Today, 10 December 2020, marks the commemoration of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) being adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR was the product of concerted international cooperation to protect humanity from ever enduring the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust again. The UDHRs’ overarching aim is to ensure universal and inalienable rights, such as, the rights to life, equality, nationality, freedom of movement and to seek asylum from persecution, freedom from discrimination are protected. For most Rohingya, the realization of these right professed by the UDHR remains unfulfilled, as a result of decades of successive governments in Myanmar deliberately and systematically denying their identity, stripping them of their nationality, and enacting laws and policies that have led to their segregation, discrimination and persecution. Ultimately, the genocidal clearance operation, led by the Myanmar military in 2017, forced over 750,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar into Bangladesh. This is perhaps the most ruthless in a long history of clearance operations waged against the Rohingya, including Operation Dragon King in 1978 and Operation Pyi Thaya in 1991. While widespread international condemnation and efforts by the UN, Bangladesh and the international community at large to facilitate Rohingya with shelter, food, healthcare and asylum should not be forgotten, waning financial support and international cooperation threatens the lives of Rohingya inside and outside Myanmar. Compounding this, is the complete failure to hold perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to account and discharge justice.
Last week, the Bangladeshi government started to implement a policy to resettle 1,500 Rohingya from Cox’s Bazar refugee camp to disaster-prone Bhashan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Many have been lured under false pretenses or coerced to volunteer for relocation, with promises of money, livelihood opportunities, fishing, farming, education, healthcare and priority status for repatriation to Myanmar. Others have received threats, beatings or forced against their will into relocating, denying their right to free, prior and informed consent. “Some refugees complained that they were coerced into registering for relocation. Others were surprised to see their names on the list of those willing to go to the island as it had not been discussed with them before,” Nay San Lwin, co-founder of Free Rohingya Coalition in an interview with DW. Three hundred Rohingya already inhabit Bhashan Char, and have reported poor living conditions, maltreatment, strict confinement, beatings at the hands of Bangladeshi authorities and restrictions to freedom of movement. Additionally, access to adequate education has not been forthcoming and emergency healthcare assistance requires patients to take a three-hour boat journey to the mainland. Refugees International have characterized the conditions on Bhashan Char as “nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people.” The UN has made it clear that Rohingya should have access to adequate healthcare, education and be free to leave the Bhashan Char as they wish. Worryingly, the UN has been left out of the relocation process, and their call for procedural safeguards and independent technical assessments to ensure voluntary, dignified and safe resettlement have fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, Rohingya are fleeing to avoid having to go to the Bhashan Char, understandably anxious about the future that awaits them and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic during transit and on the island. Inside Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, despair and desperation have caused many refugees to risk their lives and seek refuge by sea to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. It is essential for the Bangladesh government and the international community to proactively cultivate a safe and conducive environment for Rohingya, in compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law, ensuring protecting of Rohingya from forced resettlement to a place where they are deprived of liberty, safety, healthcare and education. Thus, the Bangladesh government should halt the transfer of Rohingya to Bhashan Char, and conduct proper, meaningful and transparent consultations with them on all such issues that affect them. Additionally, the Bangladesh government should give the UN, especially OHCHR, UNHCR and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar unfettered access to Bhashan Char. Resettlement of refugees must not be conducted without their full, free, prior and informed consent.
Inside Myanmar, Rohingya in Rakhine State are deprived of dignity due to protracted conflict, inadequate living conditions, restriction on movement and apartheid laws and policies enforced by the Myanmar government. Additionally, it is untenable to consider repatriation of Rohingya, given the conditions that would await them and continued persecution by the Myanmar military, and the unanswered impunity for past abuses. These abuses are part of Myanmar military’s decades-long systematic warfare against ethnic communities, manifested in mass displacement and extreme hardship for Shan, Karen, Mon, Karenni, Chin, Ta’ang, Kachin and Rakhine communities through 70 years of civil war. Along the Thailand-Myanmar border, around 90,000 refugees who fled conflict decades ago, have been facing severe aid and food shortages, limited livelihood opportunities and hopelessness for the future given the limited possibilities for a safe, dignified and voluntary return to Myanmar. For internally displaced ethnic communities inside Myanmar, the Myanmar government has largely ignored their destitute situation, unable to alleviate their suffering and guarantee their safety.
It is the obligation of the international community to ensure Rohingya and other persecuted, marginalized and disenfranchised ethnic communities are given adequate humanitarian support and security, including asylum and protection from persecution in any host country they reside in and take refuge, even when it is politically difficult to do so. The race to capitalize on economic opportunities and to curry favor with the Myanmar government and the military has muted diplomatic interventions, to the detriment of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities, and thus a shift in priorities is needed. For international donor countries, such as the UK, US, Germany, EU, Japan, Australia and Canada, they must ensure their humanitarian assistance and funds go to securing greater safeguards to protect Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minority refugees in host countries and mandate safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return or resettlement that places their views at the center of durable solutions and decision making. Any return to Myanmar must prioritize their right to ethnic identity and restore citizenship. Without translating these solemn reflections into actions to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized, any International Human Rights Day commemorations will be merely superficial.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Amnesty International
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Campaign UK
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By Justice For Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Karen Environmental and Social Action Network
By Refugees International
By Reporters Without Borders
By United Nations
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”