By Dr. Swaran Singh
Yangon, February 14 (Ceylon Today): Three episodes this week tell heart-rending tales of disjunctions in the relief and rehabilitation work being done among Rohingya refugees across Asia. While mother country Myanmar is showing no interest in assuming responsibility for the Rohingyas, disaffection is rising in nations hosting the refugees, and fatigue is palpable among relief and rehabilitation agencies.
The U.S. wants to precipitously exit its regional leadership role. Russia and China have stood firmly with the Myanmar Army providing it protection from any sanctions or censure from the international community.
In the absence of international consensus and concerted efforts, falsehood, frauds and diabolic human trafficking are shaping events vis-à-vis the Rohingyas.
First, last Friday, and then on Monday, the Bangladesh Border Guards foiled two attempts by human smugglers trafficking two groups of Rohingyas, 22 and 30 each, including women and children, from Kutupalong and Balukhali refugee camps to Malaysia.
They had spent their life’s savings (reportedly US $1,200 for each person) for a small berth on a rickety boat risking their lives on high seas and with a prospect of not being allowed to anchor or enter the country. Most faced the prospect of ending up as prostitutes or slaves.
This was the fourth such capture since last November. But many may have gone undetected or allowed in for a price.
Moving out of Myanmar since the early 1960s, the Rohingyas began the exodus only after the 2015 elections. The exodus led to the accusation that the Rohingyas are not just ‘alien’ but suspect in their own homeland.
Second, last Sunday, New York hosted an International Conference on Protection and Accountability in Burma. The conference called upon the international community to boycott the Myanmar government. It underlined the fact that the Rohingya are the most prosecuted though there are other ethnic minorities like Karen, Kachin and Shan which are also victims of state violence.
The conference criticized the UN Security Council for not taking action. It lambasted Russia and China for obstructing the punitive process. Backed by Russia, China has raised strong objections and refused to allow the UNSC to negotiate on a British proposal of last December to impose a deadline on Myanmar for coming out with a strategy for resolving the Rohingya conundrum.
Sunday’s conference in New York was preceded by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres himself expressing “enormous frustration” as regards Myanmar. Progress was “too slow” in allowing Rohingya Muslims to return home, the conference said. The most powerful nations in the UN system seem to be either uninterested, or helpless or standing with the Myanmar army.
Third, on Monday leaders of the the Cox’s Bazar Civil Society Organization-Non Governmental Organization (CSO-NGO) Forum addressed the local press. They accused International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) of appropriating huge sums of money for their own benefit and not helping the Rohingya cause.
The Co-Chair of Cox’s Bazar CSO-NGO Forum, Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khoka, said there are 123 local and international NGOs working in the Rohingya Camps. Most of them, he said, had come from outside Bangladesh, raised funds in the name of helping Rohingya refugees but spent these on luxury SUVs, five-star hotel rooms and other amenities for themselves.
Does this sounds familiar? International relief agencies have often been accused of using the bulk of the funds allotted to them for their own upkeep. Donors use the bulk of their aid to purchase their own goods and services at exorbitant prices.
All this has continues unabated. All natural or man-made disasters witness formidable mismanagement, duplication, pilferage and corruption. The Rohingya crisis is no exception.
Meanwhile, what is becoming increasingly evident is that the Rohingya crisis is not limited to Myanmar alone; or to Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas have silently dispersed across several countries in Asia. This has been triggered by the fact that Myanmar never recognized them as citizens. In 2013, Myanmar had 735,000 Rohingyas. But over 1 million had already moved to other Asian countries.
Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal was the first one to give safe haven to the Rohingyas in the mid-1960s. Today, KSA host sover 400,000 Rohingyas. Butafter King Faisal’s death thousands of Rohingyas were deported or restricted. Only last month, the UN Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, criticized Saudi Arabia for deporting 12 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. Rohingyas no longer seem to be welcome in Saudi Arabia.
Bangladesh has also over the years accumulated over 300,000 Rohingyas largely around the Chittagong Hill Tracts while Pakistan, Thailand and India have over 200,000, 150,000 and 40,000 Rohingyas respectively. Malaysia, which has lately become a major destination, now hosts a little over 40,000 according to the UNHCR.
In each of these host nations Rohingya communities as well as the state apparatuses have been pushed to the edge eroding mutual understanding and trust.
India, which is the world’s second largest Muslim nation and which has so far continued an open door policy of “non-refoulement” of refugees especially from neighboring nations — now makes a distinction by allowing only minorities facing political persecution.
India now expects majority communities to stay in their home nations where India is happy to help in relief and reconstruction. This rather cautious stance is explained in terms of India’s security concerns.
The number of Rohingya in India has shrunk in the recent past. About 230 Rohingya were arrested during 2018 and seven of them were deported last October to Bangladesh.
This has created a fear psychosis. According to Inter Sector Coordination Group that includes UN agencies the first fortnight of last month saw over 1,300 Rohingya crossing over from India to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s exemplary initiative in hosting 740,000 Rohingya refugees has elicited enormous praise. But the rising numbers of refugees with no end of the crisis in sight are beginning to generate fatigue.
In spite of occasional high-profile visits of Bollywood or Hollywood celebrities that hit media headlines, camps set up by Bangladesh since August 2017 are bursting at the seams generating fears of pandemics, crime, and corruption.
Living on the edge creates an environment of tension, crime and radicalization of able bodied persons.
The UN has so far passed a rather broad and inane non-binding resolution urging Myanmar to recognize the Rohingyas as their citizens and put a stop to violence, hate-speech, displacement and economic deprivation of various ethnic and religious minorities.
After mass graves were unearthed near the Malaysian border of suspected of Rohingyas and Bangladesh migrants who were perhaps held there by their traffickers and then left to die, both Indonesia and Malaysia agreed last May to allow their boats to anchor. But they would not be recognized as refugees.
The UNHCR has so far made some inroads issuing identity documents to Rohingyas in several of these countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and India, hoping this will protect them from deportation. But this is no guarantee of a peaceful return to their homes in Myanmar.
As a first step, therefore, stakeholders have to appreciate that the Rohingya crisis remains complex, widespread and deep. The solution is only in strengthening democratic norms and systems of people’s participation in the host countries.
The process of denial of civil rights that had begun with the 1947 constitution gradually made most political parties and officials believe that the Rohingyas are ‘Bengalis’. Military rule since 1962 restricted the national discourse to the Burman Buddhists. Only they could be deemed loyal Mynamar citizens.
Crisis-management is a daily task. But there should be rectification at a deeper level by providing identity and security to the Rohingyas. Long haul, concrete efforts are needed to acquire a clear understanding and consensus about the enormity of the challenge posed by the Rohingyas and how it engulfs several Asian nations.
(The author is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo )