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OP-ED: Rohingya voices must be heard

  • Published at 11:58 pm September 5th, 2021

Can Bangladesh give the Rohingya a platform to tell their stories?

Throughout the course of human history, we have often forgotten to take notice of some of the worst atrocities inflicted upon our kin. The story of the Rohingya falls squarely into this narrative as well. As a group, they are among the most persecuted and yet, responses to their cries for justice and support have long gone unnoticed.

On August 25, 2017, 700,000 Rohingya fled persecution and mass ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military. They crossed miles of treacherous terrain, in fear of their lives to find themselves at the borders of Bangladesh, where they are currently being housed in camps strewn across Cox’s Bazar. 

While many nations surrounding Myanmar turned away some of the Rohingya fleeing to their borders, Bangladesh took them in and decided to provide them whatever little that we could muster. The day has since come to be known as “Genocide Day,” dubbed by the Rohingya people themselves. The year 2021 marks the fourth year since the darkest episode of their history played out. 

Since 1942, the Rohingya have suffered almost apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar. Their people have been systematically disenfranchised -- denied adequate support, education, and economic stability. Beyond that, they have been subjected to myriad human rights violations, including forced labour -- not unlike slavery. 

Myanmar’s distaste for the Rohingya people is a result of an ethno-religious clash with the objectives of the Myanmar junta, which has been trying not only to curb the establishment of democratic rule in the country, but also to unite the nation under a more Buddhist identity. 

This infectious problem was first noticed during World War II, as the Rohingya identifiably sided with the Allied forces while the Myanmar military chose to ally with the Japanese empire. Since then, the ostracization and the abuse of the Rohingya people have been prevalent. They were denied any opportunity to self-identify or find any form of economic emancipation. And, while this infection festered, the world failed to take adequate notice. Although the rise of a democratic movement in Myanmar seemed to bring some semblance of hope for a cure, the recent coup staged by the military stunted any possibility of justice and accountability for the people. 

While the world was distracted by the 2020 American elections and its aftermath, whispers of the coup to seize of the seat of power, democratically won by the NLD, were already in the air. The global community failed to take notice, as the crisis was exacerbated. 600,000 Rohingya still remain in Myanmar, living in almost constant fear for their lives. 

The Rohingya have been finding their way into Bangladesh since the early 1940s, in hopes of finding some semblance of safety. Throughout the years, Bangladesh has had a turbulent relationship with Myanmar, trying to provide safety for the Rohingya and advocating for their safe repatriation. The last example of this was in 1990, when 200,000 Rohingya had fled into Bangladesh and similarly housed in camps like we see today. It was not until 1993 that Bangladesh was finally able to broker a repatriation agreement with Myanmar -- only to have that agreement betrayed by the Myanmar military once again. 

The Rohingya are currently screaming into a void, unable to find ways to voice their concerns and thoughts. What binds us to their plight is Bangladesh’s shared experiences of its former tragedies. What binds the Rohingya’s plight to the millions of other forcibly displaced communities, like the Afghans, the Syrians and many more, is their ability to tell a story, when supported. It is one thing for a nation to host those who have been displaced, but that is neither a sustainable nor justifiable way of managing the problem. 

What is required, is the demand for justice and the accommodation of that process. In the years leading up to the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there was a sufficient degree of mandate and political will galvanized against the atrocities committed during World War II. The stories of the families who suffered at the hands of oppressors, allowed to come forward, was a means of ensuring that stories lived to see the days of trial and stand as testimony when required. 

This was equally true of the years of advocacy in favour of trials against the war criminals of 1971 in Bangladesh. Many of these stories were frequently published in media across multiple platforms. However, it was imperative that the people who suffered were allowed to speak for themselves, along with their allies and advocates from across the globe. The Rohingya require the same form of support from all corners. 

The proposition is simply that the Rohingya are allowed access to such modes of narrative-building. This could happen primarily by giving them access to modes of media allowing them to speak freely in demand for justice and accountability against those who oppressed them in Myanmar. 

However, to make their advocacy effective, access to education and a guide for that advocacy is necessary for the cause. The world can collectively help further the cause by simply demanding that justice be conferred on the people. The machinations of international law largely depend on cooperation. The global community, if correctly informed, can be persuaded to push for the restoration of democracy and the rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar. 

Bangladesh has long demanded such restorations, in their current capacity as a rising powerhouse in South Asia, it is more than possible for them to call upon international allies to make such persuasions. In particular, leveraging their economic ties with allies in the region, it is more than likely for this endeavour to succeed. 

Finally, Bangladesh’s support of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other such supra-national investigation and trial mechanisms is instrumental in ensuring that justice is brought to the Rohingya people quicker than instances in the past. Such courts have presented their interest in the matter in recent years, the logistical support necessary is not far from possible.

It is imperative that we remind ourselves of the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya and many other refugees around the world. While Bangladesh may not have the resources to offer them a permanent home, it is possible for us to amplify their voices, demanding justice for their people by being their allies -- much like our own allies in the past. Their message and stories must be heard and must be amplified. So that they can no longer be ignored. So that even if it is in the distant future, those who have suffered and generations after them, are able to use these narratives to demand the form of justice they long for.

Ahmed Shafquat Hassan is Research Assistant, Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University (CPJ), Global Advisor and Strategic and Academic Director, Mazeltov - Innovation and Justice.