes. The US State Department report released on Monday said Myanmar’s military waged a “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the Rohingya.
Article 6 of the Rome Statute defines ‘genocide’ as ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’
The Rohingyas are obviously a specific racial and religious group from the point of view of the Myanmar majority. They are being killed, suffering serious bodily and mental harm, being subjected to conditions of life that are aimed at bringing about this groups physical destruction and there are family planning policies imposed by the Myanmar government to limit the number of children the Rohingyas can have. Can we clearly say that the Rohingya people are fleeing genocide?
According to a May 17, 2018 report in the “South China Morning Post” an estimated 48,000 women will give birth in the camps in 2018, many of them victims of rape in the hands of Burmese soldiers. Many of them are not yet adults — some are as young as 12. The report further states that the organization MSF alone treated 311 rape victims between the ages of 9 and 50 between August 2017 and March 2018. Another report published by the New Straits Times quotes a report released by Reuters stating that ‘around 60 babies a day are being born in vast refugee camps in Bangladesh.’ Indiscriminate killing; villages burned to the ground; children assaulted; women gang-raped – these are the findings of United Nations investigators who allege that “the gravest crimes under international law” were committed in Myanmar last August.
Canadian lawmakers have unanimously voted to declare Myanmar’s military actions against the Rohingya people. Genocide is still taking place against Rohingya Muslims remaining in Myanmar and the government is increasingly demonstrating that it has no interest in establishing a fully functioning democracy, according to UN investigators.
Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said thousands of Rohingya were still fleeing to Bangladesh, and the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 who have remained following last year’s brutal military campaign in the Buddhist-majority country “continue to suffer the most severe” restrictions and repression. “It is an ongoing genocide,” he told a news conference.
Such was their severity, the report said, the army must be investigated for genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine state. Multiple United Nations officials, rights investigators, and aid groups working in the refugee camps say there is evidence of brutal levels of violence against the Rohingya and the scorched-earth clearance of their villages in northern Rakhine State.
An UN-mandated fact-finding mission on Myanmar says abuses and rights violations in Rakhine “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”; the rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the days after military operations began in August 2017.
Rights groups say there’s evidence that Myanmar security forces were preparing to attack weeks and months before the August 2017 attacks. The evidence included disarming Rohingya civilians, arming non-Rohingya, and increasing troop levels in the area. The violent 2017 ouster of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh captured the international spotlight, but the humanitarian crisis had been building for decades.
In August 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown that pushed out hundreds of thousands of members of the minority Rohingya community from their homes in northern Rakhine State. Today, nearly one million Rohingya live across the border in southern Bangladesh, in cramped refugee camps where basic needs often overwhelm stretched resources. The 2017 exodus was the culmination of decades of restrictive policy in Myanmar, which has stripped Rohingya of their rights over generations, denied them an identity, and driven them from their homes.
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Rohingya say they are native to the area, but in Myanmar they are largely viewed as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s security forces admitted to the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din village – a massacre exposed by a media investigation. Two Reuter’s journalists were arrested while researching the story. In September 2018, the reporters were convicted of breaking a state secrets law and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Myanmar continues to block international investigators from probing rights violations on its soil. This includes barring entry to the UN-mandated fact-finding mission and the UN’s special reporters for the country, Yanghee Lee.
What is the situation in Bangladesh’s refugee camps? Nearly one million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh following 2017 violence August 2018 UN rights probe says top Myanmar military commanders should be investigated and persecuted for genocide. Aid groups say funding shortages are hampering humanitarian efforts in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps.
As of August 2018, the aid sector’s $ 1-billion appeal was one-third funded. Bangladesh and Myanmar pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in January 2018, but no official returns have begun. The swollen refugee camps of southern Bangladesh now have the population of a large city but little of the basic infrastructure.
Local and international aid groups note shortages nearly everywhere in the camps, affecting the provision of adequate healthcare, schooling, and maternal health and protection services for women and girls. The majority of Rohingya refugees live in camps with population densities of less than 15 square meters per person — far below the minimum international guidelines for refugee camps (30 to 45 square meters per person).
Rohingya refugees have erected fragile shelters in the middle of floodplains and on landslide-prone hillsides. Aid groups say seasonal monsoon floods could submerge one third of the land in the camps, which are also poorly prepared for powerful cyclones that typically peak along coastal Bangladesh in May and October.
What’s happening in Rakhine State?
The UN estimates that 470,000 non-displaced Rohingya still live in Rakhine State. Aid groups say they continue to have extremely limited access to northern Rakhine State – the flashpoint of last year’s military purge. There are “alarming” rates of malnutrition among children in northern Rakhine, according to UN agencies.
Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine are prevented from working, going to school, and accessing healthcare. The UN says remaining Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities continue to live in fear of each other.
Additionally, some 125,000 Rohingya live in barricaded camps in central Rakhine State. The government created these camps following clashes between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in 2012. Rohingya there face severe restrictions and depend on aid groups for basic services.
Rights groups have called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of committing crimes against humanity. The UN body has not done so. Separately, the ICC’s prosecutor has opened a preliminary examination into the alleged deportation of the Rohingya, which is a crime against humanity under international law. Myanmar says the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate, as the country is not a member of the court.
Bangladesh and Myanmar pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in January 2018, but the deadline came and went with no movement. Bangladesh has raised the possibility of transferring 100,000 Rohingya refugees to an uninhabited, flood-prone island – a plan that rights groups say would effectively create an “island detention Centre”.
This is not a crisis that is going to disappear any time soon. We need to confront the fact that the Rohingya may have to remain in Bangladesh for years to come. The international community has a duty to support these victims of the most horrific human rights violations accordingly, and not wait until further disasters visit them before taking action
Until they can return to Myanmar without the risk of serious human rights violations, the refugee response will have to shift from one that has been near-exclusively focused on a humanitarian crisis response to one that meets the refugees’ needs for protection, including safe and sustainable living conditions.
With the camp population segregated from the local host community, there are limited education opportunities for the children, who make up more than half the refugee population. Since being driven out of their villages by the Myanmar military’s crimes against humanity, they have already lost a full school year and are not able to attend formal schools in Bangladesh.
Another concern is the right to work and the opportunity to become self-sustaining. Their ability to find work is limited by restrictions on freedom of movement within Bangladesh, with refugees required to remain within designated areas. It is a moral obligation for the international community to admit the Rohingyas as international citizen and they should be issued UN passport. Rohingya students should have access to get education in USA, UK, and Canada etc.
*President, Human Rights Movement, UK. These are excerpts from the speech by Rana Basharat Ali Khan at the seventh Human Rights Conference, UNO, Geneva, on November 26, 2018