The Rohingya

On Wednesday, Bob Rae released his final report on the Myanmar and the Rohingya entitled, “‘Tell them we’re human:’ What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis.” The report can be read in full on the internet.

http://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/response_conflict-reponse_conflits/crisis-crises/rep_sem-rap_esm.aspx?lang=eng

Though Bob is a good friend, a great ambassador of good will for Canada, a man of both wisdom and great integrity with a fine moral compass, I recommend reading the report both because the plight of the Rohingya refugees and internally displaced is so terrible and the situation forces any Canadian to focus on what principles they hold and how they ought to be put into practice.

As you read or even skim the report, I suggest a number of questions. But first a number of basic facts, most included in the report.

  1. The Rohingya lived for years overwhelmingly in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar.
  2. Rakhine is the poorest state in Myanmar.
  3. The population of Rakhine State in 2014 was 3,188,807 and included many minorities, but in small numbers.
  4. About two-thirds of the population of Rakhine, about 2,100,000, at the time of the above census, was Buddhist, overwhelmingly Rakhine who speak a Sittwe dialect.
  5. Rohingya then made up just over one-third of the population or about 1,050,000 and speak a Rang-bre dialect; that census is somewhat disputed since Rohingya were denied the right to register in the census unless they did so as Bengali and many refused.
  6. The Rohingya are Sufi Muslims.
  7. Thus, the majority population of Rakhine and the minority population of Rohingya differ in ethnicity, religion and language.
  8. The two groups have been at odds for decades and have a history of violent conflict dating back to at least WWII when the Rohingya sided with the West and the Rakhine sided with Japan.
  9. Many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh before the 2014 census and most were hosted in refugee camps.
  10. In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and dubbed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though their roots in Myanmar go back centuries; for a while, they were issued white identity cards giving them limited rights, but explicitly stating that they were not citizens.
  11. Many Rohingya fled because of employment, education and access to health were limited, a limit of two was placed on the number of children a couple could have, and rights to religious practice, marriage and even freedom of movement were also limited.
  12. Thousands fled in 2012.
  13. In February 2015, the temporary white identity cards were cancelled.
  14. In October 2016, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled as militant Rohingya attacked military and police posts and the latter responded with violence burning villages and raping Rohingya women.
  15. In August 2017, again in response to a raid by militant Rohingya, riots broke out and, facilitated by border police and the military, in a widespread ethnic cleansing involving the burning of hundreds of villages over the following month, an estimated additional 670,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar.
  16. There are now an estimated 950,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another 50,000 or so distributed among Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
  17. Of the remaining 450,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, 120,000 live in abject poverty in internally displaced camps.
  18. Most of the remaining 330,000 are little better off and are subject to curfews, severe restrictions on movement and frequent violent attacks.

Bob’s report includes references to the political situation in Myanmar, the political initiatives in the United Nations and a long analysis of the situation followed by 17 recommendations. In his report, Bob states, “I was permitted access to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, the week of February 4, 2018. What became immediately apparent was the deep resentment of the very presence of the Rohingya population in Rakhine by some (my italics) ethnic Rakhine and the extent to which international and other efforts to establish a humanitarian dialogue are, in fact, deeply resented. It is this hatred that in my view poses the greatest threat to any possibility of a safe and dignified return for the Rohingya who are currently living in Bangladesh and indeed threatens the lives of those Rohingya who are still in central and northern Rakhine.”

Question 1: Why does Bob in his first recommendation insist on listening to the voices of the Rohingya but does not include the voices of the majority of Bamar in Rakhine, Myanmar, or of the Bengali population in Bangladesh, particularly those living in the region of Cox’s Bazaar where the largest number of refugee camps are located?

Question 2: Why does Bob recommend that Canada take a leading role in dealing with the crisis when we are such a small donor and would remain so even if we tripled our annual contribution as recommended, when our foreign capital investment in Myanmar is .01 of China’s and Singapore’s, .02 of Thailand’s and .03 of Hong Kong’s, when as an exporter to and an importer from Myanmar, we do not even make it on the comparative charts, and when no basis is provided in the report for choosing among many competing crises in areas where we have much greater interests and a significant degree of political and academic expertise? When we do not count on virtually any scale of economic involvement, when we lack in-depth political capacity or academic expertise, when we advise Canadians to travel to Myanmar with caution because of “the unsettled political situation and the possibility of civic unrest,” when our ambassador, Karen MacArthur, on her trip with other diplomats to Rakhine state, was “protected” by a phalanx of border guards and police who have been accused of perpetrating the atrocities on the Rohingya, why would the Rohingya population, let alone that of Myanmar, be open to Canadian leadership?

Question 3: Why the great stress on humanitarian assistance to camps when the report itself suggests that camps usually lead to the long-term warehousing of refugees as recently documented in the recent book by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World; that book trashes camps as a solution to refugees and emphasizing them appears to undermine economic development in dealing with the problem, a direction which Bob seems to favour?

Question 4: Why not be really radical and take the almost US$1B planned to be spent annually on the crisis and give those funds – say $1,000 to each refugee family with a line of credit of an additional $4,000 spread over 4 years (total approximately 200,000 families = $200M annually) – not only the refugees, but an equivalent amount to the polity hosting the displaced and double that amount as an investment in the local population so that it is in everyone’s economic interest to allow the refugees to settle?

Question 5: Why propose a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) among the various stakeholders when even in states with a much smaller degree of ethnic and religious conflict, such MoUs in Kenya and Nigeria where the historical, structural, institutional, legal, and cultural dimensions of the conflict have very much smaller depth, and when MoUs have had limited success in other regions only because the local insurgency was overwhelmed by force by the state as in Aceh, Sri Lanka or the Myanmar Keren in Thailand (the minority uprising was effectively defeated)? Only in a polity like Northern Ireland has there been significant success, but the conflict was between two groups divided by religion only, without nearly the extent of violence and in a context of strong social and political institutions. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh over the years have signed many agreements, three recent ones concerning the repatriation of the refugees, but the situation simply gets worse and the words have little substantive meaning.

Question 6: Why does recommendation 5 require, “reassuring both the Rohingya population and the international community of the sincerity and credibility of the commitment of both the civilian and military wings of the Government of Myanmar to an effective plan for the return of the Rohingya population,” when the desire for return may be sincere, but has never been shown to be credible where ethnic and religious groups have been involved in violent conflict, unless the ethnic groups returns after its army has inflicted defeat as in Rwanda in 1994? Otherwise, refugees never return in a context of groups with deep ethnic and religious divides and a long history of violence. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge – Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.) Further, Bob himself writes that although, “The government has also said it will allow for the return of the Rohingya to their home villages…evidence suggests that many of these villages have been destroyed, and there is a prevailing sentiment within the local ethnic Rakhine population against the Rohingya’s return.” In addition, “United Nations (UN) agencies have stated that they do not believe conditions are present for the ‘safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable’ return of the Rohingya to their homes in Rakhine State.” Saying that return has to be conditional in this way just means that there will be no return.

Question 7: Why support Track II initiatives – I have been involved in several – when in such contexts, like refugee return, they have such an unlikely payoff and sometimes lead to extending a violent conflict and the suffering of refugees in the belief that peace (and refugee return) are right around the corner?

Question 8: Why make reference to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) when it has not been operative and if it is, it is because the responsibilities of the international community to protect the oppressed within a polity have been suborned to sovereign rights; even the report recognizes that implementation is subject to the government of Myanmar’s consent?

Question 9: Why was the proposal for Canadian resettlement places for the Rohingya not included in the final list of recommendations?

Question 10: Is there a possibility that the 450,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar might be better off and their situation more likely to improve if the emphasis on the issue of repatriation of the refugees was removed?

Those are enough questions. I leave aside the proposed conditions suggested for the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, the recommendations for dealing with accountability and preventing impunity for those guilty of ethnic cleansing and even possibly genocide, or the recommendations on inter-state cooperation in handling the crisis and the formation of a multi-ministry task force in Canada to deal with policy and its implementation.

Anyone is invited to answer these questions.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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