Last week, for the first time I heard an eminent Burmese citizen and a former advisor to the military government admit that massacre and atrocities were committed against the Rohingyas. He also acknowledged that Rohingya villages were burned in Rakhine.
Thant Myint-U, a historian, former diplomat, and presidential advisor, and the founder and chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust was speaking at Harvard University at a book launch ceremony. His new book, “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century” was just released, and he talked openly about the changes currently taking place in his home country from his vantage position having worked with the generals during the transition to “democracy”.
Turning to the larger context, it appears that the Rohingya crisis has now reached a very interesting milestone. Firstly, the Bangladesh PM has escalated the war of words with Myanmar and declared that the current stalemate with Myanmar has become a threat to regional security. Secondly, the Bangladeshi plan to move the refugees to Bhashan Char has stalled and the visit of a UN technical team to the island has been postponed. And finally, the international community is taking some baby steps to hold the leaders of Myanmar accountable for the latter’s crimes against humanity.
The prime minister’s clarion call to the global community seeking its assistance to resolve the lack of progress on the Rohingya repatriation came on the opening day of “Dhaka Global Dialogue-2019” held from November 11-13. She said, “In terms of regional security, I would like to say that more than 1.1 million Rohingya citizens of Myanmar fled to Bangladesh in the face of persecution and they are a threat to the security not only for Bangladesh but also for the region”. All this is part of a concerted effort by Bangladesh to put pressure on the Myanmar government to act with sincerity and do its part to repatriate the Rohingyas. More on that later in this commentary.
Bangladesh’s plan to resettle some of the Rohingya refugees from the Cox’s Bazar area to Bhashan Char suffered a minor setback in the face of opposition from various corners, particularly international human rights advocates. The proposed November 17-19 visit by a UN technical mission to vet the safety measures in the housing facility on the char has been postponed. The team had planned to look at the risks of natural disasters, water supply, access to basic services, including health and education, and the freedom of movement within Bhashan Char and to and from the mainland, according to a UN official. There is a little uncertainty now on the latest timeline to relocate the Rohingyas and the revised schedule of the visit by the UN agencies.
There is some good news on the international front both from the Rohingya and Bangladesh points of view. We have seen in the last few months three UN bodies take up the cause of Rohingyas. On November 11, the Republic of The Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. This historic lawsuit seeks to ensure Myanmar’s responsibility as a state for the genocide committed against the Rohingya.
“The aim is to get Myanmar to account for its action against its own people: the Rohingya. It is a shame for our generation that we do nothing while genocide is unfolding right under our own eyes,” declared Gambian Justice Minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, at The Hague where ICJ is based.
On November 14, the pre-trial judges of the International Criminal Court authorised its Office of Prosecutor to launch an investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity across Myanmar-Bangladesh border, and other criminal acts against the Rohingya population.
According to UN News, “this is the second strike against the alleged crimes this week” and complements the lawsuit filed at ICJ. This is so because ICJ or the World Court settles disputes submitted by sovereign countries, the ICC is the world’s only permanent criminal tribunal with a mandate to investigate and prosecute individuals who participate in international atrocity crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
However, there has been a third strike against the bad actors in Myanmar. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) established by the Human Rights Council, became operational last August 30. IIMM is mandated to gather and preserve evidence for criminal prosecution; prepare criminal files for national, regional or international courts to “conduct fair trials of individuals for crimes committed in Myanmar”, including in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States. The criminals can be tagged making use of the information handed over to it by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFMM).
The newly-appointed head of IIMM, Nicholas Koumjian, an American and a former prosecutor in Cambodia, expressed his determination to bring the bad guys in Myanmar to face justice. “The IIMM will vigorously pursue accountability irrespective of the race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or political affiliation of either the victims or the perpetrators… It sends a message to potential future perpetrators from all armed entities in Myanmar—we are watching and those who commit crimes may someday be brought to account.”
Last week’s meeting with Thant Myint-U provided a great opportunity for educators and thinkers based around Harvard to take a peek into the mindset of Myanmar’s civil society. Myint-U is the grandson of U Thant, former Secretary General of the United Nations, and was part of the momentous changes that pulled Burma toward democracy, working with the ex-generals.
So, we asked Thant Myint-U if the recent events might finally push the powers that be in Naypyidaw to read the writings on the wall and mend their ways? While he was not very optimistic, he predicted that two things will happen. Obviously, if the generals were indicted in international courts, it would strengthen the hands of the pro-democracy forces in their struggle against Tatmadaw and accelerate political reforms. Secondly, it might trigger a national dialogue in Myanmar on various outstanding issues and lead to a change in the attitude of the average citizen towards the ethnic minorities in the northern and western states. Hopefully, in the long run, all these influences, if sustained, would help to bring about a realignment of political power in Rakhine State and a shift in the world view of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.