Today, most of the world’s Rohingya live in makeshift shanties built of thin bamboo and plastic sheets on the hills around Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh. The shanties are not built to withstand extreme weather. Last Thursday, the first major downpour of Bangladesh’s monsoon season fell. With hope for repatriation to Myanmar fading and the monsoon season threatening hundreds of thousands of lives, the need for humanitarian assistance in the refugee camps is reaching critical levels.
According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM), a staggering 898,000 Rohingya currently live in Cox’s Bazar, 686,000 of whom have arrived since August of 2017, when the government of Myanmar launched a coordinated, military-led campaign of arson, murder, and sexual violence against their communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
On April 14, Myanmar announced that it had repatriated a family of five Rohingya refugees, a claim that was promptly denied by both the UN and Bangladesh. The move came amid a series of gestures from the Burmese government aimed at demonstrating goodwill, all of which have been met with skepticism from many members of the international community.
In late March, Myanmar, which has denied systemic wrongdoing toward the Rohingya, surprised observers by arresting and incarcerating seven soldiers who the government admitted murdered 10 Rohingya men, disfigured them with acid, and then buried them in a mass grave. Last Wednesday, Myanmar National Television reported that the seven soldiers had been granted amnesty, only to backtrack after the government denied the report. The murder of 10 Rohingya was being investigated by two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whom the government arrested under the Official Secrets Act for exposing the crime. The arrest has drawn international condemnation, and prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has recently joined their defense team.
The family of five Rohingya who returned to Myanmar, according to Bangladesh, did not come from Rohingya refugee camps, but rather came from the “no man’s land” between Myanmar and Bangladesh where thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar are currently said to linger. Both the UN and the government of Bangladesh have stated that they do not believe conditions are safe enough in Myanmar to allow for Rohingya repatriation.
According to Penny Green, director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at London’s Queen Mary University, the Rohingya man may have been repatriated along with his family as repayment for favors. “He was a village administrator who our sources in the camps say was an informant working for the government of Myanmar,” Green told Tricycle.
The alleged repatriation came on the heels of a visit from the Burmese Minister of Social Welfare to a refugee camp in Dhaka, where he met with 40 Rohingya and sparked anger by declaring that, in order to return to Myanmar, they would have to carry cards identifying them as migrants from Bangladesh. The Burmese government has denied that the Rohingya are a historical people of Myanmar, claiming that they are migrant Bengali workers who never left, despite well-established evidence showing the Rohingya as a distinct people in the region going back centuries.
Inside Myanmar, there is evidence of a concerted attempt on the part of the government to erase the Rohingya. ”The last couple of months the government has been bulldozing the remains of the Rohingya villages they burnt, and removing other geographical and environmental features that distinguish Rohingya land areas,” Green said. “They are being reduced to a state in which even the Rohingya may not recognize their land. The state has been appropriating crops, livestock, and property.”
On April 18, Green and the ISCI released a report finding the Myanmar government guilty of genocidal intent toward the Rohingya, a finding which echoed a chillingly prescient report they issued in 2015. The 2015 report claimed the Rohingya had already been subjected to four of the six stages of genocide: “stigmatisation, harassment, isolation, and systematic weakening.” It warned that in Myanmar, just two stages remained for the Rohingya: “extermination, and ‘symbolic enactment,'” the removal of their existence from official state history.
At the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide in February, Rainer Schulze, professor of modern European history at the University of Essex in the UK and founding editor of the journal The Holocaust in History and Memory, defined genocide as the “intention to destroy in whole or in part” a distinct community. The 1948 UN Convention On The Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, Schulze explained, “binds all signatories . . . that they must respond when genocide has been identified. The Genocide Convention gives us a very clear definition, and with regards to the Rohingya it is appropriate and must be used.”
However, international efforts to apply pressure to Myanmar have thus far been weak. The 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit did not address the plight of the Rohingya, and this year’s summit of Southeast Asian leaders appears primed to once again ignore the crisis. Canada has put the crisis on the agenda at the upcoming G7 meeting, but Canadian efforts have been criticized as largely cosmetic, consisting so far in sanctioning one member of the military and calling for more humanitarian aid while stopping short of the use of the word “genocide.”
Meanwhile, the situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh remains dire. Myanmar’s panel of international advisers on issues concerning the Rohingya reportedly warned recently that the monsoon season, which runs from June to October, could bring “enormous deaths” from a mix of mudslides and diseases brought on by the rains. As many as 200,000 people may lose their shelters, the report said. In one camp, Kutupalong, the population is five times the recommended standard for refugee camps. As result, shelters for refugees have been built on landslide-prone areas and flood zones.
While the international community’s efforts have been underwhelming, there are still ways for people to help. Buddhist Global Relief is collecting donations, as well as recommending people give to the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, which was recently formed with the express purpose of giving aid to the Rohingya. The Rohingya refugees are a traumatized community lacking sufficient access to the most basic resources for life, and every bit of aid given can relieve some aspect of the suffering and help families and individuals defend themselves against the coming rains.
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