Top official says the main target is to repatriate Rohingya to original homeland, in Rakhine state, Myanmar
Bangladesh announced on Sunday that it may drop previous plans to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island located in the Bay of Bengal in the country’s south.
“Our main target is to repatriate Rohingya to their original homeland, Myanmar’s Rakhine state,” Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen on Sunday told reporters in the capital Dhaka following a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming.
Lauding recent development projects on the islet of Bhasan Char and plans to turn it into a business hub and “new Bangladesh,” Momen said Bangladeshi citizens left homeless due to river erosion or other reasons should instead be settled there.
Bhasan Char, a remote islet where Bangladesh announced in 2018 it would resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar, is measured 15,000 acres at low tide and 10,000 acres at high tide, according to the government sources.
The scheme had elicited concerns that the site was less than ideal. Dhaka since said it undertook projects to improve living conditions on the islet.
“We all agree not to send Rohingya there. Now we place our recommendations to the government for a final decision on the alternative use of Bhasan Char project,” said Momen.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.
Dozens of sprawling informal education centers across refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar are providing a glimmer of hope for thousands of Rohingya refugee children who survived a massacre in their home country of Myanmar in 2017.
Across makeshift camps in the refugee city of Kutupalong, hundreds of informal learning centers have been set up by international agencies and Rohingya community leaders to give the refugee children access to education. The opportunity to learn and improve skills is something the youngsters were never offered back in Myanmar.
Sharmeen Noor, a mathematics teacher at Kutupalong Primary School, told VOA that their programs ensure the Rohingya children do not fall behind in their education despite the absence of formal schooling. The centers can also create a positive impact to help those traumatized by the Burmese army’s 2017 crackdown that forced nearly 700,000 ethnic Rohingya to flee from Rakhine state to Bangladesh.
“Those who have seen violence think about it all the time,” said Noor. “They pay very little attention in class. As teachers, we are working on this matter. We are trying our best to bring them into normal life. God willing we will do it.”
About 350 Rohingya children are currently enrolled at Kutupalong Primary School, which provides basic informal education from preprimary through fifth grade. The children are taught subjects such as general science, mathematical, English, Burmese, and Bengali.
Noor said many of their teaching activities focus on play-based learning to provide education and at the same time give the children a chance to forget the daily struggles they face in the overcrowded camps. Particular attention is given to children who are mentally challenged.
More than two years since the expulsion of the majority of the Rohingya population from Myanmar, Rohingya are still not being adequately informed or engaged on issues of vital importance to their lives and futures. The government of Myanmar continues to deny citizenship and representation to the few hundred thousand Rohingya still living in Myanmar. The Rohingya there face ongoing, severe human rights abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to livelihoods and education. Bangladesh deserves great credit for providing refuge to 1 million Rohingya. With the support of UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and donor countries, it has led a massive humanitarian response that has saved many lives. Bangladesh also refuses to recognize Rohingya as refugees however and has been increasing restrictions on that population. Moreover, Rohingya voices have been virtually absent from high-level discussions about their possible repatriation to Myanmar or relocation within Bangladesh, as well as decisions about matters of everyday camp life.
Key actors—including the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar and UN agencies—all have made official statements that the ideal solution to the Rohingya displacement crisis is their repatriation to Myanmar. However, none of the three repatriation agreements that have been signed between these actors formally include the Rohingya or even mention the name Rohingya. Engagement with the Rohingya community has been limited to poorly coordinated, last-minute information campaigns rather than genuine consultations, and have left its people largely uninformed and unprepared for any possible return. The dangers of this approach were clear in two repatriation exercises that led to widespread angst among Rohingya refugees. The first attempt, in particular, resulted in panic, spikes in mental health consultations, and even reported suicide attempts. The second, although better managed to avoid the same levels of panic, still led to extensive anxiety and uncertainty.
Similarly, plans by the government of Bangladesh to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, have created confusion and fear among them. Bangladeshi authorities in the camps have collected and added Rohingya names to relocation lists, reportedly without those individuals’ consent. Rumors abound about what those who do volunteer to relocate might receive for relocating. UN officials and NGO representatives have warned about serious unanswered questions over safety guarantees and the logistical capacity to host refugees on the island. Plans for assessment by a UN technical team have been delayed. Under current circumstances, no transfers should take place. An independent assessment and outreach to the Rohingya community will be essential to ensure that any relocations are truly safe and voluntary.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday discussed the International Court of Justice’s order that Myanmar do all it can to prevent genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, but failed to agree on a statement.
China, an ally of Myanmar, as well as Vietnam, which is a member of the regional Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) along with Myanmar, objected, diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a closed-door meeting.
Instead, the European Union members of the council urged Myanmar in a joint statement to reporters afterwards to comply with the measures ordered by the UN’s top court, stressing that they were “compulsory under international law.”
France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia along with former council member Poland also urged Myanmar “to take credible action to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations.”
“Myanmar must address the root causes of its conflicts, in Rakhine State, but also in Kachin and Shan States,” the EU members said.
“Accountability of perpetrators of human rights and humanitarian law violations is a necessary part of this process.”
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown on the Muslim minority in August 2017 in response to an attack by a Rohingya armed group. More than one million Rohingya refugees are currently living in Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingya are suspected to have been killed in the crackdown which has been described by UN investigators as a genocide.
Refugees reported widespread rape and arson in Rakhine state by Myanmar’s military and local Buddhist militias.
While thousands rallied in Yangon in December to support Myanmar’s government as it contested allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice, the public response to the first of the court’s rulings has been decidedly more muted.
The ICJ imposed a series of provisional measures on Myanmar last week, ordering it to take certain action to prevent future acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The judges also rejected Myanmar’s motions to dismiss the case, which means the trial will now proceed to hear arguments on the alleged genocide itself.
The decision brought criticism from officials. Than Htay, the chairman of the military-aligned opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed “all 52 million people” in Myanmar would disagree with it, according to The Standard Time Daily, a local newspaper.
But on the streets of the country’s biggest city, the ruling barely registered.
Two students who spoke to Al Jazeera separately both said neither they nor their friends particularly cared about the ICJ. “Yes I know about it, but I don’t really follow it,” said one.
Another woman, from Rakhine but living in Yangon, said the result was “as expected”. When asked if she agreed with the ruling, she said: “Yes. It should be.”
The ICJ case against Myanmar was brought by the Gambia accusing the country of committing genocide in its actions against the Rohingya and a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine in 2017 that sent 740,000 people fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
An independent panel has concluded war crimes were committed by Myanmar forces during security operations, but it stopped short of talking of genocide against Rohingya.
An independent commission appointed by Myanmar’s government said Monday that war crimes were likely committed against the Rohingya ethnic minority by Myanmar security forces during counterinsurgency operations.
The “Independent Commission of Enquiry,” (ICOE) was formed in 2018 in response to international calls for accountability from Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis.
Although the ICOE statement implies that Myanmar’s security forces are guilty of major abuses, which is more direct than previous public statements by Myanmar’s government, the panel said there is “no evidence” of genocide.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017. More than 900,000 Rohingya continue to live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.
The UN has said Myanmar’s military operations targeted Rohingya areas, with gang rapes and mass killings and destruction of villages carried out with “genocidal intent.”
A statement released by the ICOE said the “killing of innocent villagers took place during an “internal armed conflict” provoked by Rohingya attacks on police outposts. It said the response was “disproportionate” but did not amount to genocide.
“War crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law took place during the security operations … There are reasonable grounds to believe that members of Myanmar’s security forces were involved.”
ICJ to rule on Myanmar genocide
In November, the Gambia filed a case with the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of an “ongoing genocide” against the Rohingya, and urging the court to take emergency measures. The ICJ in The Hague will issue a decision on the request Thursday.
ICOE report comes days before UN’s top court issues ruling on whether urgent measures are necessary to stop genocide.
A commission set up to investigate the 2017 crackdown in Rakhine that led hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya to flee Myanmar, has concluded that while some soldiers probably committed war crimes there was no genocide.
The Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) released the findings of its investigation, but not the full report, to the country’s president on Monday, a few days before the United Nations’ top court is set to rule on whether to impose urgent measures to stop the alleged continuing genocide in Myanmar.
The ICOE conceded some security personnel had used disproportionate force and committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, including the “killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes”.
But the crimes did not constitute genocide, the panel decided.
“There is insufficient evidence to argue, much less conclude, that the crimes committed were undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial or religious group.”
Military operations from August 2017 forced about 740,000 Rohingya to flee over the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar has always maintained the crackdown by the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, was necessary to root out Rohingya rebels after a series of attacks left a dozen security personnel dead.
But refugees carried consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape, torture and arson with them and have so far largely refused to return for fear of their safety.
“All signs point to what human rights experts and Rohingya themselves already know, which is that the government has no intention of bringing perpetrators of mass rape and other genocidal crimes to justice,” Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center said in a statement.
When Myanmar’s state counselor arrived at the Hague to defend her country at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), several rights groups launched a global boycott initiative urging corporations, foreign investors, professional and cultural organizations to sever their institutional ties with Myanmar.
Thirty Human rights, academic and professional organizations from 10 countries jointly launched the “Boycott Myanmar Campaign” from London, in hopes to “bring to bear economic, cultural, diplomatic and political pressure on Myanmar’s coalition government of [state counselor] Aung San Suu Kyi and the military”, the campaigners said in a statement.
Myanmar faces a lawsuit at the ICJ filed by West African country Gambia, with the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, for atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in the country over the past few years.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, said in a statement last month that she, as foreign minister, is to attend the first hearing of the lawsuit on Dec. 10, to defend “the interests of the country”.
The latest massive military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar in 2017 forced more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, to flee the country and cross into Bangladesh.
Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report, titled “Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.”
Some 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police and over 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned down and 113,000 others vandalized, it added.
Suu Kyi is widely criticized for her silence against the mass killings and war against humanity as she now attempts to defend against alleged military atrocities — which the UN human rights chief described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” — at the international court.
During three days of hearings starting December 10, it will ask the 16-member panel of UN judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to impose “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya before the case can be heard in full.
More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since a 2017 military crackdown, which UN investigators found in August to have been carried out with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar vehemently denies allegations of genocide.
The office of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has said she will lead her country’s defense personally. Myanmar’s legal team is expected to argue that genocide did not occur, that the top UN court lacks jurisdiction and that the case fails to meet a requirement that a dispute exists between Myanmar and Gambia.
Gambia’s request for a provisional injunction is the legal equivalent of seeking a restraining order against a country.
“If the court feels there is sufficient threat and it needs to step in, it can order Myanmar to cease and desist in terms of military operations and violence so that civilians are protected,” said Priya Pillai, an international lawyer with the Asia Justice Coalition, an NGO.
From a democracy champion to defending Myanmar against genocide charges, the shock decision by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to face the UN’s top court risks further damaging her image overseas and deepening the siege mentality at home.
“We stand with you,” proclaim billboards across Myanmar, sporting beaming portraits of the Nobel laureate as she prepares to face the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the Rohingya crisis.
Suu Kyi’s supporters are printing off T-shirts, organizing rallies and even signing up to VIP tours to The Hague to offer their backing.
Political parties and even some rebel armed groups have also fallen over themselves to give their support, in a country where the Rohingya garner little sympathy and are widely regarded as illegal immigrants.
Yet overseas, particularly in the West and in Muslim countries, Suu Kyi’s reputation lies in tatters with multiple awards and even honorary citizenship revoked.
Critics say “The Lady”, once lauded alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, has become an apologist for a murderous military intent on wiping out the country’s Rohingya Muslims.
The spectacle of Suu Kyi standing up in court on behalf of the nation might play well at home but she risks suffering a fatal blow to what remains of her international reputation.
“If she’s only going to use the visit to demonstrate defiance and continue to defend the indefensible, then it only widens the impasse,” Yangon-based analyst David Mathieson told AFP.