Eid is not an occasion for protests and demonstrations. After the morning Eid prayers, there is a general sense of festivity. It is all about greetings, good food and goodwill. But this year things were different at the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazar.
The Rohingyas broke out in protest. The protest was not against the host country or the local administration. It was against the United Nations. They were demonstrating against the memorandum of understanding signed by the Myanmar government with UNDP and UNHCR regarding the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
The protestors said that their opinion had to be taken into cognizance when it came to determining their fate. They clearly stated that the repatriation had to be done with dignity, meaning that the Rohingyas had to be recognised as an ethnic community and be given full citizenship rights. They also highlighted the need for security. They openly told UNHCR that they had to be consulted about the MoU.
The MoU signed by UNDP and UNHCR with the Myanmar government on 6 June has not been made public as yet. It is said that the objective of the MoU is to open the way for the Rohingyas to return to their country. According to whatever little information released by the UN bodies about the matter, under the new deal the Myanmar government has allowed the UN agencies access to the Rohingya’s state of Rakhine so they can assess the local situation and circumstances. So long the UN agencies had no access there.
In an exclusive interview with UN News, the UN resident coordinator for Myanmar Knut Ostby said their task was to ensure that the repatriation was safe, that there was an end to the violence and that their human rights were upheld. He said, this was the first and foremost step, but in reality the most important task is to begin now. Last year this was a serious crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people living in terrible conditions. Now the effort should be to ensure that they can return home.
Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in an interview with Japan’s NHK television channel, said that this deal was evidence that Myanmar was carrying out all its responsibilities towards the refugees. She called upon the international community to read the MoU.
Ms Suu Kyi may have asked the international community to read the agreement, but the fact remains that neither she nor the UN agencies have revealed the contents of the deal. Certain non-government organisations (NGOs) approached the UN bodies for copies of the deal, but this was not given to them. The Washington Post on 12 June stated that western diplomatic sources in Naypyidaw said that the MoU wasn’t being published due to objection from the Myanmar government. The newspaper contacted the UN resident representative in Myanmar about the matter, but he too said that they were discussing the matter of publishing the report with the Myanmar government.
Myanmar continues in its refusal to recognise this Muslim population as ‘Rohingyas’. Even the latest press release issued by Suu Kyi’s office after the MoU was signed, referred to the Rohingya refugees as ‘displaced persons.’
The latest phase of the Rohingya crisis began in August when the so-called insurgent ARSA rebels attacked an army outpost. In response, the army indiscriminately launched an attack on the Rohingya civilians. Since then, over 700 thousand Rohingya refugees have taken shelter in Bangladesh. Myanmar has a long history of the Rohingyas being oppressed by the state’s armed forces.
Many of the refugees who have come this time had fled to Bangladesh in the past too, returning under UNHCR supervision, only to face oppression and torture all over again. Then there are over 300 thousand refugees who have been here from beforehand, also waiting to be repatriated. So it is not surprising that they have no confidence in the UN agency regarding a dignified repatriation.
Despite this long-standing hatred and discrimination against Rohingyas, the international community in the past failed to take up any stern stance regarding Myanmar. But the excessive brutality this time has compelled everyone to take note. Aung San Suu Kyi had been hailed worldwide for her role in establishing democracy, but now is decried globally. Europe and the US have stopped selling arms to Myanmar and have also put a ban on certain top military leaders of the country. Western investors have postponed their investment plans. The International Criminal Court ICC has taken initiative to try persons responsible for the crimes against humanity in the country.
It is clear that the Myanmar government is concerned about these moves. Its leaders are feeling the pressure. Without implementing the recommendations put forward by the commission for former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to resolve the Rakhine crisis, on 31 May Suu Kyi declared the formation of a new commission. The task of this commission will be to investigate the allegations of human rights violations. It is clear that the objective is simply to thwart the ICC initiative. The Human Rights Watch has decried the formation of this commission, calling upon the UN Security Council to try the country’s crimes in the ICC.
What guarantee is there that this MoU signed with the UN agencies will not turn out to be a precious gift to Suu Kyi? There were all indications of this in her interview with NHK.
Most importantly, the protesting Rohingyas ask what justification could there be to ignore their views in the deal regarding their safe and dignified repatriation? It is in no way democratic to force such a decision upon a repressed population.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.