UPDATED at 10:52 A.M. ET on 2019-11-26
Myanmar will consider a Chinese envoy’s proposal to kick-start Rohingya repatriations by allowing some refugees to return home and report back the on-the-ground situation to their relatives in displacement camps in Bangladesh in an effort to convince them to return, a Myanmar government official said Monday.
Li Jiming, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, proposed Sunday to allow one member from each Rohingya refugee family living in displacement camps in the country’s southeast to visit Myanmar to observe whether it is safe for other Rohingya to return to their former villages in northern Rakhine state.
At a seminar on the repatriation of the Rohingya at the Jatiya Press Club in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, he said each displaced family would nominate a member for a preliminary return. That person then would report on the current situation in northern Rakhine state to relatives via mobile phones provided by the Chinese government, so they could decide if they all should return.
“We are negotiating with Bangladesh for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees,” Chan Aye, director general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RFA on Monday. “This is our primary focus now. The role of China is to assist us in succeeding with the repatriation process. With regard to his [Li Jiming’s] advice, we need to discuss this among ourselves first before adopting it.”
A violent military-led crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 others across the border and into Bangladesh where they reside in sprawling displacement camps.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement two years ago to repatriate the Rohingya, but only a trickle has returned on their own, with the majority saying they won’t step foot in Myanmar until they are guaranteed physical safety, citizenship rights, and access to basic services. Both countries have accused the other of causing delays in the repatriations.
Rohingya activist Thar Aye rejected the Chinese ambassador’s proposal, saying it would not work.
“I don’t think this idea will work,” he said. “There are many underlying causes. Mainly, they have wrongly interpreted the laws and have limited the Rohingyas' right to become citizens.”
“Second, other rights such as access to education are severely limited,” he said. “These issues should be addressed first. If they don’t resolve these fundamental problems, it will be challenging to decide whether or not to return by phone conversation alone.”
‘This is not propaganda’
This is the second time that the Chinese ambassador has proposed the scheme as a way to kick-start the stalled repatriation program. He offered the same suggestion in September during a visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar district.
At that time, he also proposed that members of a Rohingya group would travel to their former villages in Rakhine state to see if the situation there was favorable for a return. If so, they would go back to Bangladesh to collect their relatives and return permanently to Myanmar.
Myanmar meanwhile continues to blame Bangladesh for hold-ups in the repatriation program, but in a statement issued Sunday, Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Ministry hit back, saying that only its neighbor was to blame for a lack of cooperation and unwarranted accusations.
“None other than Myanmar should be responsible for the prolongation of the crisis,” the statement said. “Bangladesh has no interest in delaying the repatriation. [The] sincerity of Bangladesh in facilitating [the] earliest repatriation of [the] Rohingya as per bilateral instruments has been unquestionably established through its actions.”
Chan Aye said delays continue because refugees who want to voluntarily return to Myanmar are not providing all information requested on repatriation application forms and are excluding a section where they must pledge to respect and abide by the country’s existing laws.
“So, we responded to Bangladeshi authorities that they need to follow what we have agreed to in the agreement,” he said. “This is not propaganda. We are just pointing out the necessities that are lacking. We are following the regulations from the bilateral agreement, and Bangladesh should do the same.”
Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar who was a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority to prevent further violence in Rakhine state, noted that the bilateral agreement calls for repatriations to be voluntary and conducted in a dignified manner.
“So, Myanmar should not prevent them from returning, and Bangladesh should not push them back,” he said. “In my opinion, the refugees are not returning because they don’t think it is safe to return.”
Li Jiming’s proposal for spurring Rohingya refugee repatriations came as Myanmar’s civilian-led government held a high-level briefing on a legal case filed by Gambia against the Southeast Asia nation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over alleged state-sponsored genocide charges for the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya.
Kyaw Tint Swe, minister of the State Counselor’s Office, briefed President Win Myint, military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Union-level Ministers and the country’s vice president, and parliamentary speakers and other officials on the charges in the lawsuit
Though Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi — who serves as state counselor and foreign affairs minister — will lead the defense team at the ICJ, she will not participate in all the court hearings, Chan Aye said.
The first public hearings on the case will be held on Dec. 10-12,
Because Aung San Suu Kyi will not attend every session at the U.N.’s top court in The Hague, the defense team will have other leaders and subordinates who will represent Myanmar at different times during the proceedings, Chan Aye said.
Gambia, a predominantly Muslim African country, filed the case with the ICJ on Nov. 11 on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim countries.
The lawsuit alleges that Buddhist-majority Myanmar breached the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the U.N. in 1948, through “acts adopted, taken, and condoned by the Government of Myanmar against members of the Rohingya group.”
Chan Aye told RFA that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on investigating the charges mentioned in Gambia’s lawsuit and said that Myanmar expects the case to move quickly through the ICJ.
“Normally, it would take three or four years,” he said. “But, as you know, they are targeting our country, and they may move quickly.”
“It’s too early to acknowledge any facts from their accusations,” he added. “Both the government and the military are working to learn the truth about these cases. After the investigations, the actions will follow as necessary. ”
Best chance for defense
Former information minister Ye Htut said Myanmar’s evidence at the ICJ should include findings from its own national investigation teams and instances where the military and government have punished offenders and issued directives warning others not to commit rights violations.
“We cannot deny that there were human rights violations to some extent, but it is neither the government’s policy nor that of the military,” he said, adding that laws governing the military mandate the taking of strong action against soldiers who commit rights violations and the meting out of punishments.
“We also have taken action to bring justice by forming an investigative commission and holding a military court-martial,” he said. “Our defense should be based on this. We should prove that what happened in the past were not deliberate acts to commit genocide or crimes against humanity. This is the best chance for our defense.”
Myanmar’s military has established its own Court of Inquiry and has been conducting investigations of reports of atrocities. In March 2018, a military court sentenced four officers and three soldiers to 10-year prison sentences for the massacre of a group of Rohingya in a Rakhine village during the crackdown. They all were released in November 2018.
Ye Htut said that any decisions taken by the ICJ would be unacceptable and would undermine the government’s disciplinary actions against rights violators.
Min Lwin Oo, a Norway-based Myanmar attorney and expert in international law, said Aung San Suu Kyi is facing intense criticism because she is viewed as defending the military.
“So far, we have seen much criticism that she is defending the military,” he said. “I don’t see any political parties announcing their support for her trip to the ICJ.”
“Some political parties might be exploiting the situation as an opportunity to gain support ahead of the 2020 elections,” he said. “This has put pressure on her.”
Muslim community leader Aye Lwin said that the state counselor should highlight in her defense testimony her limited authority over the military as mandated by the country’s constitution.
“If we show cooperation, the perception of our country would change,” he said “As for her, she should present what has happened and what the government has been doing exactly as it is. At the same time, she should highlight the limitations of the constitution.”
“It is important to investigate and reveal who was responsible for the crimes,” he added. “I think she will only say what the government is doing. She won’t deny that the incidents happened nor will she defend those who are responsible.”
Parmaukkha leads protest
Also on Monday, prominent ex-Buddhist abbot Parmaukkha led a group of about 30 nationalist activists in a protest against Gambia, the OIC, and the ICJ lawsuit in Sule, the downtown area of Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party has said it will assist those who organize public rallies in support of Aung San Suu Kyi in her capacity as leader of the defense team at the ICJ.
During the protest, Parmaukkha said the ICJ lawsuit could unite leaders from different areas.
“People from all fronts need to be united,” he said.
“Now, the two leaders are united like an elder sister and a younger brother,” he said referring to Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who both recently met to discuss the defense strategy at the ICJ hearings.
“We always encourage the people to be united,” Parmaukkha said. “We should guard against such aggression in unity.”
He also argued that when the Muslim militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), staged coordinated attacks on 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine state in 2017, the military-led counterinsurgency against the group did not target Rohingya civilians — contradicting many reports, including one by U.N. investigators, which presented extensive credible evidence indicating otherwise.
Parmaukkha once belonged to the former ultranationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, but left the hardline Buddhist network in 2016 reportedly over political differences. He was defrocked following an arrest in November 2017 on charges of inciting unrest during a protest.
A Yangon court sentenced Parmaukkha in February 2018 to three months in jail for his role in organizing a protest against the U.S. government's use of the word “Rohingya” outside the American embassy in April 2016 without obtaining permission from authorities.
A few months later, Facebook closed his personal account along with that of Ma Ba Tha for inciting hatred toward the Rohingya.
‘Time to choose unity’
Naung Taw Lay, a protest organizer and nationalist activist who spoke at the demonstration against the OIC and ICJ, said people should overcome their resentment of each other and present a unified front as Myanmar fights the court charges.
“People are pretty divided,” he said. “Some are Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, and some are supporters of the military.”
“But this is a national issue, and it is time to choose unity,” he said.
When Aung San Suu Kyi and the military together present evidence before the ICJ, “the people of Myanmar should stand united behind the administrative leader and the military leader with one voice,” Naung Taw Lay said.
“People are overwhelmed by resentment of one another and don’t like a sermon calling for unity, but now is the time for that,” he added. “It is time to overcome differences.”
Naung Taw Lay also accused the OIC of filing the lawsuit with the intent of damaging the dignity of Myanmar in the eyes of the international community.
He also said that the U.N. should take into account the Hindu, Rakhine, Mro, and Thet ethnic groups and security forces that were killed by ARSA militants in the 2017 attacks.
The world body has condemned Myanmar over its 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya, with the independent fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council saying the violence was carried out with "genocidal intent."
Some have criticized rallies that are being organized to show support for Aung San Suu Kyi at next month's ICJ hearings.
Nickey Diamond, a human rights activist with Fortify Rights, said such events could be misinterpreted as supporting genocide and could further damage Myanmar’s reputation.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Wai Mar Tun, and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.