The obscure path home: prolonged sufferings facing Rohingyas

As the plight of Rohingyas continues to drag on, little effort has been devoted to addressing issues like the ongoing conflicts, the repatriation of refugees, and the built-in racism of Burmese nationalism that is rooted in the crisis by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

The world went blissed a couple of days earlier, hearing the news of the release of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who uncovered the genocidal killings of Rohingyas by the Myanmar military. They were originally sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for violating the colonial-era State Secrets Act, though with evidence showing that policemen entrapped them by handing documents to them.

The country’s crippling record for upholding freedom of expression may well be relieved following the president’s pardon, however, obstacles for the suffering Rohingya refugees to return home still entrench.

Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 northern Rakhine-born mostly Muslims have fled their destructed or threatened homes to Bangladesh, creating a top UN human rights official-named “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. According to Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), the genocidal oppression backed by Buddhist mobs had murdered at least 6,700 Rohingya within a month after the tragedy began. Cases of Rohingya women being raped and abused have also been noted by Amnesty International.

Critiques soon took over the headlines of major news organizations around the world, but they did not seem to constrain the military to relinquish the ongoing violent oppression. As recently as April this year, an army’s helicopter attack on a town of northern Rakhine resulted in five deaths and many wounded.


Repatriation efforts in vain

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s active commitment to humane repatriation of Rohingyas in scattered settlements in Cox’s Bazar of the country was met with less-than-enthusiastic officials of Myanmar, after a deal being signed by the two bordering countries in November 2017.

According to the Dhaka Tribune several days earlier, “the fourth meeting of the joint working group of Bangladesh and Myanmar ended on Friday in Naypyidaw without any breakthrough in regard to the repatriation of Rohingyas, a process that was supposed to begin over 15 months ago.”

More importantly, the willingness of the Rohingyas to be repatriated ought to be taken into the equation. Last November, with several vehicles ready at one of the settlements in Cox’s Bazar, the repatriation effort proved a failure as none volunteered to board.

A Rohingya kid holding a sign saying “we [will] never return to Myanmar without our citizenship and our right[s]” at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Source: Reuters)

What underlies the reluctance of the refugees to “go home” is the Burmese nationalist policies that have their historical bearings from the British colonial era and the division between Arakan – roughly today’s Rakhine state – and Burman civilizations developed along the Irrawaddy river through decades.


The historical division of Arakan and Burma

Before 1784, Arakan had either been self-ruled or under the reign of Bengal, which extended beyond today’s Bangladesh to parts of northeastern India. The year, however, witnessed the conquest of a Burman empire, Konbaung.

As a result of the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826, Arakan was ceded to the British East India Company, governed under the Bengal Presidency of British India. During the time, many settlers moved from the neighboring Chittagong province (in today’s Bangladesh) to Arakan. Only in 1852 was Arakan merged with British Burma.

The intricate historical situation between different ethnicities in Myanmar coupled with the dominant Buddhist Burmese nationalism gave rise to the bourgeoning of various armed insurgent groups in multiple ethnic minority areas post-independence, including the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

The military of Myanmar, known as Tatmadaw locally, often cites a series of attacks carried out by the ARSA on multiple security posts in Rakhine in 2017 as the reason for the so-called military clearance operations against the majority Muslim people.

Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law was, therefore, a product of the historical legacy and the high rising Buddhist Burmese nationalism post-independence. Outlining 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, in which Muslim Rohingyas were excluded, the law contributes to the predominant view of Muslim Rohingyas as illegal immigrants, who are prevalently referred to as “Bengalis”.

In recent years, the division between Buddhism and Islam has only intensified with the prevalence of Islamophobic rhetoric adopted by the majority Buddhists in the country. The monks, highly-regarded in the Buddhist country, had pushed for legislation based on race and religion targeting Muslims. The country’s civilian leader’s response in a BBC interview in 2013 only added onto such rhetoric. “There is a perception that Muslim power, that global Muslim power, is very great. And certainly, that is the perception in many parts of the world and in our country too,” she said.

The exodus of Rohingyas – from Myanmar fleeing to Bangladesh. (Source: Getty Image)

A solution towards the crisis?

The majority of Burmese today has voiced no objection to the military’s persecution of Rohingyas, and Aung San Suu Kyi’ silent treatment of the crime against humanity happening in her country only serves as a reminder of what she said during an interview in 2015 – “I am just a politician”.

Despite facing mounting pressures and global backlash from the emissaries and international NGOs, the country’s de facto leader seemed to be interested solely in setting up multiple commissions to investigate the turmoil and provide policy recommendations, but not taking actions in implementing them.

One notable example was the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan-chaired Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The commission submitted 88 recommendations to the government in 2017. Only until early May this year, nonetheless, did the government began to review the progress of implementation.

In pursuit of enacting the findings by the commission, the Advisory Board to the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State was established in the same year. But a stain was soon left on the Advisory Board, as the member and a US veteran politician, Bill Richardson, resigned from his post in early 2018, describing the board as a “cheerleading squad” to the New York Times.

In the end, Aung San Suu Kyi’s own attitude towards the release of the two Reuters journalist may best encapsulate why the way home still seems unlikely for Rohingya refugees.

Back in January 2018, Mr. Richardson brought up the case of the duo during a meeting of the Advisory Board with the state counselor. “Her face was quivering,” Mr. Richardson said, “and if she had been a little closer to me, she might have hit me, she was so furious.”


Banner image: A Rohingya boy crying among other refugees. (Source: Getty Image)

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