The Rohingya are more than victims
“The Myanmar military has been trying to destroy our community for decades,” said “Mohammed Hussein” a 52-year-old Rohingya refugee from Maungdaw Township now living in a sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “We are calling for justice.”
August 25 marked one year since Myanmar soldiers, police, and local non-Rohingya citizens murdered thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children in a matter of weeks, forcing more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh – the fastest refugee exodus since the Rwandan genocide.
Mohammed Hussein was one of the many who fled. “Villagers in my home town were killed and houses burned to the ground,” he told me.
While international outcry about the genocidal attacks against Rohingya has understandably made headlines, much less has been publicized about Rohingya-led efforts for justice and accountability. The Rohingya are typically portrayed as helpless victims, when in reality they are the solution.
First, it should come as no surprise that Rohingya refugees have views of their own about their plight. Rohingya in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia have told me they believe the Myanmar military is intentionally trying to destroy them.
Some Rohingya activists living in Myanmar, in refugee camps, and in the diaspora have studied the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and believe that there are strikingly similar characteristics – and they are absolutely correct. Rohingya I have met said they believed “genocide” accurately describes their lived experience.
For years, Rohingya have worked closely with journalists and advocates to support investigations and fact-finding processes. Many Rohingya have gone to great lengths to film and photograph evidence of the Myanmar military’s crimes
Second, members of the Rohingya community are documenting human-rights violations. For years, Rohingya have worked closely with journalists and advocates to support investigations and fact-finding processes. Many Rohingya have gone to great lengths to film and photograph evidence of the Myanmar military’s crimes, often sharing footage and photographs with journalists and human-rights organizations such as Fortify Rights. This evidence is critical in documenting the truth and combating the Myanmar’s government narrative of denial.
Third, members of the Rohingya community are active. On August 25, Rohingya groups mobilized thousands of people in the camps to demonstrate peacefully – acts that would be unthinkable on the Myanmar side of the border because of the military’s persecution. Men, women and children demanded justice, commemorating what they are calling “Black Day.”
Those demonstrations were certainly not the first showing of a Rohingya civil society. In July, Rohingya organizations worldwide released a joint statement calling for “justice for genocide and crimes against humanity” committed against them by the Myanmar military.
Beyond the confines of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, there is a vast network of Rohingya groups working and advocating together. One example is the Rohingya Consultative Body – a network of Rohingya leaders and advocates from inside and outside Myanmar that coordinates activities and advocacy worldwide.
Members of this network work day and night and have met with and called on powerful global leaders to restore and protect the rights and freedoms of Rohingya in Myanmar and hold to account perpetrators of atrocities. Their work is making an impact, unbeknownst to many onlookers.
“We used to be teachers, farmers, businessmen, and now we are refugees living under tarpaulin shelters,” one Rohingya refugee told my colleagues and me last month. “We want justice before we can go back home.”
The well-informed views, documentation work, and activism by members of the Rohingya community are an important and necessary part of the solution. But broad international action is also needed to ensure the rights of Rohingya are respected in Myanmar and accountability for violations is enforced.
This week a United Nations fact-finding mission will release evidence on the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi refused to cooperate with the mission, but that didn’t stop it from carrying out its mandate. Rohingya groups and dozens of non-Rohingya Myanmar-based civil-society organizations called on the government to cooperate fully, but it paid no mind.
The evidence from the fact-finding mission will add to the pressure for prosecutions, but justice is unlikely to come within Myanmar. Myanmar has already demonstrated it is unable and unwilling to investigate and prosecute properly the crimes perpetrated against Rohingya.
This is precisely why the International Criminal Court exists. The calls by Rohingya and international advocates are aligned: The United Nations Security Council should urgently refer Myanmar to the ICC to investigate and possibly prosecute those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
An ICC referral would start the process of bringing decades of impunity to an end, and may prevent further violations. It is also in line with what Rohingya like Mohammed Hussein and many others have been advocating for themselves.