Rohingya refugee Yasmin Ullah’s heart dropped as she received the news. Her family was forced to run for their lives as military troops surrounded their village back home in Myanmar. For four days she felt as if she was holding her breath, waiting for news. Finally it came. They were safe. But others were not as lucky. “They didn’t even have time to put their shoes on,” Ullah says. With no cars or other means of transportation, people have to walk on foot from one place to another. “Eating is a luxury at this point,” she said.

Action Alert – September 2017

As world leaders gather in New York this week  for the Annual United Nations General Assembly meetings, violent extremism is a dominant topic in many of the high level sessions, with much discussion about the need to prevent and counter this phenomenon.  At the same time in Myanmar the expulsion and violence against the Rohingya has continued unabated. According to members of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), news of the violence committed by the Myanmar state forces and extremist Buddhist groups, combined with the seeming inaction of the international community is already galvanizing people across many countries to act in defence and retaliation for the plight of the Rohingya.

This Alert provides a summary of recent events and recommendations for immediate actions by the international community to end the violence against the Rohingya, and prevent the spread of new violence across Asia and beyond.

A Brief Overview of Recent Events

Since 25 August, an estimated 400,000 Rohingya—an ethnoreligious minority group in Myanmar—have fled Myanmar amid a campaign of indiscriminate violence instigated by the military in the name of counter terrorism.   Reports indicate widespread torching of homes and brutal killings, with both security personnel and civilian mobs involved.  Survivors are telling dreadful tales of rape and murder. Recent events add to the exodus of nearly half a million refugees in the past year, leaving hundreds of Rohingya villages empty across Rakhine State.

The trigger for this latest round of attacks on the Rohingya, was  an insurgent attack on police posts. The insurgents were armed with homemade guns, improvised explosives, and knives and they killed 12 members of the security forces. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—which claimed the attack—has been declared a terrorist organization by the Government of Myanmar.

The Myanmar government is using the police station attack and its alleged discovery of a “terrorist training camp” to justify military actions. Among the Rohingya community there are reports that the military has laid landmines at the borders with Bangladesh to make the crossings more precarious.

In addition, there are allegations that government aid to villages across the north of Rakhine state is being conditioned on “cooperation with the authorities”.  Meanwhile access for international humanitarian aid, journalists and human rights observers has been completely blocked making verification of facts on the ground impossible.

Says refugee Yasmin Ullah, “The military generals have sworn they will destroy all villages. Nothing will be left of us, our history or our culture. But one thing is for sure. We do not want to seek life elsewhere. We do not want to become refugees. If the country is safe again, we want to go back home.”

The rationale for the attacks may be terrorism but there may be other facts at play. The recent announcement that an economic zone will be established in northern Rakhine State gives merit to suspicions that there are economic interests behind the forced displacement. If this is true, foreign governments and multinational corporations with stakes in the country’s development projects may deserve a share of the blame for ignoring the Rohingya crisis.

Regional and Global Implications: The Warning Signs are Already Coming

Meanwhile  the “War on Terror” narrative that the state perpetuates is exacerbating the conditions conducive to violent extremism in the Buddhist majority population among whom intolerance and bigotry towards the minority Rohingya is already rife.

Extreme Buddhist nationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha use the rhetoric of the “Islamic terror” threat to further demonize the Rohingya and spread anti-Muslim sentiment. According to a Rohingya peace activist (who cannot be named for security reasons), the criminalization of this entire Rohingya community has now spread to target other Muslim ethnic groups throughout the country.

The implications of the attacks and seeming inaction of international actors is already spreading across the region.  Members of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) have identified signs of increasing radicalization due to the neglect of the Rohingya situation and perceptions that the international community holds little regard for Muslim victims. Bushra Hyder a Pakistani peace educationalist said that even “show business celebrities” are now preparing to “go for jihad”. Similarly in Indonesia, thousands of young Muslims are mobilizing for “jihad”. Peace activist, Shadia Marhaban says, “ …though the Indonesian government is trying to calm people down, Muslims across Southeast Asia are upset by what they see in the media”. WASL partners in the Maldives also report widespread demonstrations in the outer islands.

These women-led civil society organizations have already started to respond in collaboration with Burmese Muslim activists: launching awareness programs, engaging youth, and lobbying their governments to respond appropriately.   But they, like their Rohingya counterparts and human rights activists globally are urging the  international community to take  immediate action.  They are concerned  not only about the need to end the violence and plight of the Rohingya, but also ensure that this crisis does not become the rallying cry for a new generation of violent extremists.

What can the international community do?

On September 13, 2017, the UN Security Council addressed the Myanmar crisis calling for a de-escalation of the situation, reestablishment of law and order, protection of civilians, humanitarian access and a resolution of the refugee problem. It was the first time in 8 years that the Council, most notably with China in accord, took a unanimous stance on the situation of Myanmar, but further action is needed. The international community should:

  1. Prepare to deploy UN peacekeepers to protect civilians;
  2. Encourage Nobel Laureate Aung Sun Su Kyi and the Myanmar government to allow access to the region to humanitarian organizations, the media, a UN Fact-Finding Mission, and other observers. This can also determine the validity of the government’s concerns pertaining to terrorism;
  3. Call on the Myanmar government to desist use of “War on Terror” rhetoric and dehumanizing anti-Rohingya narratives, and urgently and actively counter hate speech and incitement to violence;
  4. Consider reinstating sanctions against key individuals, including high-ranking members of the military and government officials who have responsibility over actions relating to the Rohingya community in Rakhine State.
  5. Call on all external actors (states and multinational corporations) with stakes in the economic development of Myanmar to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya, and commit to protecting and enabling the community’s full inclusion in the economic and social development plans underway.

A history of discrimination

In a 29 August 2017 statement,  UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that the latest violence could have been prevented. “Decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations… have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”

The Rohingya have suffered a long history of discrimination, denial of basic services, and human rights violations. “If the forces found you somewhere and thought you are threatening, they could kill you on the spot,” Yasmin Ullah said. Access to healthcare, education, and employment is restricted. Although once recognized as an indigenous group, since the 1980s Rohingya have been denied their citizenship in practice through systematic destruction of identity documents culminating in the cancellation of even temporary ID cards in 2014.

Local state-run facilities are often unwilling to care for Muslim patients, and there are reports of Rohingya patients being given expired medication from state-run hospitals. In 2005, the government issued a regional order in 2005 requiring couples to limit the number of children they have. Couples also face up to 10 years imprisonment for marrying without a permit.

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