The Rohingya crisis and the role of the OIC

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is not doing enough to save the Rohingya community in Myanmar.

The Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization Of Islamic Cooperation hold meeting on Rohingya
The OIC needs to lead the initiative to protect the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, writes Ahsan [Fazry Ismail/EPA]

The latest United Nations report on the Rohingya minority shocked the world yet again with descriptions of the kind of atrocities that the Myanmar security forces are perpetrating.

From children cut to death, to women raped and whole villages burned, these brutal acts have been justifiably characterised as most likely amounting to crimes against humanity.

Despite having ample evidence of the extent of ethnic cleansing pursued by the Myanmar authorities, the world is yet to take serious action against the government in Naypyidaw.

Among the many organisations that should be striving to protect the Rohingya, there is one that should clearly lead this initiative: the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Of all the international entities, the OIC is best positioned to undertake the cause of the Rohingya community.

Not only does it officially represent Muslim-majority nations, but it also has welcomed powerful nations with Muslim minorities such as the United States, China, and Russia to have their own representatives in the organisation.

It has the leverage to lead international action to protect the Rohingya and in the past has stood up for persecuted Muslims in Palestine and Kashmir among other places.

An old issue with a new twist

The Rohingya problem is several decades old. A 1982 Myanmar law stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Since then members of the Rohingya community have been driven out of Myanmar. Many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and from there to other countries.

It is very difficult to determine how many Rohingya have migrated but currently there are about 400,000 of them in Saudi Arabia and about 200,000 in Pakistan and most are supposed to have fled via Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government has sought to erase decades of violence and oppression against the Rohingya by citing security concerns to justify its brutal campaign.

More recently concerns about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group spreading its influence in Southeast Asia have presented the government with a welcome distraction from the atrocities it is committing.

After the OIC criticised Myanmar at its January 19 extraordinary meeting on the Rohingya issue, its foreign ministry responded by saying: “It is disturbing to note that the OIC meeting held in Kuala Lumpur on January 19, 2017, failed to acknowledge that the situation was a direct result of the well-planned and coordinated attacks on police outposts in the northern Rakhine State on October 9, 2016, by extremist elements both funded and inspired from abroad.”

The fear of the rise of extremism is genuine and should be examined candidly. Western media have extensively reported on suspicions that ISIL might be recruiting among the Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar.

Although Turkey has not been able to make any dent in Myanmar's stance on the Rohingya issue, it has been able to create a caring image of itself that Islamic teachings demand.


Indian media has even claimed that “Rohingya militants, who are trained in Pakistan, have become operational in Bangladesh’s hill track area of Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf and remote areas of Bandarban.”

But how much of this speculation is based in reality, and how much of it is propaganda? Whether true or not, it certainly provides a convenient excuse for the Myanmar government.

If one digs a bit deeper beyond the “international terrorism” rhetoric, it is clear that suffering of the Rohingya has provoked expected antagonism.

According to Austin Bodetti, writing in the The Diplomat magazine, “the Rohingya rebels operate in secret and without support from civil society, and their Islamic credentials, though present, are by far secondary to their sociopolitical grievances. They want human rights for all Rohingya, not a caliphate or an emirate.”

But as the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned in his speech at the OIC meeting, the Rohingya could be “infiltrated” by ISIL if their plight is not resolved and this could threaten the whole region.

The example of Turkey

January 19 was not the first time that the OIC has urged Myanmar authorities to let it and other international delegations visit the violence-torn areas.

Unfortunately each time this has happened, the Myanmar authorities have come forward with more force and more brutal persecution.

The OIC’s condemnation of the violence against the Rohingya has again been reaffirmed in the recent report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on February 3, 2017.

The OIC’s attempt to create pressure through other UN agencies such as the Human Rights Commission has also failed and the situation on the ground has continued to deteriorate.

In this context one must remember that international organisations such as the OIC have weak mechanisms for implementation of their resolutions.

Strong nation states most of the time ignore demands of international organisations if they consider them against their interests. Israel has always ignored UN resolutions and Myanmar seems to have employed the same tactics.

Yet, keeping in view the shortcomings of international organisations, one must look for ways to assist the Rohingya people. This necessitates the OIC to conduct some soul-searching: has it stood for universal justice and human dignity that it claims to stand for?

In this context one may recall two OIC member states, Malaysia and Turkey, coming forward with material, political, humanitarian and, more importantly, emotional assistance.

Several years ago Turkey’s First Lady Emine Erdogan accompanied the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Myanmar to express solidarity with the victims. Many Rohingya refugees in Malaysia affectionately remember this event.

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Although Turkey has not been able to make any dent in Myanmar’s stance on Rohingya issue, it has been able to create a caring image of itself that Islamic teachings demand.

Malaysia, too, on top of calling for international action to address the Rohingya crisis, has developed a mechanism to assist Rohingya refugees with the involvement of UNHCR.

In recognition of these efforts, the OIC has appointed former Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, as the OIC envoy on the Rohingya issue.

In contrast, Bangladesh has not only denied anchoring to the devastated boat people who tried to escape violence-torn Myanmar, according to Human Right Watch, it has also denied refugees access to necessary humanitarian aid, endangering the lives of thousands of civilians and compelling many to seek refuge in nearby countries.

Bangladesh’s prime minister has accused the Rohingya of being terrorists. Shouldn’t the OIC hold the government of Bangladesh responsible for denying the persecuted Rohingya entry into the country?

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Unfortunately, the OIC has not taken the stance of the current government of Bangladesh seriously. The OIC does not seem to have appreciated the standpoint of Turkey either.

Had the OIC adopted a resolution condemning Bangladesh’s posture and appreciating Turkey’s position, it would have sent a signal to Myanmar’s government that the Rohingya issue is an issue of universal human rights and human dignity, which supersedes national interests.

The OIC was created to promote these values. Based on these universally recognised values, the OIC can also create moral pressure on the US, Russia and China.

Why should the government in Myanmar and world powers take the OIC seriously when the OIC is not able to practise what it claims to stand for?

Abdullah al-Ahsan is professor of comparative civilizations at the Department of History and Civilization in International Islamic University Malaysia. He is the author of The Organization of the Islamic Conference: Introduction to an Islamic Political Institution.

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