Myanmar targets remnants of Rohingya identity 

Myanmar targets remnants of Rohingya identity 

A Rohingya village obliterated by fire in Rakhine, Myanmar. (Reuters)

The 1 million-plus Rohingya huddled in refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh continue to be a stain on the conscience of the international community, two years after the military of Myanmar started its “clearing operations” to remove them from their native homeland in northern Rakhine State.

Perhaps it is for that reason that both the international community and the government of Bangladesh talk and behave as if the displacement of the Rohingya is not, and cannot be, accepted as a permanent state of affairs. And, for their part, the authorities of Myanmar are humoring Bangladesh and the rest of the international community with various “plans” to resettle the Rohingya in the country of their birth.

The problem is that most of those wanting to return will not be able to return to their homes — most of those have already been destroyed. So they would have to move into some sort of government-built camps: That is to say, internally displaced people’s camps likely administered and overseen by the very people who conducted the original “clearing operations.”

Some 128,000of the quarter of a million Rohingya still in Myanmar had been held in just such camps until late last year in conditions akin to concentration camps. And, when the government of Myanmar finally succumbed to international pressure over the conditions in those camps, their “closure” manifested almost entirely in the rebuilding of the housing in those areas. But the people themselves are still effectively captives in the very same areas, with no right to travel and cut out from most services and from employment.

The most striking findings of a recently published analysis of satellite imagery from Rakhine State by the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute are that the government of Myanmar is still engaged in an active process of razing abandoned and/or burnt Rohingya villages (almost 400 villages in the past six months or so), while so-called preparations for accepting Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh are “minimal.”

This is not the behavior of a state that understands it has committed genocide against one of its indigenous peoples and is looking to make amends. This is the behavior of a state that is putting the finishing touches on erasing every last physical trace that the Rohingya were ever in Rakhine State.

The government of Myanmar is still engaged in an active process of razing abandoned and/or burnt Rohingya villages.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Myanmar’s strategy is fully transparent: Rhetorically yielding to international pressure, making “plans” for the resettlement of the refugees, agreeing accords with Bangladesh and so on, while signaling in no uncertain terms to the Rohingya themselves that they have nothing to return to and that they will not be safe if they do return. And, when the Rohingya do the sensible thing and refuse voluntary resettlement, Myanmar can wash its hands of its responsibility for them.

For the time being, the authorities in Myanmar are unhappy that the Rohingya still have a claim to their former lands in northern Rakhine State. But, as the traces of their villages are erased and as more time passes, more and more of the few Rohingya remaining in the country yield to the pressure and flee. And, as the localization of the largest proportion of Rohingya over the border in Bangladesh becomes the new normal, the claim the Rohingya have to their ancestral lands and to citizenship in the country of their birth will have been successfully erased.

Genocide rarely looks like an episode of frenzied killing like in Rwanda. And the essence of genocide is killing an identity as much as killing the people who subscribe to that identity. Myanmar is not currently wholesale slaughtering Rohingya, now that most of them have successfully made it across the border into Bangladesh, but the authorities in Myanmar are quietly ploughing on with destroying everything related to Rohingya identity and their history that is still in their reach.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​
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