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Grim realities

As violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar intensifies, neighbouring nations must engage or prepare for a humanitarian crisis, refugees warn

Hajee Ismail manages the Rohingya Peace Network in Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Hajee Ismail)

Hajee Ismail has hardly slept since receiving news late last month from his family in Buthidaung township that the Myanmar military had begun a brutal crackdown of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state. Ismail's community where he once played as a young boy had been burnt down.

Ismail, head of the Rohingya Peace Network in Thailand, is one of 5,000 Rohingya minorities residing in Thailand who are worried about the fate of their loved ones in Myanmar.

Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships have experienced nightmarish repercussions after the Myanmar Army retaliated against attacks by Rohingya militants on police check points that killed a dozen local officers. While the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya insurgent group, have taken up arms, it's the disproportionate crackdown by the army that has attracted international criticism, confirming the status of the Rohingya by the United Nations as "the most persecuted minorities in the world". Since violence erupted on Aug 25, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been uprooted and forced to flee their homes, many trying to cross the border into Bangladesh.

A Rohingya boy covers his face at Dar Paing camp for refugees on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: AP / Gemunu Amarasinghe

Ismail, who has made Thailand his permanent home for more than two decades, is visibly distraught upon learning that three of his relatives were killed in the violence, which is being defined by the international community as ethnic cleansing and genocide.

"I lost my mother, younger brother and nephew to the genocide taking place in my country, only 13 of my relatives remain in Buthidaung, the rest have fled with the basic necessities on their backs for Bangladesh border.

"In Rakhine state, for decades we have experienced all sorts of atrocities, but this time around, it has been more wider in scale, and from the killings, I would say more lethal," he said.

Ismail, 44, who works as an interpreter and human rights activist, said the scale with which Rohingya Muslims are being murdered and displaced hardly has any precedent in modern history.

The Myanmar government has vehemently denied its campaign of brutality, saying the international media distorts information to favour the Rohingya and ignore the fact that the "Muslim terrorists" have also committed their share of violence in Rakhine.

But the international community and human rights groups focus their condemnation on the large-scale violence perpetrated against innocent people of the minority group. Meanwhile, a few Rohingya dismiss the terrorist theory outright.

"I honestly do not believe that the Rohingya, who for decades have been suppressed and persecuted so they lack basic education, self worth and hope for a better tomorrow, can carry out such a daring act against authorities that they have been taught to fear," said Ismail.

"The entire world is focused on Burma today, if the military has nothing to hide, they should be more transparent, allow media and NGOs free access to investigate the truth. Let them get first-hand information from survivors, without intimidation, this will prove their credibility."

Ismail believes there is little hope for the Rohingya population to survive in these grim circumstances. All that can be done, he said, was for neighbouring countries and the international committee to offer humanitarian assistance to the displaced.

"It has become obvious that the systematic killings of my people are not just motivated because of their ethnicity but also religion. Anti-Muslim sentiments have been around for years. Today it is no longer confined to Rakhine state, but to larger cities like Yangon."

Ismail believes Thailand can play a tantamount role in addressing this Rohingya issue, saying: "Myanmar and Thailand are neighbours. If neighbour A's house is on fire, will neighbour B not go out of his way to help extinguish the fire before it reaches his house?"

Min*, who has recently arrived in Thailand in the hopes of gaining refugee status, is one among many Rohingya who believe being a Muslim in Myanmar is no longer safe. The 51-year-old, who has lived in Yangon with his family for most of his life, is originally from Rakhine's Maungdaw township.

"I am a Rohingya Muslim but opted to keep my status confidential in the hopes that I would not be persecuted in my country," said the businessman. "I have a clothes business in Yangon and have coexisted with my Buddhist neighbours and staff very well for years.

"My fears for my well being and that of my family were heightened when violence broke out in Rakhine state. My country is already a very divided nation and as the situation began to deteriorate, tension could be felt in Yangon. I knew I had to take drastic measures for the safety of my family, so I decided to fly to Bangkok on a valid Myanmar passport. Being a refugee doesn't mean I want to get resettled. All I want is to be in a safe country until my own country is safe to return."

Min said about a hundred of his relatives have been displaced and one has died, so far. Daily reports from home tell of atrocities and carnage. The only way to survive is to flee, he said.

He believes the solution to this problem rests on the military's ideology towards the Rohingya. His best case scenario is watching his people displaced across the world until the military have a change of heart.

"What I have seen so far makes me very disheartened about our future," said Min. "We cannot depend on Aung San Suu Kyi or for that matter the UN. I feel it is a lost cause. All that can be done is for humanitarian relief to be sent to survivors of this mayhem."

Min also refuted support of the ARSA by the Rohingya. By and large he said such groups create problems than solutions. That is why their attempts to recruit villagers has not been successful. However, due to illiteracy, Min said most villagers are easily instigated by people who want to create trouble.

Besides humanitarian relief, he said a more proactive approach by Asean would be a step forward to addressing this ongoing crisis.

"The world can no longer say the killings of the Rohingya is Burma's problem. The non-interference policy by Asean should be revised so some sort of pressure is put on the military to soften its stance on the annihilation of my people."


A sense of frustration

Puttanee Kangkun, human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, a non-profit human rights organisation, shares her take on the situation in a Q&A.

What does the latest crisis unfolding in Rakhine state mean for Thailand?

As a neighbouring country, there is high possibility that Thailand may find itself in the same situation as they were a couple of years ago on the issue of human trafficking. As you may remember thousands of Rohingya were trafficked by sea through Thailand before they were moved to other countries.

Thailand also faced a barrage of condemnation by the international community for pushing hundreds of them back at sea, leading to several deaths and injured.

The way Thailand handles the Rohingya refugees this time will be monitored by the international community again so Thailand must manage the situation professionally and in line with international standards.

What are the challenges that arise from this?

There are couple of challenges. One, Thailand is not ready to handle such a crisis. Thailand has been sheltering refugees for decades, but continues to struggle with offering them proper protection.

While on one side, Thailand provides humanitarian assistance by cooperating with the UNHCR to manage the situation, the actual treatment of refugees are not in line with international practices.

To start with refugees have no freedom of movement, no opportunity to grow as individuals. A sense of frustration only adds to their feelings of becoming part of a population of nonproductive individuals. In the past couple of years, Rohingya refugees and survivors of trafficking have faced this fate.

Public attitude is also a key challenge. Thais are under a misconception that refugees, particularly from Myanmar, are poorly educated, lower class, dangerous, contain diseases etc.

What is Thailand's latest stance on this issue?

Unfortunately, the Thai government leaders' stance on the current crisis in Rakhine state, after a recent meeting with Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Army commander-in-chief, is that of non-interference.

Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister, has gone on record to call the Rohingya people "Bengali" after this meeting.

This greatly signifies the position the Thai government has on the situation, which basically means that they will not do anything to improve the Rohingya crisis, or for that matter issues arising with other ethnicity in Rakhine state.

While that is Thailand's stand, my hope is that other countries in this region will not turn a blind eye to what's going on in Rakhine. If they do, they risk another regional crisis.

There are a couple of Asean mechanisms, such as the Asian Human Rights Declaration, which Asean member countries adopted unanimously in 2012 that addresses all key human rights principles including right to a nationality (Article 18), right to seek and receive asylum in another state (Article 16), which can be used in such times that are being overlooked.

As a human rights agency, what is your message?

The most important message is to stop killing and violating human rights immediately and to investigate the truth.

As a human rights organisation, we try our best to send the right message to the public. We do investigate what the facts are by infield fact findings, interviewing people and key characters in the crisis. We advocate national and international communities to respect and practice international human rights standards.

We found that the concept of non-refoulement — the practice of not forcing refugees/asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are likely to be subjected to persecution — is not completely understood by Thai authorities, who find it justified to offer food and water to boat refugees and push them back at sea.


TIMELINE

2012

Violence in Rakhine state leaves more than 120,000 displaced people, who are moved into more than 30 interment camps within Rakhine state.

2015

Thai government finds mass graves of Rohingya victims of trafficking on the mountain along the Thai-Malaysia border, starting a crackdown of human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand.

2016

Aug 23: Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi established the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state. It is comprised of six Myanmar nationals and three international commissioners, including Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general.Oct 9: Rohingya militants attacked three police outposts and murdered nine police officers in northern Rakhine state. The Myanmar Army responded by attacking the Rohingya population over the following three months, displacing more than 90,000 civilians.

2017

March 24: The UN Human Rights Council ordered an independent, international fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, including Rakhine state. The Myanmar government refuses to cooperate with the mission.

July 19: A criminal court in Thailand convicts 62 of 103 defendants, including senior government officials, sentencing them to up to 94 years' imprisonment in the largest Rohingya trafficking case.

Aug 23: The report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state is launched, recommending the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims; ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access throughout the state; tackle Rohingya statelessness; "revisit" the 1982 Citizenship Law; hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, and end restrictions on freedom of movement.

Aug 25: Militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attack 30 security check posts in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine, killing 12 officials. The Myanmar Army responds with brutal force, resulting in people fleeing to the border of Bangladesh.

Aug 29: Separate statements from the president of Turkey, the Malaysian deputy prime minister and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation express concerns over the situation. UNHCR urges the Bangladesh government to open borders for people fleeing violence.

Aug 29: Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander-in-chief, meets with top Thai leaders. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Thailand is preparing to receive displaced people while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has agreed to use "Bengalis" to address the Rohingya people.

Aug 31: UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee expresses "grave concern" over the "worsening cycle of violence" in Rakhine state.

Sept 3: A statement by the Maldives and Pakistan governments condemns the violence against the Rohingya.

Sept 4: Malala Yousafzai, recipient of the Noble Peace Prize in 2014, asks fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi break to her silence on the Rakhine situation.

Sept 4: The Indonesian government releases a statement urging Myanmar to halt the violence against the Rohingya.

Sept 5: European Commission's Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management calls on both sides to end violence against civilians and to allow aid to reach people in need. The Malaysian government says it is ready to provide temporary shelter to Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar.

Sept 6: U Thaung Tun, Myanmar National Security Adviser, says at a press conference in Nay Pyi Taw that Myanmar would accept Rohingya refugees back if they have proof that they have lived in Rakhine and are citizens. He does not explain what evidence or criteria would be used as proof of citizenship.

Sept 8: Latest number of people killed according to news reports stands at almost 400, with more than 120,000 people crossing the border into Bangladesh. Suppression by Myanmar military continues unabated. Displaced people continue to cross the border into Bangladesh.

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