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Humanitarian space and world’s most persecuted minority

By Furkhan Noordeen

SRI LANKA: Often referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority, the Rohingya are an ethnic group of 1.33 million people in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s Western Coastal State of Rakhine, and have since 1982 with the pre-independent migration of labourers been rendered stateless and denied citizenship. Although the Rohingya, a majority of who are Muslims, have lived in Myanmar since the early 12th century, they have not been recognised as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country — stirring not merely a cultural divide but also raising discriminatory concerns amid racial and religious, in this case, Buddhist supremacy. 

Following Myanmar’s exclusive Union Citizenship Law of 1948 and the post-1948 military coup, the Rohingya were given only foreign identity cards which restricted their employment and educational opportunities and making matters even worse, in 1982 Myanmar enacted new legislation rendering the Rohingya stateless and depriving them of almost all human rights including the right to practice their faith.       

According to Eleanor Albert of the Council on Foreign Relations, the outbreak of violence against the ethnic minority dates back to 2012 when a group of Rohingya men stood indicted on charges of raping and killing a Buddhist  woman. It later led to Buddhist extremists launching a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by killing some 280 Rohingyas and setting fire to their homes. 

Against this backdrop are brutal military crackdowns and the recent retaliatory attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police outposts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, extrajudicial killings, rape, arson, torture, and restrictions on marriage, employment, education and religion by the de facto Head of State, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which forces the Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India and several other Southeast Asian countries, risking their lives on rickety boats in search of humanitarian aid and greener pastures. 

Last month, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) official Abdul Jalil reported that 12 out of a 100 refugees fleeing Myanmar had died when their boat capsized near neighbouring Bangladesh. This is one of many recent incidents of this nature with such deaths having dominated headlines in the past and considering what happens almost on a daily basis, perhaps, a thousand more might have faced the same fate at the time this article was published.  

Yet, what nettles human rights activists is the inability of the administration of Suu Kyi, the incumbent State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to trace a single atom in villages that blow up to smithereens in the most ungodly hours of the day. Tun Khin, a longstanding political confrère of Suu Kyi, said the State Counsellor mostly obliged to the military that kept her under house arrest for 15 long years.

According to Myanmar’s third and present Constitution published in September 2008 following a referendum, the military is allocated 25% of the seats in parliament with the ministries of home and border affairs and defence coming under its purview. It is also permitted to appoint one of the two Vice Presidents. The Commander-in-chief of the military, Tatmadaw, whose powers override those of the President, is authorised to exercise State sovereignty during emergencies, and under these circumstances, to fathom whether the State Counsellor has any leverage over the military requires another article altogether.  

Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to acknowledge the mass exodus of the Muslim minority has rekindled humanitarian space, so much so that former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan himself toured the ‘becoming-war-torn site.’   

Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi revealed that more than 500,000 (over 607,000 as of November 7) Rohingya refugees were sheltered in two camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh this year as a result of the brutal security operations deemed as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein. Among the refugees are some 240,000 children and 50,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina too has called for international pressure so as to discontinue forthwith the oppression of the Rohingya.    

Despite severe backlash arising from the allegations of ethnic cleansing, systematic violence and human rights violations, Suu Kyi rejects and denies the allegations outright saying it were the Rohingya militants who instigated violence, while journalists and aid agency representatives who wished to study the ground situation in Rakhine were being continually denied access. 

In September, Myanmar authorities postponed a visit by UN rapporteurs and diplomats to Rakhine and in a related incident detained two journos covering the flight of the ethnic Rohingya to Bangladesh. It is also alleged that Myanmar’s Chief of the United Nations Country Team (UNCT), Renata Lok-Dessallien, attempted to prevent human rights advocates from visiting areas where the Rohingya live. To add insult to injury, the office of the UN resident coordinator in Myanmar said recently the delivery of relief aid had been suspended due to security concerns and government field-visit restrictions rendered it impossible to carry out the provision of humanitarian assistance amid the Myanmar Government earlier this year even devising a plan to relocate the Rohingya in a remote, uninhabitable island.   

However, when UN Secretary General António Guterres urged to end the military operation against the Rohingya, Myanmar’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun refuted allegations of ethnic cleansing and bloodshed.   

Surprisingly, the Rohingya plight has taken its toll on celebrities too. 19-year-old Miss Grand Myanmar Shwe Eain Si was stripped of her pageant title after she posted a video on the ongoing violence in Rakhine on her Facebook page — her post however did not allege the Burmese military to have engaged in widespread atrocities against Rohingya. Also in September, Miss Turkey was dethroned after she tweeted about last year’s coup attempt.  

Nevertheless, efforts to air and probe ongoing violence against the Rohingya have become possible, at least to some extent, with Radio Free Asia reporting on October 2 that several emissaries and UN agencies visited Rakhine despite warnings by Myanmar law enforcement agencies about possible terrorist attacks in the area. Lately, a delegation of 67 diplomats from at least 46 countries toured Rohingya camps at Kutupalong and Balukhali in Bangladesh and lent a patient hearing to the woes and broken dreams of the refugees. 

In a drastic turn of events, Suu Kyi pledged in a televised address at Myanmar’s Capital Naypyidaw on September 19 that she would entertain the returnees on verification of their citizenship — a promise too good to be true because the Rohingya are not likely to be bestowed citizenship in the foreseeable future. However, this was seconded by a Myanmar minister during a recent bilateral meeting with Bangladeshi officials. Furthermore, Suu Kyi diverted media attention saying Rakhine Buddhists remained anxious over their shrinking population albeit they don’t face any sort of discriminatory population control regulation like the Rohingyas do. The Rohingya Muslims by the way are restricted to having a maximum of two children a family. 

With tensions building up whenever Rohingya brave rough seas, the international community and humanitarian agencies pledge their support by means of aid or at least by tweeting their condolences. Although many countries were less hospitable initially, with time they shouldered a greater burden of the plight faced by the Rohingyas by converting into action the term, ‘being humane.’ Among the countries which have generously extended a much-needed helping hand are Bangladesh, the US, Canada and Indonesia.  

With the announcement of an additional $32 million in humanitarian assistance to Rohingya at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, the US has pledged a total of $95 million aid.  Adding to the $6.63 million aid to the conflict-stricken in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Canadian International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced another $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance. Briefly after sending eight sortie missions or 74 tonnes of aid, two Hercules aircraft carrying aid for Rohingya in Rakhine left Jakarta. Also, the Moroccan Foreign Affairs Ministry in a statement said King Mohammed VI had instructed to send urgent humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Furthermore, Channel News Asia reported last month that the EU and the US were discussing sanctions against Myanmar military leaders in the wake of human rights violations.  

Meanwhile, several countries including China and India have taken a non-humanitarian stance on the Rohingya issue with Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang announcing on September 12 that China condemned the violent attacks in Rakhine and supported Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard peace. On the other hand, Aljazeera reported on October 3 that the Indian Government said it would not stop its efforts to deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees, of whom more than 16,000 are registered with the UN Refugee Agency. In the most recent case where two Rohingyas had filed a petition against the Indian Government’s plan to deport the persecuted refugees, Government Attorney Tushar Mehta said the Rohingya were a security threat, thereby breaching Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which states ‘right to life’ is available to both locals and foreigners while such forced repatriation may violate Customary International Law under ‘non-refoulement.’ 

The Tamil Nadu Police confirmed that with these developments, a group of 32 people — of whom 30 are Rohingyas and the other Indians — living for the past five years under refugee status granted by the UNHCR office in India, had on April 30 ventured on an illegal voyage to Australia by boat via the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka. 

As the vessel entered Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, coastguards patrolling the International Maritime Boundary Line took the boat people into custody on charges of illegal migration and handed them over to the Kankesanthurai Police the same day. With the Indian High Commission acknowledging that these refugees had sailed from Nagapattanam, Tamil Nadu, a report under reference number B/372/17, under Section 45 & 45A of the Immigration and Emigration Act, was filed and the refugees were produced before the Mallakkam Magistrate who ordered these people to be housed at the Mirihana detention camp pending the AG’s advice and the two Indians be kept under remand custody.  

Based on a report by Attorney Shainaz Mohamed who appeared on behalf of the Myanmar refugees, according to the AG’s advice, Section 45 & 45A of the Immigration and Emigration Act shall not apply and the case filed cannot be maintained since it was confirmed that these Myanmar nationals are in fact refugees. Interestingly though, Sri Lanka is not among the 142 State Parties to both the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. However, it had inked a Working Agreement with the UNHCR in 1987, which enables the refugee agency to accommodate up to 2,000 refugees each year. 

However, the law-abiding refugees were forced to move to a house in Mount Lavinia (taken on lease by the UNHCR) after a refugee was alleged to have been raped by an officer attached to the Mirihana detention camp. A case was filed against him at the Gangodawila Magistrate’s Court under case number B/2030/17. 

Despite the transfer being carried out with prior notice to the area police, the cops acted completely oblivious to the relocation when extremists led by radical Buddhist monks stormed the UN safe house in Mt. Lavinia. It was also alleged that relatives of the police officer charged with raping a Rohingya refugee were among the uncivilized, narrow-minded protesters who showcased to the world their true nature. These hapless refugees among whom were men, women and children, some of them infants, were then transferred to the Boossa detention camp for security reasons. 

Despite the fact that several individuals who instigated this kind of senseless violence against the Rohingya refugees during the height of the Sinhala-Muslim communal clash have been legally taken care of, some elements still engage in hostile, blasphemous discourse and inhumane activities igniting the flames of ethnic discord.    

It is astonishingly-noteworthy to underscore the sad fact that Sri Lanka, which proclaims itself to be one of the most hospitable countries in the world, is hampering the temporary accommodation of a handful of Rohingya refugees — numbering a mere 0.0068% of those accepted by Bangladesh. 

A media communique issued by Internal Affairs Ministry Secretary D. Swarnapala on September 18 states this was not the first time Myanmar refugees arrived in Sri Lanka. The communique said 55 people who arrived from Myanmar on March 3, 2008, were taken into custody by the Sri Lankan Navy and subsequently handed over to the UNHCR. They had been sent back in 2012. Again in February 2013, Sri Lanka had rescued two boat loads of 138 and 170 asylum seekers and they too had been sent back in November 2015. 

If it is not an issue within Sri Lanka that makes the country less hospitable than what it used to be, then what is it? Can we oversimplify internal concerns saying international pressure prompted them to act in this manner? We may not be bound to reach out to the needy and look into their grievances, but we could at least not rape, torture or abuse the innocent who are already distressed and in various stages of degradation and destitution forced to flee from country to country. Why are the relevant authorities keeping mum on this humanitarian issue? It may not be a responsibility, but we could, as a nation, be humane enough to act with equanimity, peace and harmony by living the Buddha’s precept, “let all beings be happy” at least till such time the refugees are sent back home.

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