After a decade of democratic reforms, the military coup on 1 February came as an utter shock to many in Myanmar. The armed forces have once again detained prominent opposition figures, suspended political freedoms, and killed unarmed protesters. But for the country's persecuted Rohingya minority, this type of violence is nothing new.
In 2017, a military crackdown in Rakhine State forced over a million Rohingya to flee their homes. Since 1982, Myanmar's government has barred the indigenous Muslim minority from receiving citizenship rights, falsely claiming that the Rohingya are economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Over 1 million Rohingya live in congested camps in Cox's Bazar, one of the most crowded places on earth. While the Government of Bangladesh has made a valiant effort to provide access to basic necessities and better facilities for 100,000 refugees in Bhashan Char, there is not nearly enough room for the majority of the violently displaced Rohingya refugees.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar's all-powerful military forces, have been investigated by the International Court of Justice for genocide against the Rohingya. Now it is time for the international community to put pressure on Myanmar's government to end the persecution of the Rohingya, allow the repatriation of its refugees, grant citizenship to its stateless persons, and investigate past and present human rights abuses. While the US has put trade sanctions on Myanmar in response to the recent military coup, it has failed to adequately address the Rohingya refugee crisis.
As of May 2021, three months into the Tatmadaw's military coup, the civilian death toll has exceeded 750. As international pressure on Myanmar has been mounting, all eyes have been on ASEAN. On April 24th, The Chairman of ASEAN released a statement consisting of a Five-Point Consensus regarding the situation in Myanmar.
The ASEAN leadership called for the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and the commencement of constructive dialogue facilitated by a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair. The ASEAN delegation, along with the special envoy, will visit Myanmar to meet with all concerned parties. Lastly, ASEAN will provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre.
Importantly, the ASEAN Chairman's statement also emphasised the need to address the situation in Rakhine State. ASEAN highlighted the importance of instituting a voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation process in accordance with bilateral agreements made with Bangladesh. The Secretary-General of ASEAN has encouraged the identification of possible areas with the capacity to facilitate the repatriation process for those who have been displaced from Rakhine State.
Especially in the West, the mass persecution of the Rohingya has not received adequate attention. In a discussion hosted by the Youth Policy Forum and Harvard UNICEF, Rumana Ahmed - former senior advisor to the National Security Council of the Obama Administration said that there is nowhere near enough public awareness about the Rohingya crisis.
"Rohingya are forgotten. People don't know who they are, what their history or context is. Awareness should be made among influential countries."
At this dire moment for Myanmar, it is more important than ever to uplift Rohingya voices and bring to light their stories of violence and mass expulsion. States must publicly recognise that the Rohingya are an independent group and a vital factor in building a democratic and inclusive future for Myanmar. After decades of statelessness and years of exile, the February military coup was only the tip of the iceberg for many displaced persons.
As the world itself continues to grow interconnected, so does the world of diplomacy. Through social media, webinars and online forums, public diplomacy has evolved to encompass stakeholders within the digital space. The "Black Lives Matter" movement that emerged after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury, successfully used social media to address persistent injustice.
As a result, state legislatures and city councils in the US have responded by reallocating police funds and banning oppressive practices. The "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020", a framework of policies geared towards bringing accountability to law enforcement, has grown out of the "Black Lives Matter" movement.
Civil society, youth, and academicians can play a vital role in catalysing the process of peaceful repatriation. Activists can help put economic pressure on the government as well as the corporations that continue to operate in Myanmar. Safety concerns have led large firms like Suzuki to temporarily halt production in the country.
Grass-roots economic boycotts played a key role in the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1990s. Today, economic and political pressure in Myanmar may force the government to change its policy vis-à-vis the Rohingya minority.
From our own experience in the Youth Policy Forum, we noticed that our Rohingya Advocacy webinars drew thousands of people from the Rohingya community. In attendance were also diplomats, international journalists, academics from universities like Yale, an International Criminal Court lawyer, and politicians and civil servants from Bangladesh, the UK, and the United States.
When a panel of relevant state and non-state stakeholders assembles on platforms such as Harvard and Oxford to engage in evidence-informed discussions on the Rohingya Genocide, it could serve to bring back "Safe Repatriation" as an objective in this critical juncture faced by Myanmar. International recognition, access to fundamental rights, and safe repatriation of the displaced Rohingya refugees should be a priority for citizens across the world.
To build a democratic and inclusive Myanmar, the government must finally recognise that the country's Rohingya population belongs to Myanmar, and Myanmar to them. As of now, the Rohingya identity has been systematically erased by the Burmese government.
"Rohingyas are not only refugees, they are stateless people," says Muhammad Noor, Founder and Managing Director of the Rohingya Project, and a Rohingya himself. "The Syrian, Yemeni refugees can go back to their country if it gets stable. But we, the Rohingya, cannot."
Syed Tanzil Ahmed leads the Advocacy Wing of the Youth Policy Forum and Johannes Lang is a recently graduated senior from Harvard University and the Harvard UNICEF leadership team. Both writers have coordinated the YPF-Harvard UNICEF Rohingya Advocacy Campaign.
Disclaimer: This is the 8th policy column under Youth Policy Forum (YPF)-TBS partnership. For more policy discussions and analysis, reach us at ypfbd.org.