The desperate plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar was raised by the Ambassador of Bangladesh, H.E. Ms. Saida Muna Tasneem during an address at Asia Centre to youth from South Asia and Thailand.
As Bangladesh bore the brunt of the influx of refugees, Ambassador Tasneem made an impassioned plea for the world and Southeast Asia to both care about and act resolutely to address the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, which the international community has called “Ethnic Cleansing”. The United States has also labeled the situation ‘ethnic cleansing’.
It will be recalled that over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh and some to other parts of the world since the latest exodus started following violence in Rakhine State on 25 August 2017. Mostly women and children have made it to Bangladesh in refugee camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, as well as in makeshift sites. Overall, since October last year some 700,000 have fled to neighbouring countries due to the Myanmar Government’s ‘clearing operations’. Despite a recent agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar, based on a 1992/93 repatriation pact, history suggests that any return will be a very long term process and the thorny issue of their citizenship will remain.
The Rohingya people have faced discrimination and persecution in Myanmar for decades. The Myanmar government maintains that they are ‘Bangladeshis’ who migrated in recent times to Myanmar and withdrew their citizenship rights in 1982. This condition of statelessness has seriously aggravated their livelihoods, as they are thus prevented from enjoying their most basic rights, including religious freedom. Amnesty International noted that the Rohingya lived under state-sponsored, institutionalized discrimination that amounted to apartheid, in a November 2017 Report.
Women in particular have borne the brunt of the atrocities being committed. A United Nations women’s rights panel has requested the Myanmar to report within six months on allegations of sexual violence by its Security forces. This ‘exceptional report’ by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, was issued because the committee felt very compelled to do so due to “reports of sexual violence, rape, torture, mutilation” that women were allegedly being subjected to. Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas, universally condemned by her international peers, is even more striking in this context.
The Ambassador, while stressing her country’s compassionate response to the crisis despite its many existing challenges, also made a plea to the youth assembled at Asia Centre, in late October 2017, to never let this happen again. She emphasized that it was youth activism for human rights in other parts of the world, notably young people in Southern United States in the 1940s and 1950s, whose courage led to the greatest advances in human rights in that country.
This was critical in the context of international and regional political mechanisms that appear to be ineffective in responding to crimes against humanity, despite the nascent ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. His Holiness Pope Francis’s well intentioned visit to Myanmar in late November 2017, was undertaken with great trepidation as he too was advised against the use of the word “Rohingya”, out of fear that there could be backlash against Christian minorities. The Pope made a necessary visit, especially as the Myanmar government denies any faith based conflict on its territory, for peace and harmony among all faiths and for reconciliation.