By Syed Zafar Mehdi

‘It’s been a horrendous year for Rohingya refugees, met with international inaction’

September 2, 2018 - 10:35

TEHRAN - It has been one year since Rohingya Muslims were forced to leave Myanmar following brutal crackdown by Myanmar military with tacit support from the government. As per conservative estimates, there are around 905,000 Rohingya refugees presently in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, although some human rights bodies have put the figure higher.

The exodus of persecuted Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state started in October 2016. Almost 200,000 of them fled to neighboring Bangladesh that time and settled in Cox’s Bazar. However, in August last year, more than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh en masse to escape persecution, murder, arson and rape.

The savagery in Rakhine was described by the United Nations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The atrocities were widely documented by human rights bodies, including gang rapes, cold-blooded killings, torture and destruction of properties belonging to Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were burnt down between August 25 and November 25 in a systematic ethnic cleansing.

Matthew Smith is the co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia. He has been extensively campaigning for Rohingya refugees to raise awareness about their struggle and to mobilize global support for them. In this interview with Tehran Times, he talks about the plight of Rohingya refugees, lack of international response, abysmal conditions for their safe repatriation and insufficient humanitarian access to refugees.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. August 25 marked one year since Myanmar police backed by the government authorities murdered thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children, forcing more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh – the fastest refugee exodus since the Rwandan genocide. How would you describe this one year for Rohingyas now putting up in Cox's Bazar refugee tents?

A. It has been a horrendous year for Rohingya. They’re experiencing the worst attack in their history and it’s being met with international inaction.

Q. In a blistering report, the UN investigators accused Myanmar’s top generals of genocide and said they should be tried at International Criminal Court. The report said Aung San Suu Kyi failed to use “moral authority” to prevent violence and her government “contributed to commission of atrocity crimes”. Why are the Western countries still standing by her?

A. Many governments regard Suu Kyi as their only pro-democratic interlocutor in the country, but that’s fading. Many western governments have only weak or nonexistent relations with her now. They won’t say so publicly, but many people in positions of power internationally understand well that she’s a profound disappointment and part of the problem.

Q. The UN Secretary General after visiting Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last month said the horrific stories of suffering he heard from Rohingya refugees there remains vivid in his memory. What should the UN be doing to end this crisis?

A. The UN Security Council should urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This will at least start the wheels of justice.

Q. Thousands of Rohingya refugees have been putting up in congested camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar. The recent monsoon season has been terrible for them. How is the situation there now? Are aid agencies doing enough to mitigate their woes?

A. Bangladesh can and should do more to enable unfettered humanitarian access. Aid groups still have a difficult time working in the camps. Bangladesh should also abandon its plan to send all Rohingya refugees to a remote, flood-prone island. If the government moves forward with that plan it will instantly become a big part of the problem

Q. There have been talks going on between the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments regarding repatriation of these refugees. Do you think the time is ripe for them to return home?

A. The conditions are not in place for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns. The whole discourse of returns now is a farce. Myanmar has tried to use that discourse to distract attention away from its atrocities, from genocide.

Q. What has been the role of regional countries in this crisis? Do you think they should put more pressure on Myanmar government to prosecute those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya?

A. Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) can and should do more. Malaysia has been outspoken but the rest of the region has been pathetically silent and weak. That’s inexcusable with regard to genocide. It’s all of our responsibility to end and remedy these atrocities along with Rohingya.

Q. The U.N. Fact-Finding Mission said the Myanmar military perpetrated war crimes in Kachin State of Myanmar, denying humanitarian aid, which resulted in avoidable deprivations of aid to tens of thousands of ethnic Kachin displaced by armed conflict. You have also published a report on it. What does it conclude?

A. We found that the authorities weaponized aid for the last seven years, depriving displaced Kachin of adequate aid. It’s unconscionably and could amount to a war crime. This is even more reason for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC.

Q. Do you also think Suu Kyi should be stripped of her Nobel Prize?
A. The Nobel Committee has never stripped someone of their award, to my knowledge. I don’t care much about what happens to her Peace Prize. Our real concern now is whether she will reverse course and ensure accountability or continue with her discriminatory and shameful approach to genocide.

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