UN dithers over Ro­hingya geno­cide

Such a def­i­ni­tion would spark in­ter­na­tional ac­tion, but even refugee sta­tus is not be­ing granted

Mail & Guardian - - World - Michael Sch­midt

While the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity fences over whether to name the eth­nic cleans­ing of Ro­hingyas in Myan­mar a geno­cide, the killing re­port­edly con­tin­ues — and 700 000 refugees in Bangladesh bat­ten down to face what could prove to be an equally deadly mon­soon sea­son.

The mas­sacres, mass rapes, vil­lage-raz­ing, forced famine and ex­pul­sions were recog­nised as bear­ing “the hall­marks of geno­cide” on March 12 by Yanghee Lee, the United Na­tion’s hu­man rights rap­por­teur on Myan­mar. This came on the heels of a re­port by the Myan­mar mil­i­tary that ex­on­er­ated all but 10 se­cu­rity force mem­bers of any crimes against the Ro­hingya. Yanghee’s state­ment is the strong­est af­fir­ma­tion by the UN of the grav­ity of the cri­sis since its hu­man rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned days ear­lier that what he sus­pected were “acts of geno­cide” were on­go­ing in Rakhine State, al­beit with lower in­ten­sity.

Most diplo­mats such as for­mer United States sec­re­tary of state Rex Tiller­son have re­ferred to the cri­sis as “eth­nic cleans­ing”. But the term has no ground­ing in in­ter­na­tional law — un­like “geno­cide” and “crimes against hu­man­ity”. An of­fi­cial UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil des­ig­na­tion such as geno­cide is crit­i­cal to ac­ti­vate the 1948 Geno­cide Con­ven­tion to which Myan­mar is a sig­na­tory, but the UN has very rarely done so, as in Bos­nia and Dar­fur — and as China is a sig­nif­i­cant sup­plier of arms to Myan­mar, it would be hard to se­cure.

The de­sire of most Ro­hingya to re­turn to their an­ces­tral lands is thwarted by the in­flu­ence in the mil­i­tary of Myan­mar’s ul­tra­right Bud­dhist monks, ren­der­ing Myan­mar’s Nelson Man­dela fig- ure, Aung San Suu Kyi, pow­er­less. Some Myan­mar ex­perts, such as Politico mag­a­zine’s Na­hal Toosi, have ar­gued that her in­ac­tion on the geno­cide, and flat re­fusal to use the word “Ro­hingya”, and in so do­ing risk alien­at­ing her eth­nic sup­port base, re­veals her to be a Bur­man na­tion­al­ist.

Near the Myan­mar border and close to the epi­cen­tre of the geno­cide, Ku­tu­pa­long is a vast, er­satz camp of 150000 Ro­hingya refugees, dis­tin­guish­able from Bangladeshi Mus­lims by their dress, lan­guage and cus­toms dat­ing back to the me­di­ae­val king­dom of Arakan, which strad­dled con­tem­po­rary Bangladesh and Myan­mar.

Perched on a hill­side over­look­ing a Red Cres­cent com­pound, Ab­dul Rahim is barely 18, but he car­ries a lam­i­nated card around his neck in­di­cat­ing he is a ma­jhi, a Ro­hingya com­mu­nity leader, recog­nised by the camp au­thor­i­ties. Most elders, too weak to es­cape, were slaugh­tered by Bud­dhist and Myan­mar army death­squads.

Rahim’s 60-year-old fa­ther, Mo­hamed Ali, was among them: the man was “locked in his house by the army and a mob [act­ing] to­gether, and the house was burned”; Rahim’s 23-year-old brother Osil Ha­man was shot; his mother, six other broth­ers and two sisters man­aged to es­cape.

“At the time of the at­tack, I was vis­it­ing Kul­sumar Ak­ter, a beau­ti­ful girl of 16 who I was friends with in a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage. The army raped her and killed her in front of me. Ten or 12 very beau­ti­ful girls were gath­ered in a house, raped and killed by the army.”

An­other young ma­jhi is Mo­hamed Is­lam (22) from Maung­daw in Rakhine State, a town that was 80% Ro­hingya be­fore 120000 Ro­hingyas were re­lo­cated be­tween 2012 and 2016, sup­pos­edly for their pro­tec­tion from hos­tile neigh­bours, to de facto con­cen­tra­tion camps. He tells of the assault on his com­mu­nity by a force of the Myan­mar army act­ing along­side a lo­cal vig­i­lante group.

“It was four o’clock in the af­ter­noon on 25 Au­gust. Sud­denly they at­tacked. The [vig­i­lante mili­tia] was wear­ing army uni­forms. They were shoot­ing ev­ery­one and burn­ing the houses; these were the targets of the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment. I was run­ning in the yard of my house from the army but an army sniper shot me in the foot and I fell down; the army thought that I had died so they left me. When I opened my eyes, I saw lots of dead bod­ies; my friend Shokil, who was 27 years old, was killed.”

Moved dur­ing the night by two fel­low sur­vivors, who car­ried the wounded Is­lam on a wooden pole be­tween them, he said they en­coun­tered vil­lage af­ter vil­lage where corpses were strewn about. It took the trio two ter­ri­fy­ing days to cover the 70km to the Naf River, which marks the border with Bangladesh, and cross to safety.

On ar­rival in the for­est re­serve on the out­skirts of the south­ern Bangladeshi town of Ukhia, the tens of thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees ini­tially had to live un­der the stars, tak­ing their chances with snakes and ele­phants that killed sev­eral. Of the 700000 sur­vivors who set­tled in three big refugee camps such as Ku­tu­pa­long and 10 smaller ones, Unicef es­ti­mates that 60% are chil­dren.

The camp is dot­ted with “child­friendly spa­ces”. I visit one, where per­haps 50 chil­dren squat on the floor in clus­ters. Among the scat­tered smiles there are hard eyes and far­away stares. Ev­ery­one here seems to have scarred hearts or bod­ies.

One of the few elders in the camp, Noor Bashir (56) had a nar­row es­cape: he lifts his bazu shirt and longyi to show me the ma­chete wounds on his legs and right hip.

An Au­gust 2017 doc­u­men­tary by Al Jazeera cor­re­spon­dent Salam Hin­dawi, who man­aged to get in­side one of the con­cen­tra­tion camps in Rakhine State, shows Ro­hingya women gang-rape sur­vivors in tears as they re­count wit­ness­ing their hus­bands be­ing taken away by the mil­i­tary to an un­cer­tain fate.

Days ear­lier and 330km north­north­west, I had been sit­ting in the mod­est of­fice of Bangladesh’s deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of im­mi­gra­tion. She plied me with tea and mishti sweet­meats as her min­ions pro­cessed my visa ex­ten­sion ap­pli­ca­tion. Stacked high on the desks of of­fices be­low were ap­pli­ca­tions from hun­dreds of Chinese and Indians as well as Be­larus­sians and many other na­tion­al­i­ties, but no Ro­hingyas. Bangladesh has not granted them refugee sta­tus. Even the pre-geno­cide com­mu­nity of 400 000 who fled re­pres­sion two decades ago is unas­sim­i­lated, dis­al­lowed from trav­el­ling, school­ing or mar­ry­ing Ben­galis.

Now the mon­soon sea­son threat­ens the lives of an es­ti­mated 100 000 sur­vivors: though the aid or­gan­i­sa­tions have built con­crete stairs, wa­ter tanks and wo­ven-bam­boo, plas­tic and cor­ru­gated iron shel­ters for the Ro­hingya, these are un­likely to with­stand cy­clone-force winds and mud­slides.

That my interviews take place on the 70th an­niver­sary of the still un­re­solved dis­pos­ses­sion of 700 000 other Mus­lims — those of Pales­tine in 1948 — make the Ro­hingyas’ ap­peals for the full re­in­state­ment of their citizenship and homes that much more poignant — and des­per­ate.

Dis­placed: More than 700 000 Ro­hingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh, but mon­soon sea­son is com­ing, and now se­vere weather threat­ens their makeshift shel­ters. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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