A History of Oppression: The Rohingya – An Unwanted People

The large influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar in the wake of the August 2017 ‘clearance operation’ conducted by the Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state is only the most recent chapter in the long story of oppression faced by the Rohingya minority. Over the past four decades, the Rohingya of Myanmar have been subjected to ongoing and systematic oppression by the Myanmar regime, acts which the international community has only acknowledged as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the wake of this most recent atrocity. Given that the recent exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar has been termed a ‘humanitarian crisis’, how will Bangladesh and the international community be able to respond to the situation? Will Bangladesh be able to broker a bilateral deal with Mynamar that allows the Rohingya refugees to resettle to Myanmar, or is a concerted international effort required to achieve this goal, given the continued refusal by Myanmar to guarantee the safety of its Rohingya population and that outside interests are at play as well?

The Rohingyas have been the victims of a four-decades-long systematic ‘genocide’ at the hands of the Myanmar regime, which has dismantled the protections the Rohingyas enjoyed during the colonial era and right up until the early 1960s. Today, more than a million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions and have been methodically stripped of their citizenship, rendered stateless, and subjected to grave human rights violations such as acts of sexual violence, torture and killings through a combination of state-sanctioned violence and discriminatory national laws that have been implemented under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. When periodic state-sanctioned violence is unleashed, huge numbers of refugees regularly flee to Bangladesh, as happened particularly in 1978 and 1991-92, and once again since 2017. When the numbers of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh suddenly swelled from 200,000 to almost 700,000 in the wake of the August 2017 clampdown by the Myanmar regime, it initially remained largely unnoticed. Only when details of the horrors experienced by the Rohingya refugees came to light, it became impossible for the world to ignore.

But who are the Rohingya? This historical question is deeply controversial as some are of the view that the Rohingyas are not a people of Myanmar but an ethnicity that originally migrated into the region from Chittagong, Bangladesh. The Myanmar regime has gone as far as only accepting the claims to indigenousness of the predominantly Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) as being legitimate, while rejecting the claims of the Rohingyas (both Muslims and non-Muslims). Rohingyas are commonly referred to by the racial slur “kalar” or “so-called Rohingya”, or as “Bengali”, with the innuendo that they are outsiders and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Nevertheless, for a thousand years before the imperial Burmese armies conquered Arakan in 1784, Arakan was politically independent, and Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews, Arabs and many other inhabitants constituted the region’s inhabitants. Rohingya is an Indo-European language – the word ‘Rohingya’ denotes a resident of the state of Arakan. This is contrary to the prevailing nationalist narrative promoted by Buddhist scholars such as Aye Chan, who claims the term ‘Rohingya’ was only introduced after 1950 to promote a Bengali political agenda. The first use of the term ‘Rohingya’ in the English language, however, dates back to 1799 when research published by Francis Buchanan, a doctor with the British East India Company, wrote of a dialect in western Burma of a group of Muslims “who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine] and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. The evidence from historical and scholarly documents thus contradicts the Myanmar regime’s claims concerning the Rohingya being ‘illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’.

The deafening silence of the international community regarding the Rohingya crisis is matched by the blind support of China for Myanmar, a decades-long close ally. China too has remained silent over the issue of the Rohingya because of geostrategic interest and its huge investments in Myanmar. China is now Myanmar’s largest investor and biggest trading partner. Myanmar also plays a key role of course in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative. This includes plans for billions of investments (in US Dollars) in a deep-sea harbour, energy and infrastructure projects, and an export zone along the Rakhine coast of the Indian Ocean. In 2004, a substantial natural gas field was discovered in Myanmar, and in 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation secured the extraction rights. Two parallel pipelines were constructed, a 771km one for gas and the other a 793km one for oil, which became operational from 2013 and 2017 respectively. The pipelines not only carried gas and oil from Myanmar to Yunnan province in China, but also from the Middle East and Africa via the deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu. China has a policy vision that seeks to create a corridor circling Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which is defining its own national interest in terms of a long-range regional development plan.

The other regional power, India, in a bid to weaken the emerging Chinese sphere of influence in the region has also formed close ties with Myanmar. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially visited Myanmar in 2017 to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. As reported by The Times of India (6 September 2017) Modi’s government shared Myanmar’s concern over violence in Rakhine state. However, Modi did not mention the Rohingya crisis and remained silent on the issue. This is despite the possible repercussions for India from the crisis in the form of rising numbers of ‘illegal immigrants’. Instead, Modi’s government threatened to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees from India. This was a missed opportunity by Modi to play an honest broker, given that the prestige India enjoys with Myanmar. Although India considers the Rohingya crisis the ‘internal affair’ of Myanmar, its geopolitical, security and economic interests in Myanmar are substantial. Indian companies hold stakes in the Shwe Gas field off the coast of Rakhine state. There are also plans to build cross-border pipelines and advance other connectivity projects to connect the landlocked northeastern region with the Bay of Bengal through Rakhine state. India’s vision is to expand its economic and strategic interests in its immediate neighbourhood as well as forge comprehensive ties with regional multilateral organisations such as ASEAN. It also wants to create overland routes to Europe and central Asia that bypass Pakistan, a case in point being its involvement in the port development project in Chabahar, Iran.

While China and India are concerned with their own ‘national interests’ and thus remain silent on the Rohingya issue, the international community has been largely doing the same. Despite agreeing to an arms embargo covering military weapons sales to Myanmar, according to the Times of Israel (30 November 2017) Israel continued to sell weapons to Myanmar even at the height of the human rights abuses and military crackdown against the Rohingya by the Myanmar regime. Israeli attorney Eitay Mack exposed these arms sales and Israel’s actions were subsequently criticised by the UN. However, the Israeli government has yet to disclose whether the sales also included surveillance technology and military training. In 2015, Pakistan signed a deal to supply JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircrafts to Myanmar, with the first batch having been delivered in 2018. Although the US and its allies adopted an isolation and sanctions policy towards Myanmar during the period of its military rule, more recently relations have improved as the country has moved towards democracy. A new era of engagement with Myanmar coincides with an evolving US strategy of containing China in the region. For this reason, the US, too, is reluctant to condemn Myanmar or its military, as it fears this could jeopardize its China containment strategy. In March 2017, Russia along with China vetoed a UN Security Council motion to condemn Myanmar. According to Russia, it did not find any “evidence to justify” the accusation of ethnic cleansing. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia also warned that “excessive pressure” on Myanmar’s government “could only aggravate the situation in the country and around it”.

Bangladesh itself is a poor country and one of the world’s most densely populated. It nonetheless welcomed Rohingya refugees by opening its borders. Since August 2017 over 750,000 Rohingyas have crossed into Bangladesh. For Bangladesh, the influx of Rohingya refugees is not a new phenomenon. After the Myanmar army’s ‘Dragon King’ operation in 1978 an estimated 200,000 refugees sought shelter in Bangladesh. In 1992, a further 250,000 refugess arrived at Bangladeshi shores, following human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar army, which included the confiscation of land, forced labour, sexual violence and torture. During the same year, the government of Bangladesh stopped registering Rohingya refugees. There are currently up to a million documented and undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh and around half a million of them are living without any legal rights or provisions. They exist like ghosts in the shadows because the government of Bangladesh does not recognise their presence.

Nonetheless, the government of Bangladesh has at least somewhat helped the Rohingya in this time of crisis, despite their own severe resource constraints. Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a bilateral deal in November 2017 for repatriating Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, but no conducive atmosphere for the refugees to return existed. This approach by Bangladesh to resolve the crisis through ‘persuasion and mutual understanding’ did not resonate with the Myanmar regime, which are unlikely to accept large numbers of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh back as a result of any bilateral negotiations. For the crisis to be resolved, it looks increasingly like the only way forward would be through the UN Security Council, which would have to do the following: 1) Pass a resolution which states that all Rohingya refugees can return to Myanmar from Bangladesh (and other countries they were forced to flee to) and retain their citizenship within a fixed period; 2) Deploy UN peacekeeping forces in Rakhine until all refugees have returned safely; 3.) Impose economic sanctions on Myanmar that are only lifted once the crisis has been resolved. Unless there is a resolution to this intractable crisis, Bangladesh will continue to have to host over a million Rohingya refugees and be left alone with the enormous humanitarian, financial and resource burdens their presence imposes on Bangladesh.

In November 2019, The Gambia, on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, filed a lawsuit against Myanmar with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Myanmar of breaching the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. Both The Gambia and Myanmar are signatories to the ICJ and the UN Genocide convention and Myanmar knows that any ICJ ruling will be binding on it. “All that The Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings,” The Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said in opening comments. Some experts questioned why Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi took it upon herself to defend crimes committed by the very military, under whose atrocities she also suffered for 15 years during her incarceration. Suu Kyi stated that she would defend the “national interest” in the first public hearings in December 2019. This is a rare move by a sitting head of state to appear before the ICJ to defend allegations against its government. However, there may be other reasons at play why she personally led Myanmar’s delegation at The Hague. First, parliamentary elections will take place in Myanmar in late 2020 and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is taking advantage of the public support in Myanmar. Second, Suu Kyi wishes to amend the 2008 constitution, drafted by the Generals, in order to reduce the powers of the military. Although the Generals welcomed her decision to defend the “national interests”, her popularity could eventually side line the Generals and reduce their remaining political influence and power in the country.

To date, Suu Kyi has staunchly refused to halt or even criticise the violence committed against the Rohingya, which has puzzled many. She chose silence over taking a moral position as atrocities of the worst kind continued to be committed in her own country. The former poster child for peace and democracy, dubbed by Time magazine as one of the “Children of Gandhi”, has also made it a point to refer to the Rohingya as either “Bengali” or “Muslims of Rakhine”, instead of using the term Rohingya. Another tactic she has used is to refuse to meet with journalists who ask questions about her government’s treatment of Rohingyas. In a meeting in Singapore, she even went as far as to say that much of the news circulation about the crisis were “external fabrications”, an indication of her government’s discomfort with the reality on the ground. Furthermore, she continues to stick to her version of events that the actions against Rohingyas are justified, because some among them were involved in terrorist activities against the Myanmar security forces. Whether or not Suu Kyi calls the shots in Myanmar or whether she remains powerless against the entrenched might of the Generals and of such radical right-wing Buddhist monks as Ashin Wirathu, who proudly refers to himself the “Buddhist Bin Laden”, one thing is clear: For Suu Kyi to prevail at the ICJ, she will need to argue that no crime has been committed by her military. At the ICJ hearing, Suu Kyi refused to use the word “Rohingya” even once, despite delivering a 3,379-word speech defending her country’s military actions.

On 23 January 2020, a panel of 17 judges at the ICJ nonetheless came to the momentous and long-overdue decision in favour of the Rohingya, an important step in the direction of bringing about justice for what the UN calls “the most persecuted minority in the world”. The unanimity of the decision, despite the presence on the panel of a judge that was nominated by the Myanmar government, now recognises that the Rohingya are “a protected group within the meaning of Article II of the Genocide Convention”. Myanmar is thus to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide against the Rohingya. Myanmar is now obliged to submit a report to the Court Order within four months, and every six months after that. Although the ICJ order is binding and without appeal, there is no way for the Court to actually enforce this order. It is very likely that Myanmar will not comply and in such a scenario, The Gambia can approach the UN Security Council and appeal to it to force Myanmar to comply with the ICJ order. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, Abdul Momen, called the ICJ order “a victory for humanity”, although it is his government’s policy to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. The judgment has blemished Suu Kyi’s international reputation, yet despite this, she and the Myanmar regime remain defiant. A day before the ICJ ruling, Suu Kyi wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times where she embarrassingly attempted to cover up the military’s conduct stating that international condemnation would only further destabilise Rakhine state. She also claimed that Bangladesh was providing “inaccurate and exaggerated information”.

While many countries around the globe are busy exploring potential economic relations with Myanmar, largely because of its untapped resources and geopolitical significance, the two most influential countries in the region – India and China – have been particularly reluctant to condemn Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis. China supplies 70 percent of Myanmar’s military equipment, and its presence is visible everywhere in the country. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit of 2020 was to Myanmar, where 33 memoranda of understandings were signed, sending a strong signal to Bangladesh and the wider international community of China’s strong strategic ties to Myanmar. According to Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration data, China was the second biggest foreign investor in Myanmar in 2019, accounting for 25.21 percent of foreign direct investment. China holds considerable influence with Myanmar but refuses to use it for resolving the ongoing humanitarian crisis afflicting the Rohingya. India is competing with China over its burgeoning ties to the Myanmar regime and its presence in Rakhine, hoping to access the rest of the ASEAN market through Myanmar. While the verdict of the ICJ is a welcome move, whether there is the political will, particularly in the UN Security Council, to hold Myanmar accountable, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Bangladesh will have to continue hosting Rohingya refugees as the negotiated and intended repatriation process seems impossible for now.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.

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