Neither repressive regimes nor the coronavirus pandemic can hold back the demand of the persecuted Rohingya community in seeking a dignified and respectful return to their homeland.
Three years after the military junta of Myanmar unleashed history’s worst persecution on Rohingya in northern Rakhine state on Aug. 25, 2017, the Rohingya diaspora are determined to retrieve their rights as citizens.
“The Rohingya diaspora will not rest until meaningful repatriation of every Rohingya person in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and other countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia,” Dr. Wakar Uddin, founding chairman of Burmese Rohingya Association North America (BRANA), told Anadolu Agency in an interview.
Myanmar Tatmadaw, or the military, launched “clearance operations,” which resulted in the exodus of 750,000 Rohingya across the borders to the adjacent Bangladesh city of Teknaf.
“That [repatriation of Rohingya] is the most urgent step in moving forward,” said Wakar, who is also the director general of Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU).
Since then, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency.
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while an excess of 114,000 others were beaten, it said in its Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience report.
End institutionalized exclusion, disenfranchisement
London-based scholar-activist Muang Zarni told Anadolu Agency that the 1982 Citizenship Act by Myanmar’s dictator Ne Win institutionalized “exclusion, disenfranchisement and destruction of the Rohingya community.”
“It is a racist decree and the Rohingya community wants it to end,” said Zarni, who has emerged as a popular voice for Rohingya rights. “I know a key drafter of the [1982 Citizenship] Act who admitted to me that the aim of the citizenship act was to strip the Rohingya of their birth right to a nationality and citizenship.”
Refugees, he said, want to return to their homeland in northern Rakhine, and live in peace with other communities. “They want to reconcile with other people such as their Rakhine brothers and sisters.”
For Wakar, the Rohingya diaspora “will use all means to increase international pressure on Myanmar to implement the repatriation agreement that it signed with Bangladesh – safe, dignified and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees to their original homes in Arakan.”
According to the Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh since the 2017 crackdown, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.
Some 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police, and more than 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned and 113,000 vandalized, it added.
Solution lies with Myanmar
For Imran Muhammad, a refugee rights activist, it was the government of Myanmar that created the refugee crisis.
“Obviously, the solution to this crisis is in their hands. Myanmar must restore citizenship of Rohingya and let them go back home unconditionally,” he told Anadolu Agency from Malaysia, where he has lived since 2017.
“I am wondering if the Rohingya crisis is ever going to end. There are refugees living in the camps for more than 30 years. I, myself, was born in a refugee camp and grew up there. I don’t know what we can expect from the international community,” said Imran, who left Rakhine in 1992 when he was two years old.
“The international community should exert well-coordinated pressure on Myanmar, or share the burden of refugees as an alternative solution.”
His views were corroborated by Mohammed Rafique, who lives in Ireland.
“The Rohingya simply want to return to their ancestral land where they have a place to call home, where they could raise their children like their forefathers with equality and dignity,” he said.
We want to end to the cycle of persecution by holding the Myanmar military accountable for genocide and human rights abuses committed against his community, added Rafique, who works as media secretary of the European Rohingya Council.
Bringing Myanmar to ICJ ‘historic step’
Wakar, who is also a professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US, said the legal case mounted by The Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “is of historic significance.”
“The OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation] has never taken such a legal approach before in dealing with any Muslim community issue in the world,” he said.
According to a Jan. 23 ruling by the ICJ, Myanmar is obliged to take all measures to protect the Rohingya community from mental and physical harm, as well as from the deliberate infliction of life conditions that cause “physical destruction” and measures “intended to prevent births within the group.”
“The ICJ normally hears cases of maritime dispute or border issues between countries, but the Rohingya genocide case is unique, setting an important precedence for others in the world in pursuing justice,” he said.
Zarni, the academic, urged on seeking help from countries outside the influence of Myanmar and those who side with the military junta.
“The Rohingya community abroad needs support from governments, and solidarity networks to reclaim a piece of earth they can call home,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but it is not inconceivable.”
UN’s role ‘monumental’
Wakar acknowledged the role of UN but regretted setbacks at the Security Council.
“What the UN, within its power and jurisdiction, has done on the Rohingya issue is monumental. Numerous resolutions at the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have been passed during the past several years,” he said. “The Security Council also brought the issue to the floor and debated, although China and Russia blocked it from passing a resolution.”
But, he added, a UN Fact Finding Commission report was “instrumental in materializing” the case at the ICJ.
“We will also not rest in seeking justice… we will ultimately reclaim the citizenship of our people with all the basic rights abruptly revoked by Myanmar just because of our ethnic identity and our Islamic faith.”
With regards to the role played by the OIC, he said the largest Muslim bloc has adopted a three-pronged approach: political advocacy, humanitarian support and legal action.
“Political advocacy is engaging with the UN and other world powers, including the US, Canada, Europeans and even China and Russia. In humanitarian support, the OIC and several member countries have provided humanitarian assistance in refugee camps in Bangladesh as well as in IDP [Internally Displaced People] camps in Arakan in Myanmar,” he said.
‘Valuable time lost’
The ARU chief, however, expressed helplessness in “losing valuable time” in the struggle.
“The refugees have been in camps in Bangladesh for three years now, and their sufferings have spiraled due to poor conditions. Camp are meant for a temporary shelter, not for keeping them for years and years,” he said.
“Rohingya children in camps are growing up without being on their homeland and without education, proper healthcare, and so many attributes that define their future.”
He said the refugee population has been swelling within camps with a significant number with newborn babies.
“The very social fabrics of our community is totally broken down as our people are scattered in many parts of the world.”
But, in a voice full of hope, Wakar asserted: “We are confident that the tremendous efforts by the international community to find a solution to the Rohingya will come to fruition, and the UN agencies will be instrumental in rebuilding the socio-economic, education and community infrastructures of the Rohingya people when peace and justice prevails in Arakan [Rakhine] State, Myanmar.”
“Neither the pandemic nor repressive regime can silence the voices of Rohingya people who demand accountability, restoration of full and equal citizenship rights and a homeland with inalienable rights of all peoples,” said Ro Nay San Lwin, co-founder of Free Rohingya Coalition based in the UK.
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