Hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Rohingya refugees marked the fifth anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh on Thursday, as the United States, the European Union and other Western nations pledged to support the pursuit of justice in international courts.
At a sprawling camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, thousands of refugees gathered to commemorate what they term Genocide Remembrance Day, with speakers demanding safety from persecution inside Myanmar so they can return to the country.
A refugee at the Kutupalong camp sang a song describing their suffering on the way to Bangladesh five years ago, braving bullets, forests and the sea. Many in the crowd cried as they listened.
On Thursday, the United Kingdom announced a further round of sanctions targeting businesses linked to Myanmar's military, which rules the country.
It said those being sanctioned in an effort to limit the military's access to arms and revenue include Star Sapphire Group of Companies, International Gateways Group and Sky One Construction.
Amanda Milling, minister for Asia, also confirmed the U.K.'s intention to intervene in a November 2019 case against Myanmar initiated by The Gambia seeking justice in the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The case will determine whether Myanmar has violated the Genocide Convention through the military's acts against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017.
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar over several decades, including about 740,000 who crossed the border starting in August 2017 when the Myanmar military launched a "clearance operation" against them following attacks by a rebel group. The safety situation in Myanmar has worsened since a military takeover last year, and attempts to send them back have failed.
In March, the United States said the oppression of Rohingya in Myanmar amounts to genocide after authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities against civilians by the military in a systematic campaign against the ethnic minority. Muslim Rohingya face widespread discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship and many other rights.
Bangladeshi officials have expressed frustration after at least two attempts to repatriate the refugees to Myanmar failed since 2017. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said their repatriation is the only solution to the crisis, but that Bangladesh would not force them to go back.
On the eve of the anniversary, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said his country wants to ensure the refugees can return "to safe conditions in Myanmar where they will no longer be persecuted and will finally receive citizenship."
"We urge the international community to work alongside us to provide support to the Rohingya people, by asserting pressure on Myanmar to stop the mass persecution and allow Rohingya safe repatriation to their homes," he said.
The U.N. special envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, who is visiting Bangladesh, said its continued hosting of the refugees "requires renewed international attention and equitable burden-sharing by countries in the region and abroad."
"I will continue to advocate for greater leadership of countries in the region in supporting Bangladesh and leveraging their influence with Myanmar to create conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees," she said.
At the Kutupalng camp, 33-year-old Jamalida told the AP she wished to return.
"We had homes and we were rich there, we could bear our own expenses, and we did not have to rely on someone else's pocket," she said. "We want to go back to our country with our rights."
The Rohingya crisis has gone to international courts, where Myanmar has denied any wrongdoing. But global powers are not satisfied with Myanmar's position.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. remains "committed to advancing justice and accountability" for Rohingya and all people of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"We continue to support the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the case under the Genocide Convention that The Gambia has brought against Burma before the International Court of Justice, and credible courts around the world that have jurisdiction in cases involving Burmese military's atrocity crimes," Blinken said.
Separately, a joint statement by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union, and the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States said they are concerned by a U.N. fact-finding mission's determination of patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses, including many amounting to grave crimes under international law.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a Chinese-brokered agreement in November 2017 on the repatriation of the refugees. Bangladesh earlier this month sought China's assistance in repatriating Rohingya during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Additionally, fourteen foreign missions in Bangladesh, including the US and the UK, called for an end to the culture of impunity in Myanmar and reiterated their commitment to international accountability initiatives for the genocide committed against the Rohingya people. In a joint statement, the foreign missions in Bangladesh also said they continue to raise the plight of Rohingyas on the international stage and seek solutions that would allow for Rohingya refugees' voluntary, safe and dignified return to Myanmar as soon as conditions allow.
The 14 western missions said they noted with concern the reports of escalating violence and serious human rights violations by the military across Myanmar.
The signatories to the statement include the embassies of Australia, UK, Canada, Denmark, European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the US.
The missions said they have imposed sanctions on some individuals responsible for serious human rights violations against Rohingyas and would continue to push for a solution to the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, a solution that must include Rohingyas. They also committed to continue to work together with Bangladesh, UN, and international and national partners, to ensure that Rohingyas receive humanitarian assistance, protection and education.
They also underlined the importance of Rohingyas' ability to live safe, purposeful and dignified lives in Bangladesh and supporting efforts to prepare them for return to Myanmar, and continuing to support host communities in Cox's Bazar.
The need for tougher action
The international community needs to work more vigorously with Bangladesh to repatriate the Rohingyas to their homeland, say experts.
Large-scale sanctions against Myanmar's government officials by influential countries are necessary to put pressure on Myanmar, they said at a seminar titled "Rohingya Crisis: The Pathways to Repatriation" organised by the Centre for Genocide Studies at the Foreign Service Academy auditorium in Dhaka University on Thursday.
Presenting the keynote address, the Director of the Centre for Genocide Studies of Dhaka University and Professor of International Relations Department Dr Imtaz Ahmed said, "It is high time to talk about the return of Rohingyas. They will not live in Bangladesh only; other countries will also have to take responsibility."
"To increase pressure on the Myanmar government, large-scale international sanctions should be imposed on their officials. The US has sanctioned only 22 Myanmar government officials. Influential countries, including the Western ones, should expand the scope of this ban," he said.
"The international community is not playing a very strong role; they don't have a headache. With the help of Japan, China and India, a few shelters will be built in the Rakhine state, and there is no reason for the Rohingyas to depend on that. The traces of negative elements remain in Myanmar," Dr Imtiaz Ahmed added.
As the chief guest in the seminar, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen reiterated Dhaka's call for smooth repatriation of the Rohingyas to their place of origin in Rakhine State ending their plights and miseries.
Apart from seeking the international community's support, he said Bangladesh is also talking to Myanmar in good faith as Myanmar has expressed its willingness for repatriation.
The foreign minister also sought genuine efforts to create an environment conducive to the repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.
Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen delivered the opening remarks.
Earlier, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said it is critical that the international community continues to seek comprehensive, durable and inclusive solutions to the Rohingya crisis.
"We cannot let this become a forgotten crisis," said Special Envoy Heyzer in a statement who also attended the seminar.
On the five-year mark of the forced mass displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine State, Bangladesh continues to show "great generosity and leadership" in hosting refugees, which requires renewed international attention and equitable burden-sharing by countries in the region and beyond, she said.
In their productive discussions, the special envoy thanked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her leadership and expressed the United Nations' deep appreciation to the people and government of Bangladesh for their immense contribution.
"I will continue to advocate for greater leadership of countries in the region in supporting Bangladesh and leveraging their influence with Myanmar to create conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees," she added.
For her part, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Myanmar should allow international organisations to work in the Rakhine state to create an appropriate environment for the dignified return of the forcibly displaced Rohingya people.
"Myanmar should allow international organisations to work in the Rakhine state," she said in her meeting with Heyzer.
"We are pursuing this with Myanmar and have also discussed it. But, no response has yet come. We want to solve it. How long can we host this huge number of people?" the premier was quoted as saying by her press secretary.
Some of the Rohingyas are already involved in criminal activities, including human trafficking and drug abuse, she said, adding that they are also destroying the environment in the region.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) renewed its calls on the international community to take urgent action in order to ensure long-term development and sustainable humanitarian assistance for Rohingya refugees and the host communities, while noting the increased tendency among the refugees to drift into crime.
"With limited access to earn a living, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh remain fully reliant on humanitarian assistance," IOM said adding, "Groups or persons with specific needs, such as persons with disabilities, female-headed households, or people without access to livelihood opportunities, reported the most significant unmet needs, leaving them vulnerable to negative coping strategies, such as human smuggling and trafficking. "
Criminal trafficking networks employ different tactics to lure refugees to work outside the camp and abroad using false pretences, coercion and abduction. As the lead agency on counter-trafficking in Cox's Bazar, IOM has identified and assisted more than 1,300 victims of trafficking.
IOM vowed to continue providing shelter, protection, mental health and psychosocial services, and water and hygiene support.
It is also working to implement disaster risk reduction initiatives to mitigate the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. With the current monsoon season already causing historic flooding in northeastern Bangladesh, heavy rainfall where the camps are located could pose further hazards to the Rohingya in their temporary homes made from tarpaulin sheets and bamboo. In 2021, heavy monsoon rains in the camps caused immense flooding incidents that affected nearly 30,000 people; 19,000 were once again displaced and lost their homes.
The Rohingya themselves have played a central role in the humanitarian response. From volunteering to support fire and cyclone response to door-to-door outreach to raise awareness of Covid-19 prevention measures, the community has led efforts across the camps to support each other.
When the 2017 exodus occurred, donations swept in from around the country, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself visited their camps, as her government won praise from the international community for taking in so many people in a relatively short time.
But five years on, that warm welcome has morphed into a bitter tension with local communities and the government. Fire, flood, and brutality are among the dangers facing Rohingyas in the Cox's Bazar camps of coastal southern Bangladesh, reports Devex. Locals now say the Rohingya refugees had overstayed their welcome.
"We gave them shelter because we all are human beings. And we sacrificed so much for that," Muzammel Huq, a local community leader, told Devex. "But if they do not return soon, the local people in Cox's Bazar will pay a heavier price."
While vast amounts of international aid have been pouring into the area, local Bangladeshis say they are getting poorer and live in fear of being outnumbered by the Rohingyas. There are also worries about crime, drugs, and extremism, which prompted the Bangladeshi government to set up a controversial new settlement for Rohingyas on the island of Bhasan Char. Despite all the noises, the fact remains that the way forward, or rather the way back home, remains deeply bogged down in a maze of geopolitics.
Statement of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization on the occasion of Rohingya Genocide Day:
The "Rohingya Genocide Day" of August 25 is a memorable day for our people and generations.
For decades, the Myanmar brute forces and state-sponsored non-state actors have carefully pre-planned genocidal onslaughts against our innocent people. Families were massacred, mass graves uncovered, hundreds of villages scorched, thousands of houses burned to the ground, women gangraped, babies thrown into the flame, forcing about one million survivors to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, creating a great humanitarian disaster and a threat to regional peace and security. We are grateful to the government and people of Bangladesh, and other receiving countries, for sheltering and taking care of our refugees, in solidarity and on humanitarian ground.
The destruction of Rohingya people in Myanmar began decades ago. Today they are mere ruins. Our homeland is irrecoverably destroyed, but the criminals could not destroy our faith. We have physical, psychological and spiritual attachments to our homeland. With strong will and determination we will fight to save it in self-defence. We will not be giving up.
Unfortunately, international community has failed us again and again. Almost all governments have avoided their treaty obligation to "prevent and punish" genocide according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) 1948, or the Genocide Convention. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also failed during her time as a leader and publicly defended the brutalities of the Myanmar army, even at the International Court of Justice. Thus, the Myanmar junta realised their criminal policy with impunity and to continue violating international law without consequences.
The attitude of the Myanmar military towards Rohingya people has not changed. The policies and stance of the oppositions, including National Unity Government (NUG) and Arakan Army (AA) are ambiguous. The situation is not conducive for voluntary, honourable, safe and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and elsewhere to Arakan. It is crucial to ensure the protection of the remaining Rohingya living in confined villages, ghettos and apartheidlike concentration camps in Arakan under the threat of genocide and facing great humanitarian emergency.
We have continued to seek justice and accountability. We want victims to see justice served and the cycle of violence is not repeated. We seek an increase in criminal cases against all perpetrators, whether it is through local or national courts and at the International Criminal Court. All perpetrators must be brought to justice. No genocide can be prevented without intervention. Further, the Rohingya seek genuine inclusion in the creation of a federal democratic republic in Myanmar, where all ethnic minorities can co-exist in peace without the threat of genocide and other international crimes.
We welcome the U.S. government's formal recognition of "Myanmar's genocide of Rohingya. The utmost priority for the Rohingya now is to return home. Meanwhile, restoration and recognition of Rohingya's full citizenship and ethnic identity, guarantee of their collective rights particularly the "Right of self- determination" along the lines of other ethnicities within the federal Union of Myanmar are imperative.
In conclusion, today we remember and honour all victims and martyrs. We will remember them forever. Today we also salute our female survivors, including the rape victims, for their courageous efforts to survive, even as refugee widows and orphans.
The extent of barbarity employed in Arakan against our people surpassed everything else that took place in Burma/Myanmar. That will not and cannot be forgotten.
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