Myanmar: The Rohingya crisis

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On January 23rd, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made a landmark ruling on the Rohingya crisis, demanding that the government of Myanmar take “all measures within its power to prevent genocide”. While such an official acknowledgement of the genocide carried out against the Rohingya people is of course welcome, this will not put an end to the appalling crisis.

Background to the crisis

In 1948, Myanmar, then called Burma, gained independence from Britain, although the promised autonomy to the Rohingya people (who are mainly Muslim), as well as other ethnic groups like the Shan and Kachin people was never granted. Instead, military-government led persecution and theft of land have been their lot. The Rohingya people were stripped of their nationality in 1982, and subsequently labelled as ‘Bangladeshis’.

Since 2012, especially in 2015 and 2017, there were several outbreaks of vicious attacks on the Rohingya people by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military forces, which forced over 700,000 to flee from Rakhine province into refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. More than a million Rohingyas live in the squalor, disease, and poverty of the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, having fled from appalling violence and rape or sexual abuse.

According to “Physicians for Human Rights”, Rohingyas in the camps had been subject to being beaten or injured with weapons, hit by grenades or mortars, or raped or sexually assaulted. For example, in 2017, 6-year-old Abdul Wahid was shot in the head and left leg; despite surviving the attack after surgery in Bangladesh, walking is now an extreme difficulty for him. 21-year-old Rabia Basri lost five relatives when fired at by military forces, and is now unable to walk or even carry loads without the use of crutches.These examples are but the tip of the iceberg.

There are currently around ten refugee camps in Bangladesh, each housing anywhere between 9,000 and 600,000 Rohingyas. The largest camp, Kutupalong, has the highest number and contains an expansion site of makeshift camps.

International hypocrisy

The government of Bangladesh is, of course, not a benevolent force intervening in the crisis; it previously provided the Myanmar government with tens of thousands of names of Rohingyas marked for repatriation, following a joint agreement signed in 2018.

Voluntary repatriation has been refused by many Rohingya refugees over fears of further violence or sexual assault when back in Rakhine province. The government of Myanmar has also steadfastly refused to grant full citizenship to the Rohingya people, instead offering only the concession of ‘part-citizenship’.

Worse still is the hypocrisy of the ‘international community’ on the Rohingya issue. In March 2018, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member state, in a summit aimed at increasing economic and security ties. This is despite a 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper making the claim of being a “determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights.”

Japan’s government has also taken a hypocritical stance, having aided the Myanmar government in ‘whitewashing’ the crisis, while cosying up to the regime. For the capitalist class, much would be at stake; Japan ‘leads the way’ in trade with the ASEAN bloc, while Myanmar received half of the non-repayable grant from Japan given for projects across ASEAN.

When the military dictatorship of Myanmar accepted partial elections and included former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the government in 2016, world leaders lined up to visit the country and develop more economic links. Exploitation of natural resources was a key element in this.

The former Nobel prize winner was invited to the White House by Barack Obama and to the EU institutions in Brussels. The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t speak out against the genocide of Rohingya people was largely ignored, as all regional and international powers tried to strengthen their own position in Myanmar against their competitors. Since then Aung San Suu Kyi has gone further: she no longer remains silent on the genocide, but actually defends the Myanamar regime. She voluntarily went to The Hague during the procedure of the International Court of Justice in December as a spokesperson of the army and its government.

There can be no faith in the capitalist class — despite their hypocritical moralising — to really act in the interests of the oppressed classes anywhere.

Ethnic conflict and the national question

The Bangladeshi government’s willingness to cooperate with Myanmar over repatriations is driven by fear of the radicalisation of Rohingya youth in the refugee camps.

In the words of Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, a retired Air Commodore: “Nearly 200,000 young jobless males are in the camps growing up with little or no education and an uncertain future. They can easily be misguided to join the terrorist groups or just local criminal gangs or drift into drugs and drug trades…The longer the Rohingya stay in the camp, the greater is the danger of them turning into a potential time-bomb”.

The brutal army violence against the Rohingyas in 2017 was, the government claimed, to drive out terrorists. Over 500 villages were burnt down in response. Of course, this state sponsored violence could drive more youth into supporting the low-level insurgency that had continued in the region over many years, led by organisations such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which have been attacking army bases, police stations and troops. Ceasefire talks have failed as the Myanmar military insist that that ARSA refuse to give an assurance that the region will not secede from the ‘union’ of the federal Myanmar state.

Unfortunately, the methods that ARSA uses not only provoke the state, they do not offer a strategy to defeat the oppressive regime. This requires an organised mass movement, based on the unity of working people to defend the different nationalities and groups from state violence.

Self-determination — what we say

The national question — from Northern Ireland, to Israel-Palestine, and to Hong Kong — is a crucial issue for socialists, and demands an absolutely correct position.

Many who earlier supported Aung San Suu Kyi as a determined opponent of the military regime have been horrified at her justification of the massacre of the Rohingyas by the army. But this is not just a moral question. She is a pro-capitalist politician, who has no plan or strategy to break away from either the interests of business in Myanmar, or the governing structures introduced to defend the role of the military, and its hard-line Buddhist collaborators.

To defend the rights of the Rohingyas, as well as those of other oppressed minorities in Myanmar, a unified, mass campaign needs to be built to oppose not just the attacks of the military and right wing nationalists, but to campaign to end the rule of capitalism, and the world imperialist system in which it is enmeshed. Until this is done, there can be no lasting solution to the problem of the national question or the plight of the oppressed peoples of the region.

Socialists stand for the right of all peoples and nationalities to self-determination, with full rights for all minorities. No privileges for any one group or language; for the right of all nations to self-determination under a voluntary federation of democratic socialist Asian states!

By James Clement