Interim relief for Rohingyas, though the struggle continues

Interim relief for Rohingyas, though the struggle continues

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January 23 marked a historic day for the Rohingyas – dwellers of Myanmar’s Rakhine province and the world’s most persecuted and dispossessed minorities – as the international court of justice (ICJ), the United Nation’s principal judicial organ, not only provided them with a protective legal shield but also unlocked the possibility of pinpointing accountability for the genocidal acts perpetrated against them. 

Responding to a petition filed by The Gambia last November, the ICJ unanimously ruled to fetter the state and non-state actors in Myanmar from causing further harm to the already ostracized minorities, subjected to inhuman torture, and ensure the protection and preservation of genocide related evidences. So intense was the cruelty unleashed by Myanmar’s military – by way of targeting entire villages through encirclement and cold-blooded massacre during anti-terror operations – that more than 740,000 Rohingyas fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which formed the most concentrated outflow of refugees witnessed by humanity since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. 

While the 600,000 Rohingyas who still reside in Myanmar in the confinement of camps, ghettoes and villages, will find a ray of hope in the ICJ judgment, scores living outside their homeland, including in India, will  seek to return to their roots at the earliest, where things used to be normal once, if not perfect. Their emotional attachment to Rakhine will never go unnoticed, as reflected in a senior Rohingya rights activist’s reminiscences of his student days – during a conversation with me – when the same brutal state subsidized the education of impoverished youths.   

But, is it too early to celebrate, especially because the ICJ has just pronounced provisional measures that might have no bearing on the final judgment, and the world court is hamstringed by lack of enforcement capability? In their obstinate rejection of the ICJ verdict and denouncement of the entire Rohingya populace, for allegedly scheming to defame Myanmar, the Aung San Suu Kyi government has displayed an instinctive dislike for its minuscule Muslim minorities. 

Since Myanmar is trapped in a crisis of its own making, by allowing poisonous religious fanaticism to flourish under discreet patronage of the state, can one realistically expect racial discrimination against Rohingyas to end anytime soon, despite such a historic legal intervention? 

Seema Sengupta

Clearly, xenophobic nationalism has become a curse for Myanmar, with too many people harboring a secret loathing for Muslims in general and deep suspicion of the Rohingyas in particular. Since Myanmar is trapped in a crisis of its own making, by allowing poisonous religious fanaticism to flourish under discreet patronage of the state, can one realistically expect racial discrimination against Rohingyas to end anytime soon, despite such a historic legal intervention? 

After all, what kind of a society will allow millions to starve to death in concentration camps, or wash up dead on foreign shores while evading domestic abuse? Wakar Uddin, Director General of Arakan Rohingya Union – a global body fighting for the rights of Rohingyas – explained to me how deeply entrenched systemic hate and prejudice for Rohingyas in Myanmar’s society will prevent early cessation of institutionalized discrimination. Furthermore, effective neutralization of racial bias is contingent upon Myanmar’s willingness to abolish its discriminatory policies, which Wakar Uddin believes is an objective achievable through sustained international pressure, but requires political determination.

Though, post-ICJ ruling, a defiant Myanmar – in spite of being a signatory to the Genocide Convention – will remain under intense scrutiny, this diplo-legal victory alone cannot guarantee a congenial atmosphere for the Rohingyas to thrive at home. Rather, simultaneous socio-religious initiatives, to build inter-religious dialogue capacity, and dispelling general fear and misconception about Rohingyas, being instinctively radical and prone to terrorism, are key to harmonious existence. 

Unfortunately, relentless incitement to hyper-nationalistic majoritarian jingoism has created a deep racial fissure in Myanmar, and as Wakar Uddin laments, it will take tremendous efforts to materialize any worthwhile initiative for interfaith dialogue, or make a success of such an enterprise. However, all is not lost, as the renowned King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Dialogue Center has teamed up with revered Buddhist monk U Bandatta Seindita to sponsor interfaith contact in the genocide hotspot. To this end, Myanmar’s maiden inter-religious dialogue center was launched, which will work towards promoting social cohesion through sustainable dialogue and reconciliation, in a fragile society. 

Besides, Rohingya organizations should spare no effort to reshape the worldview through the delivery of factual information on their millennial-long history in the Arakan. Wakar Uddin concedes that Islamophobia is the glue that binds some countries, including secular India, with Myanmar, but reiterates that tremendous efforts are on to counter the negative narratives, and magnify the intrinsic pacifist nature of the Rohingya populace. 

India, for instance, is swayed by the propaganda, projecting Rakhine’s minority Hindus as victims of Rohingya violence. In fact, Rohingya refugees are considered a threat to Indian sovereignty, as Jitendra Singh – an influential minister assisting Premier Narendra Modi in his office – underlined unequivocally New Delhi’s intent to deport the country’s sizable Rohingya refugee population back home, regardless of the risks posed by the pushback. Hence, for the oppressed Rohingyas, the battle for their existence is not over yet.   

- Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.

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