The Rohingya might be one step closer to justice

Interesting column by Erna Paris:

Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country, took an unprecedented step this week. To everyone’s surprise, it opened a lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague – the tribunal that adjudicates disputes among states – accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.

Gambia is operating within the larger auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but as is often the case, the impetus came from one individual. Abubacarr M. Tambadou, Gambia’s justice minister, visited a Rohingya refugee camp where he saw a parallel with the violent past of his own country. Importantly, he had been a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the 1990s and recognized genocide when he saw it. That court was the first to convict an individual of ordering mass rape as a tool of war. Significantly, the Myanmar perpetrators have also been accused of this crime.

Although they had lived in Burma/Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya were incrementally dispossessed of their rights by the Buddhist majority and an authoritarian regime. Eventually, in 1982, they were deprived of full citizenship. In August, 2017, some Rohingya pushed back, giving the military an excuse to force them from the country. It is estimated that the military and their Buddhist allies killed at least 60,000 people and committed sexual violence against 18,000 women. Today, most of the survivors are in Bangladesh refugee camps, but Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on earth and is complaining about the burden. Something had to give.

One remedy may be international justice. Push back against those who believe they can commit major crimes with impunity.

It’s not as though the world hadn’t noticed their plight. Rights groups have expressed outrage. In 2017, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, to respond appropriately. (She didn’t.) The parliaments of several countries, including Canada, have called the situation a genocide. In 2018, an independent United Nations fact-finding mission concluded that Myanmar’s military acted with “genocidal intent” and recommended that six individuals be prosecuted. Reports of risk assessment have concluded that genocide remains a risk for those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar. But if too little happened until Gambia decided to act, it is because reality – and realpolitik – got in the way.

First, reality. Last year, a ruling from the International Criminal Court said that tribunal could investigate the case of Myanmar – but in a limited way only. The problem was the court’s statutory jurisdiction: Myanmar is not an ICC member country. Bangladesh, however, is a member, which makes it possible for the tribunal to investigate the cross-border ethnic expulsions as a crime against humanity. Not perfect, but a start.

Second, realpolitik. Had the UN Security Council decided to refer the Myanmar case to the ICC for investigation, the tribunal would, according to its statute, have had full jurisdiction. China and Russia did not prevent a Security Council briefing on the UN inquiry accusing Myanmar’s military of genocide, but their subsequent obstruction meant no referral. Still in the realm of realpolitik, there might have been pressure from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but Myanmar is a member of that organization, complicating matters. So, although it can prosecute only states, not individuals, the ICJ looked like the best route.

Support from other countries will be critical and Canada is already engaged. Along with the European Union, this country has imposed sanctions on individuals linked to the military operations of August, 2017, and has since stepped up its involvement. The legal case will need funding; the refugees need more help, as does Bangladesh; and Canada is well positioned to intervene in the case, should it decide to do so.

Given worries over diminishing respect for international institutions and the rules-based global order, it is important that the world’s liberal democracies buttress the case against Myanmar. There is already encouraging momentum. In the aftermath of the Gambia lawsuit, Rohingya and Latin American human-rights groups opened litigation in Argentina under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” a legal concept based on the premise that horrific crimes, such as genocide, can be tried anywhere.

The Gambia case has rightly revived the doctrine called “The Responsibility to Protect”. To demand accountability for the world’s worst crimes is in everyone’s self-interest.

Source: The Rohingya might be one step closer to justice Erna Paris

Rohingya tell Myanmar they won’t return without recognition as ethnic group with right to citizenship

Of note:

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refuse to return to Myanmar unless they are recognised as an ethnic group in their home country, leaders told visiting Myanmar officials on Sunday as fresh repatriation talks started.

A campaign by Myanmar’s military in response to insurgent attacks in 2017 drove 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh’s southeastern border district of Cox’s Bazar, where they live in squalid camps, fearing further persecution if they return.

U.N. investigators have said Myanmar’s operation included mass killings, gang rapes and arson and was executed with “genocidal intent.” Myanmar denies the charge.

This is the second time Myanmar officials have visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar in an effort to persuade Rohingya refugees to kick-start the repatriation process. In October, Rohingya rejected an offer to go back to their homeland when a Myanmar delegation held talks with leaders of the group.

The Myanmar delegation, led by permanent foreign secretary Myint Thu, held talks with 35 Rohingya leaders in Cox’s Bazar on Saturday and Sunday amid tightened security in the camps.

Rohingya leaders said they wanted Myanmar to recognize them as an ethnic group with the right to Myanmar citizenship before they return.

“We told them we won’t return unless we are recognized as Rohingya in Myanmar,” Dil Mohammed, one of the Rohingya leaders who joined the talks, told Reuters by telephone.

He also said they will not return to Myanmar unless demands for justice, international protection and the ability to go back to their original villages and lands are met.

“We want citizenship, we want all our rights. We don’t trust them. We will return only if international protection is in place,” he said.

“We will return to our own land … (we) don’t want to end up living in camps.”

In November, a formal move to start the repatriation process stalled as no Rohingya agreed to return to Myanmar.

The U.N. refugee agency and aid groups are also doubtful about the plan as they fear for the safety of Rohingya in Myanmar.

“We are ready to begin the repatriation anytime. It is up to Myanmar to create a conducive environment to allow the Rohingya to return to their homeland,” said Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.

With the repatriation plan largely stalled, Bangladesh has been considering relocating Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal, but some have expressed concern this could lead to a new crisis given the island is vulnerable to cyclones.

Myanmar has made “minimal” preparations for the return of Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh, an Australian think-tank said.

Source: Rohingya tell Myanmar they won’t return without recognition as ethnic group with right to citizenship

Myanmar’s ‘national races’ trump citizenship | East Asia Forum

Interesting article and explanation by Nick Cheesman regarding the status of the Rohingas in Burma:

Taingyintha, or ‘national races’, is among the most important political ideas in Myanmar today. Although the term is not well recognised or readily translated in English-language scholarship on Myanmar, it lies at the heart of the country’s contemporary politics. It also helps to explain the so-called ‘Rohingya problem’ on which so much has been written in recent times. So how did the idea of taingyintha become politically salient? And what is its relationship to state formation and national identity?

Rohingya refugee workers carry bags of salt as they work in processing yard in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 12 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain).

To answer these questions requires a little bit of digging into the recent past. As a term, taingyintha has neither a long nor glorious history. It was not a significant idea in colonial-era politics, where it seems to have been a signifier of ‘native’ identity. At the end of World War II, taingyintha featured in negotiations on the country’s draft constitution, which was ratified in 1947, but it got only two modest references in the chapter on citizenship, where it is translated as ‘indigenous races’. It wasn’t mentioned in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which is mythologised as laying the foundations for national unity, and it remained peripheral to politics in the country prior to a military coup in 1962.

But on 12 February 1964, taingyintha went from having limited political salience to becoming a centrepiece in the project for military-dominated statehood. The junta leader, General Ne Win, used the Union Day address to urge ‘national races’ to come together for the good of the nation. In so doing, he inaugurated a new programme of action based on a state-sponsored conception of taingyintha as political community. Within the same year, the government had set up an Academy for the Development of National Races. The following year, staff from universities around the country began state-directed fieldwork to document and publish authoritative studies on national races’ culture.

Although Ne Win’s one-party state collapsed under the weight of nationwide protests in 1988, the idea of national races not only prevailed, but also emerged stronger than ever. A newly comprised military junta that seized control of government announced that ‘non-disintegration of national [taingyintha] solidarity’ was the second of its three main causes. For want of any other unifying motif, national races were invoked on every broadcast and publication, and at every major event.

The new military junta used the term to mean different things. On the one hand, ‘national races’ was used to describe the members of a single political community, united in struggle against common enemies inside and out. On the other, it was used to denote people living in remote parts of the country who had failed to progress due to civil war and ignorance. Between them, these usages worked to justify relentless military campaigns against armed groups operating under the banners of multitudinous national races.

Today, Myanmar’s 2008 constitution cements national races in the country’s formal institutions. It establishes a conceptual relation between taingyintha and citizenship, such that the former is irreducible to the latter. Legally and by definition, national races trump citizenship. To talk of the political community ‘Myanmar’ is to talk of taingyintha, and to talk to that community is above all to address its members not as citizens but as national races.

Because taingyintha identity had trumped citizenship, the place of people belonging to groups not recognised as national races, like people identifying or identified as Rohingya, is precarious. The only means available for the Rohingya and other excluded groups to achieve any political recognition within Myanmar is to submit to the politics of domination and insist that they too are taingyintha.

This means that Rohingya advocates must also engage with and support the idea of national races. That is, they must reproduce the idea in order to make a claim for political identity and membership. They must give assurances that if included in the schema of national races, they would be committed to the idea of taingyintha; that, ironically, they would be the most vociferous defenders of ‘national race’ identity.

Myanmar’s problem is not a ‘Rohingya problem’, but a ‘national races’ problem. The idea of taingyintha obligates groups wanting political recognition — like the Rohingya — to acquiesce to its terms as the price demanded for admission to the ‘Myanmar’ political community, only to expose them to the ire of the members of other groups already recognised as national races.

Source: Myanmar’s ‘national races’ trump citizenship | East Asia Forum