Myanmar begins to engage on Rohingya genocide

Myanmar begins to engage on Rohingya genocide

Myanmar begins to engage on Rohingya genocide
May Thandar Maung, an 18-year-old Muslim woman in Myanmar, says she hasn't been able to get an ID card because of her religion. (File/AFP)
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The Center for Global Policy last week ran a webinar panel session on the Rohingya genocide. Representatives of Myanmar had previously been invited to such events but had always declined the invitations. Much to our surprise, however, the deputy chief of mission of Myanmar to the US in Washington accepted this invitation.

This kind of move is unprecedented. Up to now, the position of Myanmar on such events has been to question the motives and legitimacy of anyone raising the issue of the Rohingya genocide, while denying all of the (overwhelming) evidence for it as fabricated and hostile to the state of Myanmar.

In this sense, this appearance is a move forward, at least in the sense that the Myanmar authorities now recognize as serious the discussion that we are having in the international civil society about the genocide. This move comes in the light of January’s unanimous decision from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Myanmar to take all measures to protect the remaining Rohingya in Rakhine from genocide. It also comes as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is under pressure to declare an official genocide in the case of the Rohingya, which would reverberate around the world. It is likely that Myanmar now also recognizes internally that its position of stonewall denial is untenable and seriously undermines the credibility of the country and its government on the world stage. For what it is, this does count as progress.

Unfortunately, on the substantive evidence and the conclusions that any impartial observer might draw, the position of Myanmar remains unchanged from what we have heard before from Aung San Suu Kyi, both in media appearances and in her representation before the ICJ late last year. This is to say that Myanmar continues to reject the findings of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the circumstances and events around the time of the genocide as false and hostile to Myanmar. Though quite why the UN would care to engage in this “conspiracy” against a country that most of the world does not care about is still not explained. Instead, it continues to refer to its own internal investigation, the results of which have yet to be published in full, but which, naturally, exonerates Myanmar and the Myanmar army.

Our fundamental concerns are with the safety and basic human dignity of all people, not least the Rohingya.

Azeem Ibrahim

Even more perversely, it insists that it stands ready to welcome returning Rohingyas, but claims that Bangladesh is blocking their return. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar are effectively imprisoned in internally displaced people’s camps. Meanwhile, the entire legal and executive apparatus that was mobilized to force the Rohingya out in the first place remains in position, just as it was at the height of the “clearing operations,” and virtually all the Rohingya villages in their historic lands in northern Rakhine have been levelled and/or reallocated by the state to Buddhist loyalists, so any returning Rohingyas would be returning to what are, in effect, prison camps.

This last point perhaps best illustrates the continued absurdity of the position of the Myanmar authorities: Bangladesh would very happily have the Rohingya return to Myanmar because, just like any other country, it is having to step up and deal with a problem that was in no way of its own making. The only thing that is remarkable about Bangladesh is that it has the humanity to not expel people when those people do not have anywhere safer to go.

Nevertheless, actual engagement with these issues, the available evidence, and the allegations brought against Myanmar by the international community and international civil society is very welcome. And we strongly encourage the representatives of Myanmar to join our discussions in the future. We are not here to castigate Myanmar just for the sake of it. Our fundamental concerns are with the safety and basic human dignity of all people, not least the Rohingya.

We will continue to be critical of Myanmar while it shows such contempt toward some of its own people — and the Rohingya are indeed some of its own people — but we do very much look forward to a future where this changes, where Myanmar meets its moral obligations toward all of its people, and we can all then praise them for it.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of the Displacement and Migration Program at the Center for Global Policy, and author of “Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst: 2016). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim


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