UN’s Test with the Rohingya

September 15, 2017
On December 15, 2016, respected think-tank International Crisis Group published a report titled, “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State” (*). This was following the attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on October 9, 2016 during which, according to the authorities, nine policemen lost their lives. The report dealt with the plight of the Rohingya, the emergence of a new insurgent group and warned of what could follow. These are key passages from the said report:
The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.
“The emergence of this well-organized, apparently well-funded group is a gamechanger in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.
“HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalized population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability…
“The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State… While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognizes that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life…
“… Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups. The presence of a well-organized, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so…” (emphasis added)
As foreseen by the International Crisis Group, it was another assault by the insurgents on August 25 which triggered the latest round of violence with the government resorting once again to disproportionate use of force.
In his opening remarks at the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council on September 11, 2017, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that in less than three weeks over 270,000 people have fled to Bangladesh, three times more than the 87,000 who fled the previous operation. He added that since Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators the current situation could not yet be fully assessed, but the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Reportedly, the number is now 370,000 and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the humanitarian situation is catastrophic. Western media has carried numerous reports regarding the plight of the Rohingya. European Commission’s fact sheet on recent developments says, “The Rohingya crisis is a human rights crisis with serious humanitarian consequences. In Myanmar/Burma, the Rohingya have very limited access to basic services and viable livelihood opportunities due to strict movement restrictions and are denied citizenship rights. This has rendered them one of the largest stateless populations in the world…” Amnesty International has released satellite images which it says show an “orchestrated campaign” to burn Rohingya villages in western Myanmar.
In brief,
• Everybody agrees that the Rohingya are an extremely oppressed minority;
• Their oppression has led to the emergence of insurgent groups;
• These are not radicalized yet, but the potential is there if the current situation were to continue (In a statement posted online, al Qaeda threatened the Myanmar government, calling for militants to set out for Burma. It said, “the savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers … shall not pass without punishment, and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted”.);
• The Rakhine State is neither Ukraine nor Syria where major powers have conflicts of interest;
• On the contrary, the world has interest in not allowing al-Qaida, ISIS and their likes to secure a bridgehead in the region;
• Thus, the international community and the UN claiming to represent its collective will should be able to step in and make a difference.
(*) https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/283-myanmar-new-muslim-insurgency-rakhine-state

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