Shining a Spotlight on Myanmar’s Displaced

May 27, 2015

Below is the text of a speech delivered by Refugees International Senior Advisor on Human Rights Sarnata Reynolds at the Oslo Conference on Myanmar’s Systematic Persecution of Rohingyas.

I have been asked today to speak about the challenges and opportunities for positive policy and political engagement on the mass atrocities & ethnic cleansing facing the Rohingya.

There are many points to make on each side, but I will limit mine to three observations in the interest of time.

First, there has been much talk about partnering with Myanmar from the perspective of international diplomacy. I would suggest that these engagements don’t constitute a partnership of any kind, as it seems to be Myanmar that is deciding who sits at the table, when they sit at the table, what they talk about, and what results will be achieved.

Myanmar’s government has not demonstrated any interest in partnership, it is an authoritarian government that maintains near total control of those inside and apparently, outside the country. And that’s not very hard to see.

In this new world of 24 hour social media citizen reporting, the government has learned to erase the Rohingya slowly and without explicit evidence – killing large numbers of Rohingya would be too public and so counter-productive – so the Rohingya suffer quietly, their wounds hidden away, and their destruction ever closer.

Instead of imposing rule of law and accountability in Rakhine state, the government has enforced a policy of segregation and isolation. This is not moral leadership or good governance, and will never be a recipe for reconciliation and reintegration, so we must call it what it is – the intentional exclusion of an entire ethnic group.

Myanmar’s government has not demonstrated any interest in partnership, it is an authoritarian government that maintains near total control of those inside and apparently, outside the country.

If we admit this reality, it creates opportunities for the Rohingya people, advocates, academics, and researchers. We are under no obligation to walk into settings with our own elected officials under the pretense that improvements will be possible if conversations just got more productive. We can call out our elected and appointed leaders, and challenge them to impose accountability for the mass atrocities the government of Myanmar is committing against the Rohingya – by articulating and following through with real consequences. These could be in the form of diplomatic suspensions, visa bans, the reimposition of strategic  sanctions, or through regional and international courts or a commission of inquiry through the Security Council. I think we all know that we are unlikely to get a UN veto-proof vote to sanction the government of Myanmar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore this route, and we should not let up on this demand.

Second, UN leadership is miserably failing the Rohingya, and they should know better. Just yesterday, the Resident Coordinator for Myanmar released a statement on behalf of UN leadership, including the Special Envoy, congratulating Myanmar for its role in rescuing boats and recently improving the situation in Rakhine state for “IDPs”. Doesn’t UN leadership realize they’re encouraging a persecutor to capture and detain people fleeing persecution on boats? Why isn’t the UN demanding, at minimum, that UN staff be onboard ships to monitor and evaluate the situation? And why is the UN congratulating Myanmar for pushing out and then pulling back in the Rohingya absent any protection of their human rights?

The Regional Coordinator also asserted that the government is now helping Rohingya to return to their places of origin, and “is assisting with livelihood enhancement, health and education,” but this does not ring true for any of us in this room. To the contrary, arbitrary beatings, arrests, rapes, and extortion continue to occur without any meaningful intervention from UN actors.

Her statement contained no criticism and no effort whatsoever to hold the government accountable for the decades-long persecution and mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya.

We’ve seen this before. In 2012, the UN published an extensive internal investigation of its failure to protect Tamil Sri Lankans during the last few months of that civil war. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the UN’s failures a historic low point for the organization and put in place a new initiative, called “Human Rights Up Front” to safeguard against this ever happening again. At that time, just as now, the UN as a whole was afraid that if it were to actually confront the government on its abuses, it would lose all access to internally displaced people and be unable to provide humanitarian assistance. But this basically happened anyway, and while UN staff were witness to human rights abuses, they did not compel the government to respond and take accountability for them. And here we are again.

Finally, the Rohingya are a mighty people. Likely more than 2 million of you live around the world and continue to fight for your rights. When the Government of Myanmar reneged on a previous agreement to permit people to self-identify in the national census, the Rohingya somehow quickly organized themselves and almost none of the 1.3 million Rohingya participated, because they would have been required to identify as “Bengali.” This was an incredible act of defiance! People isolated, segregated, and unable to move and organize still somehow managed to stand together and against their literal erasing.

Among you, and in the camps and villages throughout Rakhine State, there are doctors, physicists, engineers, scholars, teachers, and aspiring politicians. The contributions the Rohingya have made to their home country as officers of government and activists for democracy are innumerable.

Those of us in the room who work with your community, including me, need to put your stories forward, to make sure you are in the meetings when we lobby governments and UN agencies. There is a myth that the Rohingya people don’t exist, and we need to work with you to ensure that your identity, values, and contributions are both conceded and bolstered.