The Rohingyas are again under attack in Myanmar. The New York Times has correctly observed that "Myanmar has long persecuted the country's Rohingya Muslim minority, denying it basic rights to citizenship, to marry, to worship and to education." Reuters has reported from Yangon that more than 1,000 homes have been razed in Rohingya villages during a military 'counter-insurgency' lockdown (between October 22 November 10). This estimate is based on the analysis of satellite images which Human Rights Watch released on November 21. Latest figures indicate that up to 30,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar's Rakhine state - half of them over the course of the second and third weeks of November.
Maungdaw township is a predominantly Muslim area on Myanmar's northwestern border where the majority of the population belongs to the stateless Rohingya minority. The Myanmar border police carried out a series of attacks there and the inhabitants fled from their villages on October 09.
Myanmar authorities alleged that some officials were killed in Maungdaw and the attackers fled the scene with a hoard of weapons stolen from the police armory.
The Myanmar President's Office subsequently alleged that a previously unknown Rohingya group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin was responsible for the attacks. The statement released by the office said that this group normally "persuades the young people using religious extremism, and they also have financial support from outside."
According to Jonah Fisher of BBC, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be in a delicate position on this issue. She is Myanmar's de facto leader, but security is under the control of the autonomous armed forces. That is probably why despite international pressure she has been unable to initiate a credible investigation into the alleged abuses in Rakhine state. She, however, claimed that the operation by the military is being carried out according to the "rule of law".
Chris Leya from the Arakan Project, an advocacy group with a network of sources across the area, has commented that "We have a lot of concerns about what is happening in the North near Maungdaw. In the first week (of the operation) we know the army were burning villages, burning houses, shooting people on sight, looting and arresting people too. We have also had a report of a number of women who have been raped in one village. We are not sure how many women yet, but it is between 10 and 30". In the meantime, the Myanmar government has acknowledged using helicopter gunships in support of ground troops in the operations.
It may be noted here that nearly 140,000 Rohingya already live as internally displaced people in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. They have been living in dire conditions since a wave of inter-religious violence engulfed the Rakhine State in 2012, leaving more than 100 dead. The largest such camps is situated on the outskirts of Sittwe.
Civil society activists have alleged that the state capital does not offer Rohingya IDPs the same security as the Buddhist Rakhine who also fled Maungdaw. Media reports have also indicated that humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya IDP camps was temporarily suspended after the attacks in Maungdaw. Aid organisations, since then, have slowly started resuming their services but NGO staff has confirmed (to Al Jazeera) that most schools and health centres remain closed as the staff, many of whom are ethnic Rakhine, are scared of entering the camps.
In the meantime, the displaced Muslim Rohingyas have strongly denied any knowledge or involvement in any of the attacks. They have also been critical of what the government has been saying to the international community on this issue and claimed that it was not true.
The already complex humanitarian crisis is being further exacerbated through rumours of unfair aid distribution. This is fuelling suspicions between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. Many within the Buddhist community are accusing that the NGOs are only supporting the Rohingya Muslim community. This complaint was made recently by Rakhine camp chairman U Soe Naing who also referred to the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Commenting on this situation, Innocent Sauti of the World Food Programme (WFP) has observed that they are ready to assist everybody but the regional government has turned down their offer to assist the Buddhist Rakhine IDPs sheltering in Sittwe claiming that the monasteries already have ample supplies.
The media has, however, reported that there has been some delay in the delivery of food rations by WFP to Rohingya Muslim IDPs living in Zone One, an area that covers Kyauktaw, Minbya and Mrauk-U townships due to lack of sufficient security escort. Nevertheless, all other camps, including those on the outskirts of Sittwe, have received their monthly rations on time. WFP has also emphasised that "we are not getting involved in the politics … WFP is committed to giving people food irrespective of their background or religion."
In the meantime, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Mr. Yanghee Lee, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UNHCR representative in Bangladesh have criticised the manner in which the Myanmar government is handling the issue. In a statement Lee has mentioned that "the security forces must not be given carte blanche to step up their operations under the smokescreen of having allowed access to an international delegation (consisting of UN officials and foreign diplomats) to visit the affected area. Urgent action is needed to bring resolution to the situation". The UNHCR representative McKissick has observed that "ethnic cleansing" is going on in Myanmar. Zaw Htay, spokesman for Myanmar President Htin Kyaw has criticised the comments and questioned the professionalism and ethics which should be followed and respected by the UN staff.
It may be recalled that the Obama Administration eased remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar this September because of assertions by Suu Kyi that the Myanmar government was focusing 'on bringing respect for the human rights of its people'. That statement now appears to have been premature.
Unfortunately, ethnic divides in Myanmar have been leading to sectarian conflicts for many decades. The latest took place on November 20 on some military and police outposts stationed in Muse and Kutkai, border towns in northern Myanmar's Shan state, causing casualties among both civilians and the military. This has led more than 3,000 Myanmar refugees seeking shelter in China. This latest violence had nothing to do with Islam. Analysts have mentioned that there might have been questions related to drug trafficking and sharing of profits between the local Administration and the smugglers who carry drugs surreptitiously into China, Thailand and Bangladesh. It may be recalled that more than 691,000 Yaba pills were seized by Bangladesh Coast Guard and the Border Guard Bangladesh on November 20 while it was being smuggled through the Naf River at Alugolla in Teknaf.
The scenario within this sub-region continues to be a source of concern for Bangladesh which is already hosting nearly 30,000 documented Rohingya Muslim refugees in different camps located in the Cox's Bazar area. It is also known that more than four hundred thousand Rohingya Muslim refugees who entered Bangladesh over the past two decades have managed through various means to assimilate themselves clandestinely within the local Bangladeshi population. Tens of thousands of them have since gone to the Gulf countries and to Malaysia where they are working as expatriate Bangladeshi workers.
This time, once again, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed deep concern about the safety and well-being of civilians in Rakhine state after the latest spurt of violence and urged the Bangladesh government to keep its border with Myanmar open in order to allow safe passage for the Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The media has reported that the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and the Coast Guard have been following government instructions in this regard. They have been humanely treating the terrified migrants before persuading them to return to Myanmar's side of the border. Despite this the AFP has reported that more than one thousand Rohingya Muslim refugees have managed to evade the Border Guards and have taken shelter in Bangladesh. The electronic media has suggested that this figure is many times higher.
Bangladesh does not want another mass arrival of Rohingya Muslims into this country due to cogent reasons. Since 1978 we have had several such unfortunate experiences. Fresh arrivals of thousands more will only affect the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Foreign Ministry summoned the Myanmar Ambassador and expressed serious concern about the "desperate Rohingya Muslims" trying to enter Bangladesh from Myanmar seeking safety and shelter. It was stressed during the meeting that Myanmar needs to "ensure integrity of its border" to stop this illegal influx. Another meeting, quite appropriately, has also been convened in Cox's Bazar between representatives from the Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB) and the Myanmar Border Police on working out common modalities to stop infiltration of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has been trying its best to be constructive in this regard. We are trying to address the potential of greater connectivity with Myanmar through the implementation of the BICM Corridor and BIMSTEC. The Prime Minister has had two separate meetings with Myanmar's State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi in recent months - in New York and in Goa. Bangladesh believes that there is prospect for improving bilateral engagement in trade, energy and the exploitation of maritime resources.
Consequently, time has now come for developed countries, including the Western powers, their civil society (so aware of human rights), the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take a more pro-active stance and actively engage with the new civilian government in Myanmar to control the situation within that country. One way forward might be to build new refugee camps for the internally displaced people within Myanmar so that the Rohingya Muslims can remain under the supervision of the UNHCR. If necessary, an effort should also be undertaken to convene a tripartite meeting in Geneva or New York or nearby between Myanmar, Bangladesh and the UN to work out the least common denominators for resolving this evolving human rights disaster. The European Union, USA, Canada and Australia need to be more pro-active in this regard. A densely populated country like Bangladesh must not be left to shoulder this recurring problem by itself.
The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.