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Solidarity Through Narratives: The Rohingya voice must be heard

August 26, 2021 Ahmed Shafquat Hassan, Research Associate at CPJ, BRAC University

Throughout the course of human history, we have often forgotten to take notice of some of the worst atrocities inflicted upon our kin. The story of the Rohingya falls squarely into this narrative as well. As a group, they are among the most persecuted and yet, responses to their cries for justice and support have long gone unnoticed.

On 25th of August 2017, 700,000 Rohingya fled persecution and mass ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military. They crossed miles of treacherous terrain, in fear of their lives to find themselves at the borders of Bangladesh, where they are currently being housed in camps strewn across Cox’s Bazar. While many nations surrounding Myanmar turned away some of the Rohingya fleeing to their borders, Bangladesh took them in and decided to provide them whatever little that we could muster. The day has since come to be known as “Genocide Day”, dubbed by the Rohingya people themselves. The year 2021 marks the fourth year since the darkest episode of their history played out.

Since 1942, the Rohingya have suffered almost apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar. Their people have been systematically disenfranchised – denied adequate support, education and economic stability. Beyond that, they have been subjected to myriad human rights violations, including forced labour – not unlike slavery. Myanmar’s distaste for the Rohingya people is a result of an ethno-religious clash with the objectives of the Myanmar Junta, which has been trying not only to curb the establishment of democratic rule in the country, but also unite the nation under a more Buddhist identity.

This infectious problem was first noticed during World War II, as the Rohingya identifiably sided with the Allied forces while the Myanmar military chose to ally with the Japanese empire. Since then, the ostracization and the abuse of the Rohingya people have been prevalent. They were denied any opportunity to self-identify or find any form of economic emancipation. And, while this infection festered, the world failed to take adequate notice. Although the rise of a democratic movement in Myanmar seemed to bring some semblance of hope for a cure, the recent coup staged by the military stunted any possibility justice and accountability for the people. While the world was distracted by the 2020 American elections and its aftermath, whispers of the coup to take seize of the seat of power, democratically won by the NLD were already in the air. The global community failed to take notice, as crises was exacerbated. 600,000 Rohingya still remain in Myanmar, living in almost constant fear for their lives.

The Rohingya have been finding their way into Bangladesh since the early 1940’s, in hopes of finding some semblance of safety. Throughout the years, Bangladesh has had a turbulent relationship with Myanmar, trying to provide safety for the Rohingya and advocating for their safe repatriation. The last example of this was in 1990, when 200,000 Rohingya had fled into Bangladesh and similarly housed in camps like we see today. It was not until 1993, that Bangladesh was finally able to broker a repatriation agreement with Myanmar – only to have that agreement betrayed by the Myanmar military once again.

It comes as no surprise, that Bangladesh felt sympathetic towards their plight. The Rohingya have long been persecuted by the Myanmar military. In 1971, 10 million Bangladeshis found themselves living in refugee camps throughout India’s North-eastern region. The liberation of Bangladesh was the only thing that allowed most of those refugees to find safe passage back home. The Bangladeshis who sought refuge in India, found themselves fleeing from similar forms of persecution at the hands of the Pakistani military. Perhaps, it is this very experience that prompted our response to the Rohingya crisis. However, Bangladesh’s liberation came at the cost of many lives and even back then, the global community stood divided as massacres were allowed to play out throughout Bangladesh. Pakistan was heavily backed by global powers like the US government, led by the Nixon administration, aided by Henry Kissinger.

The thing that separates the Bangladeshi refugees then, from the Rohingya now, is that we had hope of liberation and a visible end to the persecution of our people upon independence. Although, at first, cries of the Bangladeshi people went unnoticed, some took notice. India’s support during the war was instrumental in our efforts to find justice eventually. Even after that, it took until 2013 to finally begin trying those in Bangladesh who committed atrocities against the Bangladeshi liberation forces and the people. In the end, there was some semblance of justice for the Bangladeshi people. What was instrumental in this process, however, was the countless stories and narratives kept alive by millions of Bangladeshis. The narratives acted as a means of memorialization of the tragedies and the struggle that led to development of the mandate for justice. As the stories were repeated, the voices were amplified, and with that amplification, the world heard our plight and took to our support.

This was equally true of the millions of Jewish people fleeing their persecution in Europe. It took 40 years before they were able to achieve justice. However, it is the stories told over generations that paved the way for memorializing their suffrage, thus making their attainment of justice possible.

The Rohingya are currently screaming into a void, unable to find ways to voice their concerns and thoughts. What binds us to their plight is Bangladesh’s shared experiences of its former tragedies. What binds the Rohingya’s plight to the millions of other forcibly displaced communities, like the Afghans, the Syrians and many more, is their ability to tell a story, when supported. It is one thing for a nation to host those who have been displaced, but that is neither a sustainable nor justifiable way of managing the problem. What is required, is the demand for justice and the accommodation of that process. In the years leading up to the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there was a sufficient degree of mandate and political will galvanised against the atrocities committed during World War II. The stories of the families who suffered at the hands of oppressors, allowed to come forward, was a means of ensuring that stories lived to see the days of trial and stand as testimony when required. This was equally true of the years of advocacy in favour of trials against the war criminals of 1971 in Bangladesh. Many of these stories were frequently published in media across multiple platforms. However, it was imperative that the people who suffered were allowed to speak for themselves, along with their allies and advocates from across the globe. The Rohingya require the same form of support from all corners. The proposition is simply that the Rohingya are allowed access to such modes of narrative building. This could happen primarily by giving them access to modes of media allowing them to speak freely in demand for justice and accountability against those who oppressed them in Myanmar. However, to make their advocacy effective, access to education and a guide for that advocacy is necessary for the cause. The world can collectively help further the cause by simply demanding that justice be conferred on the people. The machinations of International Law largely depend on cooperation. The global community, if correctly informed, can be persuaded to push for the restoration of democracy and the rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Bangladesh has long demanded such restorations, in their current capacity as a rising powerhouse in South Asia, it is more than possible for them to call upon international allies to make such persuasions. In particular, leveraging their economic ties with allies in the region, it is more than likely for this endeavour to succeed. Finally, Bangladesh’s support of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other such supra-national investigation and trial mechanisms is instrumental in ensuring that justice is brought to the Rohingya people quicker than instances in the past. Such courts have presented their interest in the matter in recent years, the logistical support necessary is not far from possible.

The way support can be offered now, is to continue to remind ourselves and the world across that the horrors suffered by those who have been displaced as such. While the world, in the past, has refused to take sides and support an action, it is important that former mistakes are not revived. It is important for the collective global community to not simply stay their hands and demand that aid and basic support be provided for those displaced, but act in favour of the demand for justice, allowing those in suffering to be able to voice their demands and tell their stories. The opportunity will allow their people to, at the very least, memorialise the horrors of their suffering. So that when time comes for justice to be enacted, the truth of those in pain are not lost in the void.

With the upcoming “Genocide Day”, it is imperative that we remind ourselves of the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya and many other refugees around the world. While Bangladesh may not have the resources to offer them a permanent home, it is possible for us to amplify their voices, demanding justice for their people by being their allies – much like our own allies in the past. Their message and stories must be heard and must be amplified. So that, they can no longer be ignored. So that, even if it is in the distant future, those who have suffered and generations after them, are able to use these narratives to demand the form of justice they long for.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors based on their analysis of empirical findings and do not represent the position of any affiliated organisations.

This blog was originally published on Mazellaws Digest on August 26, 2021

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