Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Rohingya plight even worse than media portrayals - Secretary Jim Mattis

Reuters Staff
JAKARTA (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar was even worse than media portrayals.
More than 688,000 Muslim Rohingya and a few hundred Hindu Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 last year after the Myanmar military cracked down in the northern part of Rakhine state, amid witness reports of killings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces.

“This is a tragedy that’s worse than anything that CNN or BBC has been able to portray about what has happened to these people,” Mattis said, speaking to reporters during a trip to Indonesia.

“And the United States has been engaged vigorously in the diplomatic realm trying to resolve this, engaged with humanitarian aid, a lot of money going into humanitarian aid.”

Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The United Nations described Myanmar’s crackdown as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which Myanmar denies.

Myanmar must realize cost of ethnic cleansing

BANGLADESH and Myanmar recently signed a bilateral deal to return in phases the more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees languishing in the former’s border camps.
While this move may release some of the swelling international pressure on both states to uphold basic human rights, it does little to improve the future prospects of the Rohingya. And, with the United Nations (UN) kept out of this deal, there will be no neutral oversight to ensure the process goes smoothly and without bloodshed.
Some media sources, including the BBC, have oxymoronically termed the negotiated return a “repatriation”, which is facetious. Repatriation implies the Rohingya will return to their country of citizenship. They won’t.
The reality is they are South Asia’s equivalent of the Roma gypsies: a people persecuted for their very existence and having no legal claim to the land they have inhabited for centuries.
Myanmar’s military for years has systematically killed, raped and pillaged the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Consequently, there is fear that barring a UN Security Council resolution that compels Myanmar to seek non-military solutions to the crisis, the Rohingya, upon their return, will again fall prey to the genocidal campaign that made them flee in the first place. That said, Myanmar must realise the costs of ethnic cleansing could far outweigh its perceived benefits.
In 2016, when the self-styled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army began ambushing military outposts as payback for the massacres, the junta ordered entire villages in Rakhine State to be razed to drive the Rohingya out and discourage their return.
This forced the mass exodus of nearly 1.1 million members of this hapless ethnic group to various corners of the world, including Malaysia, that hosts about 60,000 of them.
With Myanmar’s military owning up to the mass graves containing the remains of executed Rohingya “militants”, and insurgents escalating the frequency and scope of their attacks, notions that the order will somehow return the Rohingya to Rakhine State as a result of the bilateral deal are exceedingly na├»ve. Disappointing also is the UN’s next to non-existent role in resolving the conflict beyond blanket condemnations.
This state of affairs is largely due to United States President Donald Trump’s blinkered foreign policy that exaggerates the sins of Iran and North Korea, while turning a blind eye to Myanmar’s state-sponsored butchery. Shockingly, even the much-feted civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship and refuses to recognise their language and nativity.
Myanmar treats the Rohingya as unwanted foreigners to be expelled or exterminated, while Suu Kyi — in the past celebrated as the Asian Nelson Mandela — maintains an eerie silence that has sparked calls to strip her of the peace prize. Myanmar claims the Rohingya are, in fact, ethnic Bengalis who were ferried to the country as cheap labour during the British Empire, and hence, must go back. Bangladesh rejects this claim.
At its root, the crisis may be about simple economics, of scarcity and choice. Myanmar is an underdeveloped country that has witnessed repressive military dictatorships for most of its post-independence existence.
Consequently, the Rohingya are not only a drain on resources, but also squatting on land that is rumoured to be mineral rich. Moreover, we must remember that any form of dictatorship necessitates crystallising and maintaining an antagonistic “other”, which in Myanmar’s case regrettably happens to be the Rohingya.
Bangladesh, conversely, is buckling under the weight of a young, rapidly growing and densely packed population. In such circumstances, the last thing it needs is to legalise more people that would further strain resources and arguably trigger mass social unrest in a country where political differences routinely turn violent.
Yet, it is important to stress here that the status quo in Rakhine State is unsustainable. Without a pathway to citizenship or the UN designating the state a protectorate, the Rohingya may well be driven to extinction over the next decade, or resort to a bloody and protracted civil war not unlike the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
If this deal is not caveated by a framework that provides the Rohingya freedom of movement, legal status and enhanced employment prospects, Myanmar risks up-scaling the limited insurgency to multi-pronged, countrywide terrorism. We must not forget that despite the recent diminution in their global appeal after being routed in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is always on the lookout for opportunities to rebound.
Put another way, Myanmar could lose far more by sustaining its military operations against the Rohingya than by finding means to ameliorate the situation. For one, if they’re not legalised and consequently remain outside the justice system, Rohingya will have no compulsion to hand over the insurgents who they view as heroes. Also, without legalising their ownership of land, Myanmar continues to deprive itself of tax revenues the Rohingya would otherwise pay, and which would incentivise them to protect the local ecology.
Additionally, if they cannot access adequate healthcare facilities, the Rohingya may unwittingly incubate and spread deadly contagions that could activate nationwide epidemics. And finally, if they are deprived of education and employment opportunities, then future generations will inevitably embrace organised crime or the violent extremism of the IS and al-Qaeda.
When saner heads prevail in Myanmar, it will realise the potential cost in blood and treasure required to tame the large-scale insurgency that looms near is best avoided by appeasement. Before the Rohingya are forced to pick up arms en masse to protect themselves, it behooves Su Kyi to broker an armistice and explore means to mainstream them into society. It’s time for her to re-earn that prize.

The writer is an Ipoh-based independent journalist

As Rohingya refugee crisis escalates, women emerge as front-line responders

As Rohingya refugee crisis escalates, women emerge as front-line responders
“Auntie Leila,” a local member of the Rohingya community, reaches out to refugee women and brings them to UNFPA's women-friendly spaces. © UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – The border between Bangladesh and Myanmar is the site of the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Over 620,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Rakhine State in Myanmar have arrived in Cox’s Bazar District in just three months.
With more refugees arriving every day, settlements are overflowing. The concentration of refugees is now among the densest globally. And more than half the arrivals are women and girls.

Already marginalized and vulnerable, they are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Reports indicate sexual violence is pervasive, and many arrive in need of maternal care and other reproductive health services.

The concentration of refugees is now among the densest globally. And more than half the arrivals are women and girls. © UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

Yet amid the displacement, there is support, hope, healing and resilience. Women are emerging as front-line responders. From volunteers to caseworkers and midwives, women are taking care of women.

A nightmare that doesn’t stop

Humanitarian responders are racing to meet the needs of the refugees and host communities, and to plan for the complex, protracted situation ahead.

They confront overwhelming needs. People are arriving after marching for days through hills, across rivers and along the coastline. Many have experienced unimaginable grief.

“The outside wounds are healing, but the inside wound will always be raw,” one woman told UNFPA in the Balukhali settlement. Her husband and six other family members died when their home was torched. She was beaten and stabbed. “Every night I have nightmares. I can’t sleep.”

Even after they arrive in the camps, violence – especially gender-based violence – remains a significant concern.
 At this mobile clinic in Balukhali, a midwife named Sharifa built a bamboo birthing table with her own hands. © UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

Many women are alone, or are now the heads of their families. Extreme overcrowding and limited privacy are major safety risks for them and their children. Essential tasks, such as collecting water or firewood, bathing, or using a latrine, can put them at risk.

And pregnant women and new mothers are in critical need of maternal health services.

Merula gave birth nearly a month ago. Her baby was delivered inside a makeshift tent with the help of her mother. She now has three children to care for – in addition to her husband, Saddam, who is recovering from a gunshot wound.

Women helping women

Yet in spite of the tumult, women are emerging as leaders and outreach workers, connecting one another to aid and support.

Monowala was already living in Bangladesh when the crisis escalated this summer. An ethnic Rohingya, she volunteers in the refugee settlements, telling women and girls about UNFPA’s women-friendly spaces – safe places to receive information, medical care and referrals to counselling.

“It is very difficult work at times, but I am a woman and I see the misery of women through my own eyes,” said Sharmin Sultana, another caseworker. © UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

The spaces are helping women rebuild a sense of community. Some have started calling them “shanti ghar,” which means “safe haven.”

“The kind of support the women need, a doctor can’t provide it. The wound is inside,” Monowala said. “Women understand when they come here there is no financial support offered. They say what we offer is worth so much more.”

In the makeshift settlement of Leda, people seek out “Auntie Leila,” another Myanmar Rohingya transplant who has been in Bangladesh for years. She also directs people to the women-friendly spaces.

“Whenever I find a survivor of gender-based violence among new arrivals or around the streets, I make sure to bring them here,” she said. “The women, they like the space to come and speak openly. Sometimes they bring their children to play inside.”

Such women are essential. “Volunteers are trusted because they are living among the community. They know the language and culture,” said Mosrafa, a programme manager at one of the spaces. They also know how to find those in need. “The women face a lot of violence, so we can’t expect them to always come here to seek help. Sometimes we have to go to them.”

Sabekun receives a prenatal check-up after walking for seven days to escape violence. She also learned about family planning for the first time. “I’ve never heard about this ever before. We don’t have this where I come from and I want to know more.” © UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

Women’s participation in public life is highly restricted. “Women are not permitted to sit in tea shops to share stories, gossip. That’s why it’s so important for women to have a space like this,” said Noor Begum, a UNFPA caseworker.

Midwives save lives

UNFPA-supported midwives are also delivering life-saving care, both at the safe spaces and at mobile reproductive health clinics. They provide a range of services, including antenatal care, safe delivery services and post-natal care, as well as clinical management of rape.

At the mobile clinic in Balukhali, a determined midwife named Sharifa built a bamboo birthing table with her own hands.
At the Kutupalong refugee camp, Sabekun is 25 weeks pregnant with her first child. She had arrived just the day before, after walking for seven days to flee the violence back home. She woke up sensing something was wrong – the baby wasn’t moving as usual.

At the camp’s health facility, a midwife assured her the baby is fine, but she needs rest to overcome her exhaustion.

“I felt so afraid and uncertain this morning, but now I feel more at peace,” Sabekun said. “I feel reassured.”

Lifting the burden – together

UNFPA caseworker Rafia pointed out that women are an entry point for reaching the whole community with messages about services, safety and human rights. “They will go back to their families and friends and disseminate that information. If we provide information to the women, they will spread it far,” Rafia said.

And women are also working to break down the deep-rooted stigma around surviving sexual violence.

One of the Rohingya volunteers fled to Bangladesh a decade ago during an earlier outbreak of violence. “My younger sister was taken to a local school and raped and tortured for five days,” she said. “There were no services like this available for my sister when we arrived here… Usually in society if you are raped, you become stigmatized and untouchable.”

Today, she and other community members are calling for change. “Our community shouldn’t judge this anymore. Our community shares this experience. It is a collective torture, but we are in this together and we can support each other… We must share with each other and lift the burden of all the trauma.”

Conditions in Myanmar not yet suitable for Rohingya refugees to return safely – UN agency

23 January 2018 – The necessary safeguards for Rohingyas to return to Myanmar are absent, and there are ongoing restrictions on access for aid agencies, the media and other independent observers, the United Nations warned on Tuesday, two months after Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed on a plan for the refugees’ voluntary return to their homes.

“To ensure the right of refugees to return voluntarily, and in safety and in dignity, we call again on Myanmar to allow the necessary unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine State and create conditions for a genuine and lasting solution,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told the regular news briefing in Geneva.

Access would allow for assessment of the actual conditions and the long-term viability of the returns, as well as help address the legitimate safety concerns for any refugees contemplating their return there, he emphasized.

In addition, refugees also need to be properly informed and consulted about such conditions in order for returns to be safe, voluntary and sustainable added the UNHCR spokesperson.

Also vital is the full implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission [a panel led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan], including the call for peace and security for all communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, inter-communal dialogue, freedom of movement, access to livelihoods and achieving solutions for the legal and citizenship status of Muslim communities.

“Turning these recommendations […] into a reality on the ground is essential to building confidence for returns and addressing the tense inter-communal situation that has built up over many years in Rakhine state,” said Mr. Edwards.

“Without this, the risk of dangerous and rushed returns into a situation where violence might reignite is too great to be ignored,” he stressed.

Over 650,000 members of the minority Muslim Rohingya community have taken refuge, and more continue to arrive, in Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh after having been forced to flee their homes in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine province following an outbreak of brutal violence in late-August 2017.

UNHCR remains prepared to work with both governments towards finding a long-term solution to this crisis in the interest of the refugees themselves, of both governments, the host community in Bangladesh and all communities in Rakhine state.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Burma Task Force Letter To U.S. Congress On Repatriation Dangers

We, the undersigned Rohingya American leaders, representing our respective organizations, and the entire Rohingya community, implore all U.S. House and Senate members to convince Bangladesh to entirely rescind its decision to return 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar originally scheduled to start today, January 22. We welcome the apparent delay of the plan’s roll out today because we have many very serious concerns regarding the current repatriation deal.
In her September 2017 speech to the United Nations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to block any such repatriation until the Government of Myanmar took steps to ensure the safety of any Rohingya who return there, and guarantee their former homes and businesses. There is now no evidence of such steps being taken. The Myanmar government is preparing prison-like IDP camps for Rohingya, not a home-coming to their villages of origin.
Despite the apparent delay in implementation, the Government of Bangladesh has committed to a two -year repatriation deal that raises more questions than it answers. The United States should therefore remind PM Hasina of her pledge to allow repatriation only after United Nations agencies are permitted to examine, monitor and approve implementation, including security arrangements. Having lived through the lack of security for previous Rohingya repatriations, the vast majority of refugees would prefer to die in Bangladesh than to return to the genocidal killing fields of their lost homeland. Rohingya want their return to be linked to a full restoration of their rights, not to a form of imprisonment and persecution.
As Rohingya American constituents we also urge Congress to re-impose stronger, more comprehensive sanctions previously used to pressure Myanmar, which were key to bringing freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi, and initial limited Democracy to Burma. The current targeted Sanctions are too limited and will not loosen the Army’s stranglehold on the economy and politics there. Despite knowing the risk of sanctions of its campaign of Rohingya genocide, the Army deliberately chose to ignore the condemnation of the world. It will similarly ignore anything less than full sanctions.
We have all lived under these military dictators, and know how Burmese minority communities will suffer if the Government can flout worldwide condemnation and carry out genocide against minority religious communities. Each of us, individually and through family, friends, former neighbors, classmates, co-workers and others, has been negatively impacted by the persecution in Burma.
We ask Congress to show leadership in stopping this repatriation and in standing against these atrocities. Genocide can never be just a bilateral issue. We urgently need action now.

Prevent Premature Repatriation, Ensure Rights for Rohingya - Fortify Rights Calls

(BANGKOK, January 22, 2018)—Myanmar and Bangladesh should ensure the repatriation of Rohingya refugees takes place through a voluntary, safe, and dignified process and only when Myanmar authorities have restored the rights of Rohingya, said Fortify Rights today. A new film released today by Fortify Rights focuses on the plan to repatriate Rohingya to Myanmar.

“You can throw us into the sea, but please don’t send us back,” said a Rohingya refugee woman in Bangladesh who fled recent Myanmar military-led atrocities in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung Township. “We will not go back to Myanmar.”

A Rohingya refugee girl, 16, also from Buthidaung Township, waited in desperation on the banks of the Naf River for one month before she and her family were able to cross to Bangladesh on November 11, 2017. “If we were willing to go back to Myanmar,” she told Fortify Rights, “we would not have stayed at the border for one month.”

The new film, entitled “No Man’s Land,” is based on interviews with dozens of newly arrived Rohingya refugees and others in Bangladesh, including a Rohingya boat owner who makes a living transporting refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh, and an ethnic-Rakhine Buddhist monk in Bangladesh who preaches inter-ethnic peace.
In November, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar announced a plan to repatriate Rohingya back to Myanmar, later clarifying it would take place during the next two years. The governments did not consult Rohingya or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about the plan. The repatriation is scheduled to begin tomorrow, January 23.

None of the recently arrived Rohingya in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights they were interested to return to Myanmar under the current conditions.

In November, Fortify Rights and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published the findings of a yearlong investigation into alleged violations in Rakhine State, finding “mounting evidence” of the crime of genocide. The report was based on hundreds of interviews with Rohingya eyewitnesses and survivors of Myanmar Army-led massacres, mass gang-rapes, and arson attacks against Rohingya.

“Any repatriation now would be premature and dangerous,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “Repatriation should be safe, truly voluntary, and dignified, but the current situation fails to come close to this standard.”

As early as September 19, 2017, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi declared that Myanmar would repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, claiming in a major speech that the Myanmar Army had carried out “no clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State since September 5. In November 2017, a senior official with the Border Guards Bangladesh provided Fortify Rights with an internal intelligence report detailing daily Myanmar military activity near the shared border. The report includes dates, times, and geographic coordinates of automatic weapon fire on the Myanmar side of the border. The senior Bangladesh official told Fortify Rights the gunfire was by the Myanmar military.

“There were confirmed gunfire shots in the last two weeks that we heard,” the official told Fortify Rights. “Every night we were hearing the firing, seeing villages burning, and we were getting dead bodies also.”

Less than two weeks later, on November 23, while thousands of Rohingya continued to flee to Bangladesh on a weekly basis, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh signed their first pact to repatriate Rohingya refugees.

Fortify Rights confirmed that Rohingya refugees are continuing to cross the border in search of safety in Bangladesh.

“The Myanmar Army is committing genocide against an ethnic group in their country,” said Progganonda Vikko, an ethic-Rakhine Buddhist monk in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. “This isn’t right. It’s unjust and inhumane. It must be stopped.”

In Myanmar, the Government continues to confine more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya to more than 35 internment camps in eight townships of Rakhine State, depriving many of adequate humanitarian aid and lifesaving assistance. Rohingya throughout the country are also denied equal access to citizenship and face restrictions on their right to freedom of movement and other basic rights.

The conditions for potential returnees would likely be no different. The Government of Myanmar is planning to house returnees in “transit camps” rather than allowing them to return to their original places. The United Kingdom’s International Development Committee expressed its concern about repatriation following Fortify Rights and other groups’ submissions to its inquiry into the Rohingya crisis.

The Government of Myanmar has further refused to cooperate with a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, established in March 2017 to look into the situation of human rights in Rakhine State and elsewhere in the country.

“There are no indications that Myanmar authorities plan to dismantle existing internment camps, lift restrictions on movement and aid, or provide much-needed protection,” said Matthew Smith. “The very idea of repatriations now is a farce. There must be genuine changes for Rohingya in Myanmar before there can be any serious discussions of repatriation.”

For more information, please contact:
Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Fortify Rights (in Thailand), +, matthew.smith@fortifyrights.org; Twitter: @matthewfsmith

Bangladesh halts Rohingya refugees repatriation - wise decision

BANGLADESH blocked the repatriation of almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar today over fears that they were being forced to return.Refugee and repatriation commissioner Abul Kalam halted the returns, agreed to begin tomorrow, saying: “The main thing is that the process has to be voluntary.”
He added that paperwork for returning refugees had not yet been finalised and transit camps had yet to be built in Bangladesh.
“If they send us back forcefully we will not go,” Sayed Noor, who fled his village in Myanmar in August, said at the weekend, adding that Myanmar’s authorities “have to give us our rights and give us justice.”
The refugees fled to Bangladesh after the military of mainly Buddhist Myanmar began a brutal campaign of violence against the Muslim Rohingya.
“They will have to return all our wealth that they have looted and hold people accountable. They will have to compensate us. We came here because we are fighting for those things,” he said.
“If we don’t get all of this, then what was the point of coming here?”
I think this is a wise decision taken by the Bangladesh government. It is better to go slow when the outcome is unknown, and could be worse.