By Syed Zafar Mehdi

‘Genocide is slow strangulation of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine’

December 10, 2018

The heart-rending stories of Rohingya refugees continue to pour out from the refugee camps of Bangladesh, where they live in impoverished condition, and from Rakhine state, where they face incarceration. The repatriation plan has been shelved following calls by the international aid organizations that the timing was not feasible for their return.

Shafiur Rahman is a documentary film maker. He has been working on Rohingya issues for past two years. His widely acclaimed documentary ‘Testimonies of a Massacre’ was the first to describe the pre-planning of massacre in Tula Toli, Myanmar in August 2017.
In an interview to Tehran Times, Mr. Rahman spoke about the condition of Rohingya in Bangladesh, the repatriation plan, reports about Rohingya fleeing to Malaysia because of incarceration in Rakhine state of Myanmar and the solution to this crisis.
Following are the excerpts:

Q.  Myanmar and Bangladesh have been in talks regarding repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Is it safe for them to return to Myanmar?

A. Not a single international organisation involved in the crisis has seen fit to describe the situation in Rakhine as suitable for repatriation. Indeed they have cautioned Bangladesh not to repatriate Rohingya.

On the eve of the latest attempt at repatriation, 42 international NGOs emphatically opposed the move.  Indeed Marzuki Darusman, Chair of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, made it clear in October of 2018 that all the root causes of the crisis remained and there can be no moving-on whilst that is still the case.  This includes the unaccountable military which acts with complete impunity and the fact that  Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship and a panoply of apartheid-like laws  target them.   


If you visit the camps of Bangladesh, you will find elderly people for whom this is the third time they have had to flee Myanmar to Bangladesh. Over and over the world has seen this cycle of persecution and killings in Myanmar resulting in hundreds of thousand of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. These refugees are then forced back to Myanmar and again they meet the same fate of persecution and catastrophic violence. No one can be blind to this history. This is recent history. This has been happening in our life time. This vicious and murderous cycle has been going on since 1978.

Q. There have been reports about Rohingya refugees being detained in Malaysia while trying to escape persecution in Myanmar. Could you tell us what exactly happened?

A. Almost 130,000 Rohingya have been living in concentration camps in Sittwe for more than 6 years now after the 2012 violence. These internally displaced people are trapped in the IDP camps and live under dire circumstances and without any kind of livelihood. They are dependent on food distribution by WFP or ICRC.

Life is intolerable and they have been taking risky journeys to Malaysia by boat as you may have seen in the news in the last two weeks. In the past these attempts to reach Malaysia have led to the drownings of thousands.

Those who are not in IDP camps, effectively live in an open-air prison. There are restrictions on every aspect of normal life. The Rohingya need to obtain permission from the village authority to travel from one village to another even if the other village is just a couple of minutes walking distance. Since late 2016 Rohingyas are not allowed to travel from one town to another. They need permission to seek emergency health care and many die because of the lack of proper medical facilities.

They have no access to education. They are subject to killings, extortion and marginalisation from every sphere of life that a citizen is entitled to. It is difficult to get married. It is difficult to register births. Their mosques are closed. There is no freedom of religion. People live in perpetual fear.

And hence the desperation to flee elsewhere.

Q. Do you think the world community must play more proactive role in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis?


A. Today, 10 December, as I answer your questions, it is the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday it was the anniversary of the establishment of the Genocide convention.  Why do we have these declarations and mechanisms and conventions when we do nothing about them?

 Clearly we only pay lip service to these grand ideals given the history of Myanmar? How many more times will world leaders utter the words “Never again” only for it to be repeated again and again?  Genocide is not just catastrophic killing. Genocide is also the slow strangulation of Rohingya society in Rakhine state through incarceration in IDP camps and the severe restrictions on everyday life.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Genocide convention and around 150 states signed it. It is incumbent upon the the signatories of the Genocide convention to prevent and punish actions of genocide. Clearly then the world community needs to be far more proactive.  And here is the nub.

When you begin to ask why the world does not take firm action you start to unearth the economic
and political self-interests that prevent firm action against Myanmar.  

Q. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had to face backlash when he tweeted pictures from his visit to Myanmar, asking people to visit the country. How important is social media in mobilizing public support for Rohingya campaign?

A. We should not expect billionaires to have progressive values. However we should hold them to account and scrutinise the entirely unregulated platforms they have created.   In this context, the role of social media has been a double-edged one.

The Facebook behemoth has been rightly and widely blasted for giving platform to hate speech. Monetizing Myanmar was Facebook’s goal. They didn’t give a damn that they fueled anti-Rohingya violence and hate-mongering.  They did very little, very late.  

The lesson is that technology is not socially or politically neutral. And those who are trying to mobilize public support for Rohingya must  maintain vigilance over what these platforms are doing.

Q. There are 900,000 Rohingyas packed in 27 camps in Cox’s Bazar, living in deplorable conditions. What kind of problems are they facing?

A. The humanitarian response for the Rohingya refugees remains seriously underfunded according to the main agencies in the field.  Inevitably this will impact on a variety of services including medical services. Water and sanitation facilities remain highly uneven putting thousands at risk of waterborne diseases.

If you read the statistics, most of the tube wells are not delivering safe water. Most of the latrines are not working properly. All this potentially puts lives at risk.

Another crucial priority is education for children. It has been more than a year since they took flight. Some of the children think of their books as so precious that they brought them with them all the way to Bangladesh during their perilous exodus. Yet they are unable to go to school. Very few kids are able to go to school . This is impacting on an entire generation of children.

Q. You have been working with these refugees on the ground. Many of them have harrowing stories to narrate of killings, rapes and torture in Rakhine. What prompted you to join this campaign?

A. Frankly speaking I had no intention to work on the Rohingya crisis. It happened because one day in December of 2016 on a public holiday I decided to drive down to Kutupalong to see for myself what was happening. What I saw and what I heard on that short day trip changed my life. And I have been filming and doing projects in the camps since December of 2016.

Q. What, according to you, is the possible solution to this simmering crisis?

A. The solution cannot be a repetition of the current cycle which is  persecution/massacres in Myanmar  leading to refugees in Bangladesh difficult conditions in Bangladesh and forced return to Myanmar in contravention of international law further persecution/massacres in Myanmar and so on.

This has been going on for decades.

The solution must involve the international community and humanitarian organisations. They can bolster and support Bangladesh to help deal with the refugees including involving the refugees in productive life which restores their dignity and self-reliance, and improves the conditions for the host Bangladeshis also.  

This is the year of the UN Global Compact on Refugees. The essence of this is global sharing of responsibility for vulnerable refugees.  This can involve financial grants, trade access and other benefits for the Bangladeshi economy. There are various lessons from elsewhere, for example the case of Syrian refugees in Za’atari Camp in Jordan.

Until Rohingya rights are restored in Myanmar and safety guaranteed, no other option but a stay in Bangladesh is necessary and inevitable. This is politically difficult for Bangladesh to utter especially in an election year. However, anything else - and I refer particularly to repatriation -  is unconscionable legally, politically and morally.

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