September 19, 2019
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Rohingyas should not return to Myanmar as of now, says expert

By Carlos Sardiña Galache

Bangkok, Aug 24 (efe-epa).- Rohingya refugees should not return home as conditions are still not safe for them in Myanmar, says a former Dutch diplomat who was a member of an advisory commission for the conflict-ravaged Rakhine.

As the world earlier this week marked the second anniversary of the exodus of over 700,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh escaping a brutal crackdown by Myanmar military in August 2017, Laetitia van den Assum regretted that the refugees were still not able to return home.

“It's tragic for the Rohingya, but they shouldn't go back now. The UN has said that the situation is not suitable for them to return,” van den Assum told EFE in a Skype interview from her residence in The Hague.

On August 25, 2017, suspected guerrillas of the Rohingya Salvation Army of Arakan (ARSA) launched a series of coordinated attacks against police posts in the state of Rakhine, which triggered the so-called "cleansing operations" by the Myanmar army that a commission of United Nations investigation called "genocide."

A commission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and appointed in 2016 by the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, presented its final report on the situation in the state of Rakhine and its recommendations after a year of work.

Van den Assum was one of the three international members on the commission. She recalls that the genocide of the Muslim minority group of Rohingyas had its footprints in Myanmar government’s decades-long discriminatory policies of inciting hatred against them.

Q.- What do you think about the allegations about genocide of Rohingyas?

A: Genocide does not start with a massive operation like that. It starts with little things. It started many years earlier with the gradual exclusion of the Rohingya from society and that's a decades old process. Things like not allowing people to have more than two children fall straight into the definition of genocide.

The government has ratcheted up hatred for many years, assisted by monks, and the population at large has learned to hate the Rohingya more and more. What happened two years ago was not unexpected, because it was waiting to happen for a long time.

Q. - What has been the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in the Rohingya crisis in your opinion?

A: When we began the commission, she spoke with us, she was very clear and she said, "I want you to be bold, I want you to think out of the box". I think she was sincere when we first were installed. I think that changed after the 9th of October [2016] because then the word "terrorism".

But I think also that if she had really cared she would go to Rakhine to speak with people of both sides, and bringing them together. Occasionally she has organized interfaith prayer meetings but that's not the same as going on the ground and talk to people, showing your empathy but also trying to find solutions. And the solution lies in the communities working together.

Q.- Do you think the military and Suu Kyi's civilian government have the same ideas on Rohingyas or they have different visions on this?

A: She constantly uses law and order, but she doesn't really understand the concept in the way I would understand it, and that's problematic. On the other hand, she has said so many times, also when we were there, that the army was entitled to deal with terrorists, and I have never heard her make a plea or a suggestion that there was not agreement there. By playing the terrorism card you get them both on the same page.

I know Aung San Suu Kyi since 1995, and she is not the kind of person that is able to radiate empathy, and for her, struggle has been hard, she has suffered, and others should not think that, in order to see change, you can do that without suffering.

Q.- Tell us about the repatriation process of the refugees in Bangladesh. Do you think a substantial repatriation is possible in near future?

It's tragic for the Rohingya, but they shouldn't go back now. The UN has said that the situation is not suitable for them to return. The UN cannot, once they're there, fulfil its protection role [...] At the same time, it is a war zone [with the Arakan Army]. How can you return people to that?

But both Bangladesh and Myanmar think they will benefit from showing that they have tried. And Myanmar would be happy to say that they are trying but the Rohingya don't wanna come, so let them stay there, they are "Bengalis" anyway.

Election in Burma is next year, who is going to benefit from bringing back large numbers of Rohingya back? No one!

Q. What future do you see for the state of Rakhine and the Rohingyas?

A: I think that unless there is a real attempt to, and this has to come from the center, to establish a new vision of national identity, and what it means, nothing much will change. And it would be wonderful if these issues were discussed around the election, but everyone is afraid of that discussion. This clinging to old concepts is going to affect the country very badly. It is necessary a nationwide conversation on what it means to be in and from Myanmar. EFE-EPA

csg/ssk

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