One Year Later, Rohingya Still Needs Help and Needs to Be Heard


In the long history of violence and discrimination directed against the Rohingya —  a Muslim minority group from Myanmar — Aug. 25 is an especially dark date.

Over one year ago, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya militant group, launched coordinated attacks on Myanmar security outposts in northern Rakhine State. This provoked a ferociously disproportionate response in which the Myanmar military killed thousandstorched hundreds of villages and forcibly displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in the largest and fastest movement of people since the Rwandan genocide. Myanmar’s intent, it seems, was to cleanse Rakhine of Rohingyas.

My recent travels to Bangladesh reinforced the importance of preventing Myanmar from succeeding in its aims and helping the Rohingya in four ways.

First, Rohingyas need help maintaining pressure on Myanmar to ensure that those that want to return home have a viable pathway for doing so with their rights intact and security guaranteed.

Over the past year Myanmar has made few, if any, meaningful changes to the structures that enabled ethnic cleansing.

The 600,000 Rohingya that remain in Rakhine, including 125,000 in detention camps, struggle without fundamental rights and access to basic services. Myanmar has done little to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission; an advisory board meant to support their implementation and from which I resigned in January unceremoniously wrapped up its work last week having made little impact.

Media and humanitarian access to Rakhine remains highly proscribed: the UN continues to be denied “effective access” despite a memorandum of understanding agreed with Myanmar nearly three months ago. Meanwhile, Myanmar has sought to remake northern Rakhine, reclaiming burned Rohingya land for the State and bulldozing emptied Rohingya villages.

For its part, the international community, including Myanmar’s neighbors and members of ASEAN, can do more to hold Myanmar responsible.

The international community should establish clear benchmarks — with clear consequences if unmet — for the implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations. This will ensure that  Myanmar cannot erroneously claim— as Aung San Suu Kyi did in a rare public speech this week — that 81 of 88 recommendations have already been implemented.

The international community should also make clear that Myanmar bears responsibility for any delays in the repatriation process. Bangladesh wants to see Rohingyas return home soon, but recognizes the importance that any repatriation process be sustainable. This cannot be achieved unless Myanmar demonstrates it can guarantee Rohingyas’ safety and rights.

Second, the Rohingya need help securing justice.

Myanmar has proven itself incapable of holding perpetrators accountable. It continues to dismiss credible and consistent evidence of egregious crimes committed by its security forces as “fake news” and has appointed a series of commissions that have absolved security actors of all wrongdoing. The chair of the latest commission, formed last week, signaled the body would not point fingers or place blame.

The onus is thus on the international community. Targeted sanctionsagainst individuals and units of Myanmar’s military and police are a good start, but largely symbolic. Given the gravity of the crimes committed, Myanmar deserves to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the UN Security Council. While China and Russia would likely exercise their veto, the other permanent members of the Security Council should force them to use it.

Short of an ICC referral, a UN General Assembly-mandated accountability mechanism, similar to that for Syria, offers the best hope of sustaining pressure on Myanmar.

Third, the Rohingya — and affected Bangladesh communities who were first to rush to their aid — need sustained political and financial support.

My conversations with both communities last week revealed the scope of their needs. Even before last year, Cox’s Bazar — a city in Bangladesh — was one of the poorest and least developed districts in Bangladesh and the influx of Rohingyas has imposed further strains on the environment, services and Bangladeshis’ livelihoods. Meanwhile, the Rohingya are grateful to Bangladesh for opening their borders, but they continue to struggle to meet basic needs, to generate income, and to educate their children.

Unless and until conditions in Myanmar are conducive to return, international sympathy and concern must translate into tangible investments in Rohingyas and affected Bangladeshi communities in Cox’s Bazar.

Finally, the Rohingya – especially those in the camps in Bangladesh – need help securing a prominent role in the decision-making processes that will decide their future.

Too often, others have spoken on their behalf. But as a nascent Rohingya civil society begins to take shape in Bangladesh, the Rohingya deserve to represent and advocate for themselves. They also deserve to exercise greater agency over the decisions that affect them, whether it be the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the modalities for repatriation, or the way that justice is defined and sought. Finding ways for Rohingya in the camps to meaningfully participate in next month’s UN General Assembly would be a good place to start.

Rohingyas are remarkably adaptable and resilient, but it is far too soon for us to ask them to fend for themselves. We must do more to pressure Myanmar on repatriation and accountability, to invest in Rohingyas and Bangladeshis and to provide platforms for Rohingyas to advocate for themselves.

[Bill Richardson is a former Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Energy Secretary and governor for New Mexico. He founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in 2011 to promote global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities not usually open to more formal diplomatic channels.]

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