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Myanmar's Rohingyas: Friendless and imperilled

The Myanmar government denies the latest report on violence against the Rohingya minority.

Last updated: 24 Mar 2014 10:22
Emanuel Stoakes

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Statesman and Souciant Magazine, among others.
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How much worse do things have to get before appropriate pressure is placed on Myanmar by the Muslim world? [Reuters]

When news broke in mid-January this year of an alleged massacre of ethnic Rohingya Muslims near the town of Maungdaw in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, it elicited widespread international concern.

Shortly after the story made headlines in international media, spokesmen for the government of Myanmar, by contrast, issued a different account of the events denying that anyone had been killed.

Questions remain as to why or how they arrived at such a conclusion so quickly.

Following this, a number of NGOs and monitor groups released statements on the incident: The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights augmented earlier press pieces on the reported slaughter, all of which strongly indicated that dozens had been killed, while the local police did not attempt to prevent the attack.

Around this time, the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) independently corroborated claims of violence by publicly stating that they had treated people from the affected village of Du Chee Yar Tan.

These concurring reports from respected NGOs and media outlets stood sharply at odds with Myanmar's hastily-issued and persisting living in denial rhetoric.

Shortly after this incident, MSF were expelled from the country; a suspension that was later revised to include Rakhine state only.

A farcical inquiry

In March, the final and most complete of three inquiries ordered by the Myanmar government in the wake of the alleged attack was released. Many had hoped that it would provide a balanced assessment of the available evidence, prefiguring a modification of Naypyidaw's standpoint.

This begs the question: How much worse do things have to get before appropriate pressure is placed on Myanmar by the Muslim world? It is a question that may yet be answered in the grimmest fashion.

 This, however, was not the case: In a manner reminiscent of the findings of Sri Lanka's self-commissioned and heavily criticised "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" report, the paper's conclusions conveniently all but endorsed the position maintained from the beginning by the government.

While the investigators firmly denied doing the government's bidding, however, when one reads the commission's report, it appears to be so permeated with anti-Rohingya bias and methodological flaws.

In the report, which was distributed among NGOs and was not made available online, de facto opinion polls were cited as evidence and Rohingya testimony was used selectively . For example, the report's authors refer to Rohingya statements approvingly when assessing the veracity of the claims related to the killing of the Rakhine policeman, but dismiss them when dealing with allegations of the slaughter of their brethren.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report, beyond what some may consider its almost confessional symmetry with the stance of the government, are some of its recommendations. They read more like an attempt to license authoritarian practices than advance transparency or human rights.

One of the suggestions made is that the media and NGOs be unilaterally made to abide by "operational procedures" set by the government - by implication including how they report on such incidents - and that "firm and effective action" be taken against those that violate such impositions.

There are reasonable grounds to fear that if implemented, such measures could be used as a pretext to expel NGOs that speak out in similar circumstances in the future, or even grant the government effective veto power on statements by international groups.

Another striking recommendation was the security forces in Rakhine State be provided with training and equipment in order to better deploy "psychological warfare" in similar situations - evidently not for the benefit of any putative victims in such circumstances.

Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, an organisation which also investigated the incident, described the report in scathing terms. He contended that the inquiry's paper represented a "surprisingly crude cover up" of the events near Maungdaw, noting also that "following the violence, the village was cordoned off for an extended period of time and important questions remain about the location of bodies".

"The commission's self-imposed methodology required physical evidence of dead bodies to even suggest killings may have taken place. That's a conveniently high evidentiary threshold, basically allowing the government to call into question the UN report... Entire firsthand testimonies from Rohingya were discounted for lack of evidence or because alleged victims names weren't on the household registries," he added.

Given the above, for anyone to suggest that the issues related to Du Chee Yar Tan have been "dealt with" by the government, would be intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

But this should surprise no one: In order to judge Naypyidaw's interest in the human rights of the Rohingya, one has to simply review its response to damning evidence of such crimes over the past 12 months.

When Human Rights Watch accused state agencies of complicity in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at the Rohingya in 2013, the president simply dismissed the accusations against security forces and the military as a "smear campaign". When protesters against the Letpadaung copper mine were burnt with white phosphorous by the police in Northern Myanmar in 2012, impunity reigned in the aftermath.

Most recently, when careful analysis of leaked government documents by Fortify Rights proved beyond doubt that Naypyidaw is backing the persecution of the minority as part of long-standing government policy, a spokesman for the president contemptuously responded "we never pay attention to organisations such as Fortify Rights, which openly lobby for the Bengalis".

Witness - The Jungle Surgeon of Myanmar

The government of Myanmar refers to Rohingya as "Bengalis", in accordance with its official depiction of the group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who entered the country during the British colonial era. Such a stance is at variance with evidence that strongly indicates that the group have a far longer history in the country.

Official silence

Meanwhile, for the Rohingya, life is only getting worse. Now that MSF has gone, according to sources in the press and reliable contacts on the ground with whom I have spoken, so have all emergency services. This is no small matter, and its consequences are being felt already. According to the New York Times, 150 people have already died, including 20 women in childbirth - and more will inevitably die, as MSF torturously negotiates some way to return.

As the plight of the minority continues to worsen, moving with a trajectory that appears deeply ominous, it remains an issue that those ultimately responsible - the government of Myanmar - have hardly been taken to task about by politicians from Muslim nations. Turkey, perhaps the best respondent to the crisis, has been rather mild in its criticism of the government. 

Members of ASEAN, with influence over the country, are perhaps the most culpable of neglect in this regard. 

As a consequence, this friendless and highly imperilled minority are made even more hopeless, to the shame of those who can and should be doing more. This begs the question: How much worse do things have to get before appropriate pressure is placed on Myanmar by the Muslim world?

It is a question that may yet be answered in the grimmest fashion.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Statesman and Souciant Magazine, among others.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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