Rohingya refugees have for decades been fleeing their homeland, Rakhine State in Myanmar. Mostly through Yangon’s inaction, elements of the military and members of the majority Buddhist population were left to run rampage among this helpless Muslim minority. Made stateless by Yangon in 1982, left vulnerable to the frightful violence of rape, mass killings — some burnt alive in their homes — they fled, in 2017, to Bangladesh, some 700,000 of them. There have been waves of genocidal killings of Rohingya in Myanmar beginning in 1978.
In September, a United Nations appointed independent International Fact-Finding Mission in a report insists that “hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya who remain in Myanmar may face greater threat of genocide than ever, amid government attempts to erase their identity and remove them from the country”. Myanmar has rejected the findings of the report, saying that the mission was never approved by Yangon and it has begun its own investigations.
In 2017, when boatloads of starving Rohingya drifted to the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia dying of hunger with many lost at sea, Turkey protested the exodus.
Malaysia and Indonesia, too, protested but Myanmar is a fellow Asean member. Asean holds dear its principle of non-interference and, therefore, it was silenced. Instead, Indonesia and Malaysia took in the refugees. At the UN, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad remarked on the world’s silence with regard to the Rohingya tragedy.
Despite that, the UN has assured itself enough to announce last month, for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to begin preliminary investigations in Bangladesh, a signatory to the ICC, where most of the Rohingya refugees are living in overcrowded conditions in Cox’s Bazar, reputedly the world’s largest refugee settlement. It is assumed, here, that under the UN’s auspices the investigation will be even more thorough.
Then, on Nov 11, Gambia, Africa’s smallest country, filed a suit, at the UN’s top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya Muslims, on the principle of “universal jurisdiction” with the premise that war crimes and crimes against humanity can be tried in any country.
Gambia is a majority Muslim nation and a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The outcome is uncertain, though the facts as established by the UN’s “Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar” would favour Gambia’s position. Myanmar is appearing before the court, its team headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the civilian government. This seeming defiance suggests that Yangon may have something up its sleeve.
On the heels of this action, comes another suit, also against Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate, for crimes against Rohingya Muslims. The case is filed in Argentina, led by Argentinian lawyer Tomas Ojea, once a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar between 2008 and 2014. Ojea is a first hand witness to the suffering of the Rohingya. Two Argentine human rights groups are supporting the lawsuit.
Do these cases suggest that the Rohingya can return to their homes? An agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar to allow the return of the refugees to their homeland could not be implemented because there have been few to no takers. The victims remain untrusting of their tormentors. The Rohingya seek, instead, guarantees for a pathway to citizenship, land entitlement and compensation, and want their safety secured. In short, they seek justice in Myanmar. Can the trust between the government and the people be re-established after such a heinous betrayal?
Observers agreed that while Yangon is willing to negotiate and sign agreements, on the ground no promises made are fulfilled. For example, the agreement which allows the Rohingya to return from Bangladesh is hollow given the official policy towards the Rohingya in the country. They are kept in internment camps deprived of their basic human rights. According to a UN report, those fleeing are shot to death, including children.
They are at the mercy of the Myanmar authorities. Can the UN end this crisis now that the tragedy is squarely on the lap of this supranational organisation intended to prevent genocides and other crimes against humanity? The example of Palestine tells us to temper our optimism. Proof of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, is everywhere. Even as I write Gaza is being bombed mercilessly. US vetoes in the UN Security Council in support of Israeli aggression have demonstrated only the UN’s impotence.
Geopolitics has become a massive obstacle to justice. And the ICJ can issue only advisory opinions. Will geopolitics again foil the ham-fisted, if not arm-twisted, attempts of the UN? In September 2017, the Faculty of Law of Universiti Malaya, together with a couple of non-government organisations, including the International Movement for a Just World, hosted a five-day session of the Rome-based Permanent People’s Tribunal on “State Crimes Allegedly Committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya, Kachin and Other Groups”.
Evidence presented shows thousands of Rohingya have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands displaced. Again evidence is aplenty, but if in seven decades the genocide of the Palestinians has been allowed to play out in public, can we expect any better for the Rohingya?
The writer is executive director, International Movement for a JUST World.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Friday 13 December 2019