According to the UN, 2022 was one of the deadliest years for Rohingya refugees at sea since 2014. Over 3500 Rohingya attempted to leave Myanmar or Bangladesh by sea in 2022, and at least 348 lost their lives or went missing while doing so. But these tragedies have already faded from headlines, even though the Rohingya crisis continues.
In this edition of Southasian Conversations, recorded on 27 February 2023, we bring attention to the Rohingya community and their ongoing struggles for survival, dignity and justice. We look at the present crisis but also beyond, to go farther than entrenched narratives focussed solely on Rohingya dispossession.
• Ben Dunant, Editor-in-chief, Frontier Myanmar
• Kaamil Ahmed – Journalist for the Guardian and author of I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers
• Ruki Fernando – Human rights activist
• Sahat Zia Hero – Founding editor for Rohingyatographer Magazine
• Sharifah Shakirah – Founder and Director of Rohingya Women Development Network
This is an unedited transcript from the panel discussion. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Roman Gautam: Thank you so much to all of you for being here. I’ll start with a thank you to the audience – It’s good to have all of you with us for what is a question that I don’t think any of us, in all of our different home countries, is paying anywhere near enough attention to. So good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, whatever timezone you happen to be in. Thank you for making time to be here.
With that, I also want to say a big thank you to Sahat, Sharifah, Kaamil, and of course Ben. An extra thank you to Ben for also agreeing to moderate this conversation. And I’m so sorry, Ruki, Ruki as well. We have people from very many different countries and I think very many different perspectives and experiences in terms of how they see the Rohingya crisis and the Rohingya struggle for dignity and for justice. So I’m looking forward to getting this conversation on the road.
I want to start by talking briefly about just saying that we are recording this, and we are streaming this live on Facebook as well. When we are done with this conversation, we will also transcribe it and put it up on the Himal website. So for any of you who are joining in and would want to share this and amplify the conversation that we have here today, please do. We’ll have that up and shareable as soon as we can. I also want to invite all of you to please follow Himal on our various social media handles on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. And for any of you who appreciate the work enough to lend us a hand, please do support us by becoming members of Himal Southasian.
So I want to start the conversation by talking about just the title that we’ve selected: ‘The Rohingya crisis at sea and beyond’. I think it’s important of course to talk about the current crisis, but I think we’ll also be talking a lot about the beyond side of that title. And I’ll tell you a little bit of why. Last year, this is according to figures from the UN, we had about more than three and a half thousand Rohingya attempting a desperate journey to flee by sea from Bangladesh and or Myanmar. And of course, they did these journeys on very often boats that were not really ready for the kinds of journeys that we’re talking about. These are journeys to Malaysia, these are journeys to Thailand, and these are journeys sometimes much further than that. About Christmas last year 2022, towards the end of December, there was tragic news that a single boat had gone missing with 180 people, 180 Rohingya who had tried to make this journey who are still unaccounted for. Among them, a lot of children, a tragic number of them, and that’s just one case. Three and a half thousand Rohingya refugees attempting this journey was more than a fivefold increase on the previous year. And I think is a barometer of the kind of conditions and the kind of difficulties and desperation often that the Rohingya are facing in various countries that speaks very, very loudly. We do want to talk about that of course and what’s driving that because I think we all know at least the basics of the Rohingya situation – A Muslim minority people historically had found and built a home in Rakhine state or Arakan in Myanmar, long stateless and long persecuted, in 2017 forced out. Some places have described it as an exodus but I think it’s more accurately described as a mass expulsion at the hands of the Myanmar military. By the latest figures something close to a million people in Cox’s Bazar across the border in Bangladesh now. And many more in other parts of the world. So in many ways, this is very much a Southasian problem and a Southasian crisis, and I think in many ways, a test of Southasia and our various countries in terms of whether we could open our countries and our hearts to people who were treated so desperately badly.
When we talk about Southasia, of course, there’s of course there’s Myanmar where the crisis begins, there’s Bangladesh … [inaudible] … host a long-term population of people. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there are thousands – we have Ruki here to tell us a little bit more, especially about the situation in Sri Lanka. In India which I think also has largely failed the Rohingya where they are being treated as pawns in a very cruel game of Hindutva politics and Hindu majoritarianism. And in Myanmar, where now the government in charge is the same military that actually perpetrated those atrocities in the first place, and even the opposition or for some time the government – the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi really came out taking quite hostile stances to the Rohingya. So really again, this is a Southasian problem, one that we as Southasians need to look at as a regional problem. But of course, the problem goes beyond that too. There are Rohingya populations now in Thailand, in Malaysia, people trying to make the journey into Australia, so it’s a global problem in a way.
Looking at the boat crisis and how that brought the crisis of the Rohingya and their plight back into the headlines, back into the public conscience in many parts of the world, now it’s fading again and I think the conversation today is a conversation against that fading, against that kind of forgetting. This is a problem that we’ve not done enough on and we have not done enough to help the Rohingya and I think all of us in Southasia and beyond can and should be asking what can we in each of our home countries be doing to help and where does the Rohingya struggle for survival, for dignified lives and for justice stand today. So I think those are the big questions that we’re grappling with here, so it is very much looking at the present and I think a lot of also the future of what what the Rohingya struggle will be looking like. So with that, I want to hand over to Raisa, the deputy editor here at Himal Southasian, to introduce all of our speakers. I also realise that I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Roman Gautam, I’m coming to you today from Kathmandu, I’m the editor here at Himal Southasian. Thank you again to all of you for being here, to our panellists. Raisa, I’ll leave the introductions to you and then we’ll let Ben take it away.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Thanks everyone, thank you for joining us today for what promises to be a very interesting and urgent discussion. Just to go over a little bit of the format, first, we’ll be having a back-and-forth with the panellists in terms of Q&A, and after that, we will open it up for questions. So for the people who are listening, if you do have a question please drop a comment in the chat box on Zoom or if you’re following us on Facebook do comment on Facebook as well and we’ll get your questions across to the moderator. Without further ado, I’m just going to introduce all our panellists and our moderator.
So today we are very fortunate to have Ben Dunant, the editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar with us and he’s going to moderate this discussion. In terms of our panellists, we have Kaamil Ahmed who is a journalist for the Guardian and author of I Feel No Peace. We have Ruki Fernando who is a human-rights activist. We have Sahat Zia Hero, the founding editor for Rohingyatographer Magazine. We have Sharifah Shakirah, founder and director of the Rohingya Women Development Network. Unfortunately, Aung Kyaw Moe, human rights advisor for the National Unity Government was unable to make it at the last minute today. So without further ado, I’m going to hand over to Ben to take the conversation forward.
Ben Dunant: Thank you for those introductions. It is a real privilege to be able to moderate this panel which has such a great line-up. I think that Roman was right to stress the international dimensions of the Rohingya crisis. I think it’s a crisis that, from its very nature, crosses national boundaries. And I think our line-up today, which is drawn from across Southeast and Southasia, really reflects that. As introduced, it is my job to put the questions to the individual panellists, to also address more general questions to the panellists, and then to open questions up to the floor.
Let’s start with Kaamil Ahmed, who has recently published a book that has been very well received. And my first question to you Kaamil is that the Rohingya crisis is often considered or often described as something that happened in 2017. There was a series of mass atrocities that drove more than 700,000 people across the border from Rakhine state to Bangladesh. As your reporting shows, there was a very long road leading up to 2017. You could look at the colonial history, you could look at the gradual stripping of citizenship and residency rights of the Rohingya over many many decades of military rule, there was the military operation in 1978 and the mass expulsion in the 1990s, there was an anti-Rohingya pogrom in 2012 and other violence the following year. And then attacks in 2016 that was then overshadowed by the ones the following year in 2017.
From the research that you did for your book, what would you say are the most important factors in Myanmar’s recent or not so recent history in the creation of the crisis and what would be important to keep in mind when trying to understand it?
Kaamil Ahmed: I think one of the biggest signs that it didn’t start in 2017 is, the first time I went to the camps in Bangladesh was in 2015, there were camps in Bangladesh before 2017 which were big. They now have revised the figures down because some people who were never ever counted before got counted in 2017 for the first time. In 2015, when at the previous height of the boat crisis, the UN used to say 150,000 Rohingya people were in Bangladesh. There were a lot of people, a lot of them were unregistered, and a lot in Malaysia as well.
You just see over decades, a stripping away of rights and increasing control of Rohingya lives. In some ways it seems like part of the story of a lot of post-colonial nations, the countries with lots of different identities, seem to try to force everyone together. But with Myanmar, a lot of Myanmar’s conflicts with its frontier regions are with people who want some kind of autonomy from the central state. The irony is that the Rohingya are often viewed in a kind of securitised way, and there’s often a question of are they going to become militants, there’s always this idea that the Rohingya will be radicalised. In reality, Rohingya have been, from my perspective, the ones who said they want to be part of it, they want citizenship. They’re not actually trying to fight. It is remarkable considering everything they have faced.
I’ve also met people, a man who was in Bangladesh in the 50s. There are people who have been to Bangladesh four times. But especially since 1978, just constant stripping away of rights. So in 1978 with the population counting, then the actual stripping of citizenship in 1982, and then forced labour, the increase in violence to the point in 2017 was just widespread. And a theory that came up once, that someone suggested, was that until the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian representation in parliament, the military was the opponent, many people wanted it out, they wanted a civilian government. Then the dynamic slightly changed when you had a civilian face to the government. And you saw a lot of hostility across all parts of the population. We also saw how people who had been pro-democracy activists were agitating against the Rohingya, during the ICJ trial, and how they were supporting Aung San Suu Kyi when she went to the Hague to basically defend the military. So you have the stripping away of citizenship that in a way even gets worse – that there’s a kind of face to it that can justify everything once there’s a democratic transition and that seems to have opened the way for even worse to happen in 2017. I think this is why I have a problem with the ICJ and general talk of genocide stopping in 2017. In terms of wiping out and erasing the Rohingya, it’s happened for any decades.
Ben Dunant: Yeah, I think that is absolutely right and I think it’s very important to understand it as a long process that may have peaked in 2017 in many ways, but is part of a long program of discrimination and the erosion of basic rights.
I think we’re going to return to some of the issues that you just discussed there. One thing I’d like to discuss later is, you mentioned how there was this very disturbing response from many people in the pro-democracy movement to the increase in violence in the Rakhine state and the military operations against the Rohingya, the level of public support for that. And I think later on I’d like to discuss how that may or may not have transformed with the coup in the nationwide resistance movement to that.
But first, just go back to one of the themes of your book: you talk of a very long chain of complicity in the plight of the Rohingya, one that involves many other countries in the region, but also the United Nations, International NGOs and aid agencies and so on. So can you talk a little bit about that? Why should these actors share some of the blame for what the Rohingya are facing and the dangerous journeys that they feel compelled to take to escape the Rakhine state itself?
Kaamil Ahmed: I think the fact that you have in 1978 a massive, quite significant expulsion or exodus, then in the 1990s you have another, and in both occasions, a massive amount of people were returned and if you look at the conditions they were returned under, the UN themselves in their own evaluations say there was a lot of coercion. I think in the book, kind of linked to the name, it wasn’t where the name came from but I started exploring what is peace, what is it they have been returned to in these situations, what decisions did the international community and the UN decide were good enough to be returned to. It wasn’t that they were given guarantees of safety, it wasn’t that they were given their citizenship back after 1982, it was just that things got a bit quiet, that there weren’t the military operations that had forced people out had stopped or paused and that was considered good enough. No solution was required, it was just considered good enough to send them back and release that burden on the humanitarian system or Bangladesh. And that meant that nothing had to be solved and in fact, it could get worse without anyone solving it, it could just get worse and no one paid attention and that led to 2017. It meant that in 1978 however many people went, and then in the 1990s about 250,000 and in 2017 it multiplied by several times and in between many more people. As they were repatriating people by force in the 90s, there were more people coming. There was never a solution they basically accepted the quiet rather than peace, and in doing so, they accepted also the Bangladeshi government at the time was enforcing massive food rationing, which you’re now seeing maybe not through the Bangladeshi government’s choice but through donors not giving money now. That’s 17 percent food rationing which could get worse in April.
In 1978 they say more people were probably killed by the lack of food than by the military operation in Myanmar. The UN has been complicit in that. In the 1990s there was someone who did a study for the US government or US Congress and said what he saw, and the MSF made similar observations, was taking consent for repatriation. They would just have loads of people and just say unless you object, you’re going back. There were a lot of violations of what the UN is supposed to be doing and what international bodies are supposed to be doing. They have, it seemed, limited their mandate often to providing shelter and providing food. And all of the other things they have responsibility for, like making sure people aren’t returned to unsafe conditions – they haven’t been respected. They’ve allowed people to be forced back maybe because they’re scared that governments will say well if you don’t do what we want we’re going to stop you from doing anything. I think the Rohingya have been failed there because by doing the bare minimum are not solving any of the root problems, the situation has been allowed to just become bigger and so now you have a situation where a million people are in camps more and more people have come over the years and their food is being cut. And then they’re not allowed to work to supplement their food, they’re not allowed to travel. And so of course you’re going to get people looking for something else, which is fuel traffickers.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much, Kaamil. You mentioned what amounted to forced returns or refoulement during earlier periods. And perhaps later we can discuss the fact that since shortly after 2017 there has been this supposed bilateral repatriation process between Bangladesh and Myanmar that the military junta now still pays the occasional lip service to.
But on the subject of aid and food cuts, Sahat Zia Hero, I would like to ask you next about conditions in the refugee camp in Bangladesh and if you could speak on the impacts or the likely impacts on the Rohingya there of these recent cuts to food aid. And just some insight into that and other reasons why so many who feel compelled to make these incredibly dangerous journeys by sea or over land too. I think it’s important to say that although the dangerous journeys by sea get a lot of the headlines, many of them are going over land as well, both those inside Myanmar and those from the camps. But could you please speak on the conditions in the camps, particularly in light of the recent cuts to food aid?
Sahat Zia Hero: Thanks Raisa and Ben Dunant for providing me this opportunity to raise my voice on behalf of my community. For over five years Rohingya have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh without adequate food, shelter, healthcare, opportunity for formal education and without access to formal work and livelihood opportunities, and their situation is even worse than before. I think you would have heard about the UN cutting food rations of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. It’s a violation of the humanitarian principle, that cutting the food rations of the Rohingya refugees who are already in a dire situation, who don’t have access to work, who don’t have access to formal education, who are already living in an isolated situation.
So, in this situation, most people are losing hope to go back to Myanmar. They are trying to flee from the camps and risk their lives to seek a new life to seek a better life in other countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. These are the challenges they face in the camp.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. Just to ask a follow-up question, what would you say the main sentiments in terms of a desire to return to their homes in Rakhine state versus other options, say resettlement in a third country, would you say that many of them hope very strongly to one day return to Rakhine state. But if so, under what conditions would they be prepared to do so? And in terms of those feelings and hopes for the future, has there been any significant change over the last year or the last few years? The desires of the Rohingya community now, speaking generally, because I’m sure people have very different views.
Sahat Zia Hero: Right now, most people think that there would be challenges if they return to Myanmar in this current situation there. It can be worse after the military junta came into power after the coup in 2021. The Rohingya people in the refugee camp also hear about the conflict happening in Myanmar right now. People also fear going back to Myanmar in the current situation there. But Rohingya also think that they will remain in limbo, will remain in this situation if the world totally forgets the Rohingya people and if the world doesn’t come forward to make a sustainable solution for the Rohingya community and to pursue the justice that the Rohingya people need. Some of the Rohingya people think that the best option could be resettlement in a third country than going back to Myanmar without justice. People think that resettlement could be a better option than staying in this bad situation here in the refugee camps.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. Now I’d like to address questions to Ruki. I understand you were able to meet with some Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka. So could you tell us a little bit about the conditions in which they are being held there and what their freedom of movement is and anything else that would be important for us to know?
Ruki Fernando: At the moment, about 140 Rohingya refugees are in Sri Lanka, out of them about 105 came last December during the most recent crisis in the seas. So one of the boats was near Sri Lankan waters and some fisherfolk had altered navy and the navy had rescued them and brought 105 of them. One of them is accused of driving the boat and as such committing an offense. But that person is in prison and has been in prison for more than two months. There is a lawyer representing him but we also tried to get some affidavits from fellow passengers, who are also in a different immigration detention centre, but the lawyer’s team has not been allowed to go to the immigration detention centre even though we have made formal representations. Therefore, it’s very difficult for us to get the supporting evidence to help the one Rohingya refugee who is in a prison very very far away in the northern province.
Out of the others, the 104, about 30 who were in detention have been released and about 75 are still in the immigration detention centre. But about another 35 more Rohingya refugees who have come several years ago, mostly by boat but some by flight as well, are residing in a suburb of Colombo and they are able to move around easily. They are renting houses and rooms. It’s a mixed picture in terms of freedom of movement.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. I understand that many of them are in detention now. You mentioned this one individual that had a pending legal case. Are many of them able to apply for refugee status with UNHCR? What is the process for that? What are some of the roadblocks that they may face when applying for refugee status?
Ruki Fernando: All of them have access to UNHCR, even those in detention. And many of them actually were already registered with UNHCR before they came here. Many of them have come from Cox’s Bazar. Therefore, compared to the other asylum seekers in Sri Lanka who have to start from scratch, the Rohingya refugees’ process of finding permanent resettlement should be faster because they have already applied for UNHCR refugee status and some of them have got refugee status. But even people who have come about five years ago are still in Sri Lanka and UNHCR has not been able to find them permanent resettlement. Finding permanent resettlement has been a challenge. Also, most of these people, for the vast majority of these 140, Sri Lanka is a transit country but a very long transit of several years because of the structural problems involved in dealing with the asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka. But even to come for transit, some of them did not intend to come here. For example, one young woman that I met about two weeks ago, she told me that her husband is already in Malaysia as a refugee and she said she never wanted to come to Sri Lanka, she doesn’t want to be in Sri Lanka, she wants to go to Malaysia or in the alternative she wants her husband to come to Sri Lanka. So even in transit, Sri Lanka is not their chosen transit place, but because they were rescued from the seas near Sri Lanka and brought to Sri Lanka, they happen to be in Sri Lanka.
Ben Dunant: Thank you for explaining that. I also wonder, I mean perhaps the numbers would be too small for this to have the same kind of impact as Roman said to the north in India for instance, there’s toxic politics around the presence of the Rohingya in India. The Hindu right-wing there has tried to scapegoat them and so on. You’ve seen Islamophobic politics in Sri Lanka as well. So is there anything in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics at the moment that would make conditions more difficult for Rohingya refugees in the country?
Ruki Fernando: Yes, I think in the past we’ve had bad experiences and there’s potential that there could be bad experiences here as well because of Islamophobia in general. Most of the refugees and asylum seekers who come to Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and Afghanistan. So there’s a perception that many of them are Muslims, which is not always correct. Some of them are Ahmadiyya Muslims who have been persecuted by other Muslims and many of them are Christians also who have been persecuted for being Christians. Here in Sri Lanka many of them are perceived as Muslims. For example, after the Easter Sunday attacks happened in Sri Lanka, many of them were evicted and they faced a lot of difficulties. In 2017, some Rohingya refugees who were in Sri Lanka in a house, including children, were attacked by a group of Buddhist monks and thugs, and for protection purposes, they were taken to a detention centre.
Even when I tried to visit the detention facility in late December, a few days after they had arrived in Sri Lanka, the immigration officers told me that they have to be mindful of their security. So there is fear that if they stay around, live in houses, and move around the streets, there is a possibility of some people who are angry with Muslims in general, because of Islamophobia in Sri Lanka, that they might face hostility or difficulties. So therefore, that is often also used as an excuse to detain them and limit access to them. For example, at the immigration detention centre, the immigration officers feel that they should not be having visitors, but they are not accused of any crimes. Primarily, they are in the immigration detention centre because they have not found houses. The Sri Lankan government doesn’t offer houses to any asylum seekers and refugees, not just Rohingyas. It’s only some well-wishers, NGOs, church groups or faith-based groups that offer housing. But the lack of housing has compelled them to be in detention as well. And while in detention, immigration uses Islamophobia as an excuse to limit access.
Ben Dunant: Thank you for explaining that. Just to move on to Sharifah, I understand you’ve spent a lot of time in Malaysia among the refugee community there. Recently from Malaysia, there’s been a lot of bad news that it’s become less of a safe haven there, including for the Rohingya there was a rather dark turn over the Covid-19 pandemic, what was previously a much more accepting environment for the Rohingya, that has deteriorated. So could you speak a little bit about that, about conditions for Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and how their circumstances have changed over the last few years?
Sharifah Shakirah: Good morning and assalamu alaikum. I have lived in Malaysia for a long time, almost half of my life. I spent 21 years in Malaysia as a refugee. I went there when I was very young and I left Malaysia with the resettlement opportunity in 2019 to the United States. So while I was in Malaysia, I have seen from the beginning till I left, which is right now, the different situations. When I came to Malaysia, people in Malaysia, the public, are not aware of who the Rohingya are, what refugees are and migrants, and what the difference between them is. And obviously, they have never heard the name Rohingya.
The government is aware of our problems but the public is not aware. And because of that, they always misunderstood the difference between the migrant workers and they would often call us illegal migrants from Bangladesh and we faced discrimination. And at the same time, the government does not recognise Rohingya refugees in the country, which is not conventional, they say. So with that excuse, refugee children are not allowed to go to school, refugees are not allowed to work, not able to access healthcare and basic provisions that a person needs is not allowed. And because we are not allowed to stay there, we often live in fear and hide and try to escape from the authorities. That’s been the situation from the beginning.
Since Covid started in 2020 and there was a huge hate campaign organised online by some Malaysian people towards Rohingya in Malaysia. I don’t know why they only targeted the Rohingya refugees, but there are a lot of other refugees in the country, but the Rohingya were targeted. There was a lot of hate spread around the country and the Rohingya were blamed for the virus. They think that we can go out and come into the country very easily, which is absolutely not true. And then we were blamed. The effect of those hate campaigns was so huge that it is still affecting people in the country.
Every day, people from Malaysia send me videos, pictures and recordings, and request me to speak about them as their situation is getting really bad over there. Some Malaysian people are trying to create TikTok videos, pretending to be the police or authorities and going to where Rohingya are living, trying to record them and blame them, saying you can stay here, you cannot open, you madrassas to study religious things, you cannot do small businesses. This is bringing a lot of hate and their lives over there have become really, really dangerous and they are not safe. They were not protected, but because of this issue, their lives are endangered over there. They are still not able to get protection from any agencies over there.
They’ve been evicted, they’ve been chased out and the government is trying to call the public, the Malaysians who are supporting the Rohingya, responsible for helping them, for example, getting them a house to stay in or helping them in small businesses, they’re trying to hold them accountable, trying to create fear among the public to get them to not to help refugees. And it’s only Rohingya and not all the refugees in the country.
Ben Dunant: Thank you for sharing that. That is especially troubling to hear because Malaysia has been considered a relative safe haven for a long time and it still appears to be the number one destination for Rohingya trying to escape the camps or villages or IDP camps in Rakhine State, whether by sea or while being smuggled over land.
But I’d like to ask you a question that speaks more to your work and your organisation, the Rohingya Women Development Network. In light of the particular work that you do, I wonder if you could speak of some of the gendered aspects of the crisis that tend to be missed by the media. What is misunderstood about Rohingya Women in international discourse? And what issues do you think are important, that are relevant to them, that is not being talked about enough?
Sharifah Shakirah: Sure. As we all know human trafficking issues have been there within the Rohingya community for many, many years, from the beginning. I left in 1999, and way before that, people had been trying to leave because of the persecution in Myanmar. Most of the people who left at that time were mostly men. And the women with their children were left behind. Women and minor girls have fallen victim to being trafficked through the ring that extends from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia and elsewhere. There are also women involved in such trafficking, detaining and torturing.
The media’s understanding of Rohingya women, in the international discourse, is that they are naive, weak, and need to be told what to do. I disagree in that I think that Rohingya Women are very intelligent and strong, and they are capable of making their own decision, they are brave and resilient. I love the attitude of not giving up, the attitude of Rohingya Women. As they’ve often had to flee from being targeted by the Myanmar forces, the women have protected their families and children in the face of continued violence. They are multitaskers, they take care of children and do housework, do jobs and study. So I think if given the opportunity to study, gain skills and work, they can be as powerful and strong as men as a counterpart in society, if not more.
Rohingya women should not just be seen as victims of persecution, trafficking, child marriage, domestic violence, all those are things that happen, but I think they should be seen as resilient persons who are very brave and strong. For example, my mother was in jail just for travelling within the countries, but she fought back, after serving her days there she came back for her family, children and friends, and she protected them no matter what. So these are the stories that have to be highlighted and the world needs to see how strong we are. The persecution have been there from the very beginning, but we are still fighting and we will continue to fight and be the backbone of our community as well.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. There’s more that I’d like to ask you, and I’m sure the audience will have questions for you as well. But just now at this stage, I would like to put a few more general questions to all the panellists, to whoever wishes to answer them, and then we can move on to questions for the audience for the final half an hour.
So, just to begin with, there’s been some references to the military coup in 2021. So, whoever would wish to respond to this on the panel, how would you say the coup has changed the circumstances, but also the prospects for the future of Rohingya refugees and those who remain in Myanmar, either in their villages or IDP camps in Rakhine state? Does the nationwide resistance movement hold out hope for a better future for the community? Does the growing power of the Arakan Army, for instance, in Rakhine state hold out the same?
Sharifah, I’m interested to hear your perspective but also of the wider Rohingya community, how they’ve responded to the emergence of nationwide resistance after the military coup, and whether they hold out a lot of hope for that movement, particularly in light of some of the promises that the National Unity Government has made to respect the rights of the Rohingya once the revolution is successful.
Sharifah Shakirah: First of all, I think the National Unity Government is not a parallel government, but a government mandated by the country’s majority. Some say there’s no doubt the military junta is not a government, but an illegal entity oppressing its own people for power to stay in control. Secondly, yes, NUG has approached the Rohingya plight positively, but yet they are not decisive enough to pass any order or law to restore native citizenship status and end the long oppressive laws against the Rohingya. However, because of NUG’s positive public approach, the majority of the Myanmar public has become less hostile toward the Rohingya. That change in attitudes could be utilised further if there is a willingness. And as far as I’m concerned, NUG doesn’t seem too committed to stopping operations against the Rohingya. It might have other pressing issues at hand. The biggest issue in the country, along with fighting the military junta, is the Rohingya plight. But their commitment seems situational and could change if the political situation in the country changes. However, let’s hope that we could see some genuine change.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. My second general question to the panel is, what can we expect from international legal efforts to seek accountability for the Rohingya? There are a number of international legal processes operating in parallel. For instance, most famously, the genocide case brought by Gambia against Myanmar that got underway in 2019. There’s also the ongoing preliminary investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity of forced deportation. There are also universal jurisdiction cases, for instance, in Argentina. So can we hold out much hope for these processes? What can we expect from them in the near term or the long term?
Kaamil Ahmed: From my perspective, I think it’s always difficult with international justice to see what actually comes from it, whether any of the rulings are binding, whether it can have any material impact. And that’s difficult, especially with the ICJ case.
I was in Cox’s Bazaar the day the ICJ case was announced. And just the feeling of happiness and relief that there was something, there was some process for justice and that there was some chance to actually be heard, about what’s been happening, was I think very big for a lot of the Rohingya I knew. And the days of the first preliminary hearings, the ones that Aung San Suu Kyi went to, people were really desperately trying to watch them, even though Bangladesh had like blocked out the internet in the camps on those days. Then when Aung San Suu Kyi spoke and basically defended the military, people were furious and disappointed because so many of their parents or earlier generations had actually supported her, they felt really betrayed.
So I think these are important because they haven’t really even had the chance to be heard out. And this is a chance to actually say what has happened and what has systematically happened. At most, people know that there were massacres and that 700,000 fled in 2017. They don’t know much beyond that. That’s why I think they are important.
I don’t want to be cynical about it. It’s really tough. It seems like it’s going to be a really long process. The ICJ case itself, 2019 with the preliminary hearings, and still not concluded the ICC investigation – we haven’t even got a full case. So it’s a long process. We’ll have to see what can come out of it and whether it can actually be anything that makes a difference. But at least it keeps some international attention and hopefully helps people understand the severity.
But I think it’s also important because a lot of people went to the camps and took the information and disappeared. They took accounts, sometimes from the same people multiple times, and then disappeared. So something needs to come out of that.
Sahat Zia Hero: I want to say that people here in the camps always rely on the international community to put pressure on Myanmar. So the people think that if the situation in Myanmar can be resolved if the situation there gets back to normal, there’s a chance people could get freedom, peace and their rights in Myanmar. The Rohingya people appreciate the people who are resisting the military government because we can also believe that there is no other option than resisting by themselves rather than always waiting for the UN to come and solve the situation. So the people here in the refugee camp, the Rohingya people also support and appreciate those who are resisting to get their rights and to protect their communities.
Ruki Fernando: My comment might be from a slightly different perspective, but I think we have to look at justice from a more holistic perspective. In my experience from meeting and interacting with Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka, a relatively small number, both in detention and out of detention live in small places, for them, justice also means having a house to stay in. It’s not only about holding people accountable. Justice also means having decent food to eat, they are able to reunite with their families. Justice also means that their children are able to have access to healthcare and education. So justice for the Rohingya people that I have met in Sri Lanka has a more hands-on practical approach.
I am fully in agreement and fully supportive of the broader international processes, but I think international justice and those who advocate and support international justice for Rohingya, it’s important that they also look at these very practical hands-on aspects of justice. In terms of the broader processes, like at the ICC or ICJ or seeking international accountability through international processes, I am fully in support. And in fact, if anyone wants to get affidavits or anything like that from those who are in Sri Lanka, witness statements, and all that, we are happy to assist such processes through international investigators or prosecutors. Thank you.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much, Ruki. So now to turn to some of the questions, we’ve had a few questions, but we would welcome more Our first question is about the Indian response to the Rohingya crisis. How would you characterise the response in India? I understand that Roman is also able to speak on this point, but anyone else on the panel is also welcome to speak on this if they have any perspectives on the Indian response to the crisis.
Kaamil Ahmed: I did a bit of work talking to Rohingya who had been in India while I was working on the book. And despite being really quite small in number and concentrated in a few places, they’ve really played an outsized role in media focus. Somehow, they are often brought up very regularly and demonised and treated as infiltrators. And again, it goes back to this idea, there’s always a kind of warning that the Rohingya are some kind of security, despite absolutely no evidence over many decades of them ever being so. It obviously plays massively into the issues with the BJP and Hindu nationalism and the Rohingya are treated as some kind of threat to India.
Some Rohingya still try to go to India because it’s one of the closest places from Bangladesh, they try to go through the borders, through the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the northeastern states, mostly, which aren’t too far from eastern Bangladesh. At the same time, you have people fleeing India and trying to come to Bangladesh, and there have been several waves of this, wherever it’s been through the ID registrations and collection of biometrics data, which they fear so there has been panic over that and whether that’s going to be used to deport them to Myanmar or whether that data will be shared in Myanmar, or just general hostility and whole camps being burnt down in Delhi. There’s been a lot – BJP leaders bragging that they were responsible for that.
The Rohingya, despite being a very small population, have just been used in the media and in very extreme political rhetoric as like a bogeyman. There have actually been regular arrests of people who do try to come in and they are put into deportation centres. And there was a woman deported, and there have been people deported to Myanmar, which I think it’s the only country doing that.
Ben Dunant: Roman, do you have anything to add to that because I understand you’re able to speak on this issue too.
Roman Gautam: Yes, I’ve spent a very long time in India and I think Kaamil is exactly right. I think one thing that’s very noticeable in India, by and large, is the international coverage of the Rohingya, and of course, that has filtered into a lot of domestic media as well and has generated a tremendous amount of sympathy for the Rohingya plight. How much that translates into concrete action is not always great. But in India, the kind of hostility you see, I think it’s just a thought experiment. Imagine how much media coverage vilifying the Rohingya there would have to be to counteract the basic sympathy that is generated by all of the international coverage on the issue. In India, the amount of media hatred and vitriol that’s been poured out against the Rohingya is immense. I think that it’s a sign of what’s happening, that Rohingya has almost become a slur, the way that Bangladeshi for instance in the Hindu majoritarian lexicon is very much a slur. And Rohingya is moving in the same direction in terms of what that word means in the Indian context.
The only thing I think is worth also adding, Kaamil was talking about the deportation – that deportation, at least in one case has been appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did not stop it. India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, which means that a lot of the basic protections that refugees could expect elsewhere are not afforded to them. India does have laws on its own books that could, in theory, have stopped these deportations, but the court chose not to act in that case.
And I think what Kaamil was saying about youth activists of the ruling party openly taking responsibility for and bragging about arson attacks on Rohingya camps, one more thing to add to that is that Amit Shah, who is currently the home minister and the number two usually to Narendra Modi, his closest lieutenant, has spoken in public calling Rohingyas “termites”. So the situation in India is about as grim as it can be. I think that India did have a position as a kind of beacon to some oppressed people, at least if not to a lot of oppressed people, until maybe in the last decade or so. I think that communal hatred has really stripped away where that sympathy is applied. It is now applied to only very specific small groups defined mostly in religious terms, and anyone who is Muslim, including the Rohingya, sadly is no longer included in that circle of sympathy.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much, Roman. The next question is, what should be done to allow peaceful coexistence for the Rohingya community based on cultural integration? This question of the possibilities of peaceful coexistence and cultural integration, I assume it is a reference to conditions in Rakhine state rather than in refugee settlements or host communities elsewhere in the world. So I think we are talking about Rakhine state, the role of the Arakan Army is very important there and I think how their rise may have affected the possibilities of communal reconciliation and greater cohesion in Rakhine state.
Sharifah Shakirah: From what I’ve been hearing, the situation of Rohingya inside Rakhine is getting worse. Earlier when Arakan Army was coming to the light, they were saying that we can coexist and we can live there peacefully, but the stronger they become, I see the Arakan Army and the Burmese military junta have a similar tactic towards Rohingya as well. I think coexistence is important because we also belong in Rakhine state but I have no hope for the Arakan Army, that they will do something like that.
From outside Myanmar, people like us in the diaspora, we are connected, we have similar understandings of the term democracy, we want to go back to our land, to be recognised as citizens, and to live there peacefully, but these discussions do not go all the way to the ground and there is no discussion from the ground yet. They still feel that all the blame goes to the Rohingya and no party is willing to hear what we are feeling, what we are thinking and how we want to live there, our requests, our opinions and our understanding about living in these situations. We should not forget the situation in Rakhine state is getting worse and worse and the people are not safe. The genocide has not stopped from the Myanmar military side as well as the attacks from the Arakan Army in Rohingya villages have not stopped.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. The next question is, could you tell us why food aid is being cut in the refugee camps, who are the organisations involved in this decision and what reason is being cited for cutting food aid?
Kaamil Ahmed: The context is the wider lack of humanitarian funding, especially since Covid, aid is going down, and the donors are giving less. You have seen food aid cuts in Yemen as well. The WFP said that it is cutting 17 percent now because it doesn’t have enough money, it has also said it could cut more soon if it doesn’t get more money, so it could actually be worse. But it’s not just Covid and I think this goes back to what I was saying before about justice and about the lack of solutions. Since 2017 the funding has gone down pretty much every year. So the Rohingya humanitarian response is seriously underfunded, I haven’t looked at the latest figure but it’s seriously underfunded. The major donors tend to be Western countries. There are some other countries that give donations and some through their own programmes but for the kind of big stuff for the humanitarian response, the Western countries are showing less and less interest and perhaps don’t see it as affecting them. It’s been brought up before that they will care more about countries where people are turning up at their borders, but there aren’t Rohingya turning up in Europe, so it’s not a problem they see they need to solve.
So yeah, funding is going down and Rohingya are suffering from that. The big problem as well is that no one wants to be relying on aid but they’re not allowed to work either, and that’s what makes it a much bigger crisis because they are forced to rely on that aid and face possible arrests or the closure of their business or also punishment for trying to get around that.
Sahat Zia Hero: I would like to something regarding this whole issue. We know the United Nations has a responsibility to ensure the basic needs of refugees are met, including access to shelter, education and medical care. So by reducing food, the UN failed in its responsibility and put the health and well-being of the refugees at risk. We believe that there could be some alternative options, and there could be some alternative measures that the UN can take to address these challenges without compromising our essential needs. Further, the UN and donors can advocate for a livelihood solution that would allow the refugees to be self-sufficient, and create their own economy in the camp which could also boost the economy of the local community.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much, Sahat. The next question is, what opportunities for collaboration exist given the conditions and military rule, is there civil society collaboration to try to combat the crisis and how effective is that collaboration? From what I understand, this is a reference for conditions within the country, and new alliances that may have been formed between the Rohingya and members of the resistance movement to military rule. What new forms of collaborations or kinds of alliances have you seen over the last three years since the military coup of 2021? And what can we expect to result from these new alliances and these new kinds of collaboration?
Sharifah Shakirah: Since the coup, they have become more understanding about our resistance, so there is a collaboration with the Rohingya community and other ethnic groups in Myanmar like Karen, Kachin, Kayin, and many others, and trying to be one voice and be in solidarity with each other’s cause and stand together against the junta military. These movements are very powerful but funding is one of the reasons why they are not able to do more work together and it’s a limitation to coming up with bigger solutions.
For example, in the United States, there are a lot of groups that I have met and they are very capable but often they told me that funding is one of the issues and why they’re not able to collaborate, including in Myanmar. It’s very sad to hear that. It should not be that way but I think people are trying to do as much as they can, like coming out with statements, having these kinds of meetings and discussions weekly, and monthly, and trying our best so that we all can live together and be able to live in a democratic country.
So yes, the ethnic groups are their very best to coexist, but I think the people in power are still not interested in this issue and think there’s a bigger issue that needs to be solved first. I think once we all come together, that can be the most useful thing to restore democracy in our country. So we should focus on how to bring us together and understand the real meaning of coexistence and democracy in the country rather than focusing on one entity’s policy and rules.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very much. There is one remaining question that is directed to the Rohingya members of the panel, which is, what do you most want the public to know about your community that is not captured in the news headlines?
Sharifah Shakirah: As I have said earlier, we should not be seen just as victims of genocide, we should be seen in a bigger picture, first as a human, able to coexist with everyone in the country, and we should be seen as people who can contribute in the countries where we are. Our situation makes us leave our country but there are a lot of things that we can contribute back and we should be given that opportunity to contribute. Education is the most important part, so education has to be given there. Food is important, shelter is important, and education is just as important as that. Without education, our generation will be lost and that’s what the Myanmar military wants. The funding should go towards education as well. Skills are also important.
The positive stories of Rohingya also should come up in the news. For example, when we Google Rohingya we often see the Rohingya inside the camps in very bad situations, which is the true situation, but at the same time I think we should also promote and bring awareness that the Rohingya are talented, educated and resilient. Sympathy is not the solution; empathy needs to be there and we need to be seen as equals.
Ben Dunant: Thank you very very much. I’ll hand back to Raisa and Roman. I found this panel extremely interesting; I’ve had many of my assumptions challenged, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot and I hope that everyone feels the same. Thank you very much. It’s been a real privilege to be able to moderate this panel.
Roman Gautam: Thank you, Ben. Before we go any further, of course, I owe thank-yous on behalf Himal to so many of you. A big big thank you to you and I hope that the panellists will also join me in giving you a big hand and a round of thanks. Thank you also to all of you who joined us. I just want to say one by one, Ruki, Sahat, Kaamil, Sharifah, thank you so much we couldn’t have asked for a better set of perspectives, and like Ben said, we’ve been able to see things that we weren’t seeing and to see things in ways that we weren’t seeing them. We couldn’t have asked for more, thank you so much from Himal and also, I’m sure from everyone in the audience – a huge round of thanks to all of you as well.