The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution last week condemning “the ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by that country’s military.
The move, which is the first step to what could eventually lead to targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, came a day after Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggested that the Myanmar military may be guilty of genocide against the Muslim minority group.
Since August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have crossed into neighboring Bangladesh, where they live in squalid refugee camps. This exodus follows an army crackdown sparked by an Aug. 24 attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base by Rohingya insurgents.
The military insists its operations in Rakhine State are in response to a serious threat of insurgency. Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has defended the campaign.
A deal was struck last month between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate the Rohingya who’ve fled since August. But Yangon-based human rights defender Abdul Rasheed, 54, says repatriation must be done safely, securely and with dignity.
“The government has to demonstrate their willingness and their honesty with the repatriation, that when the people repatriate, their citizenship has been guaranteed,” he says.
Abdul Rasheed, who goes by both names, is himself Rohingya and has been working on behalf of his people for the past several years. He’s the founder of the Rohingya Foundation, a human rights organization based in Yangon, and serves as an adviser to Fortify Rights, a human-rights organization that specializes in Rohingya issues.
The activist was in the U.S. last week, meeting with U.N. officials in New York and lawmakers including Vice President Pence’s team in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the plight of his people.
Abdul Rasheed previously worked with the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, but in 2012, after violence erupted in Rakhine, he decided to devote himself full-time to Rohingya issues.
For decades, they have been subject to periodic crackdowns by the government. Today, some 2 million Rohingya live overseas.
While numbers are hard to confirm, it’s estimated only about 800,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, where they face heavy restrictions on their movements and limited access to education, health care and business opportunities.
The government doesn’t recognize them as citizens, insisting they’re illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya — including Abdul Rasheed’s family — have lived in Myanmar since before the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948.
The situation needs to “be addressed urgently because people are suffering,” Abdul Rasheed tells NPR. “Our people are suffering greatly.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On Rohingya conditions before a 1978 crackdown that resulted in some 300,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh
We never faced any kind of discrimination at that time. Life was quite good and normal, everything. We were very friendly with the [Buddhist-majority] Rakhine community.
Rohingya start fleeing Myanmar in 1978, and they’ve never had the opportunity to come back. People get arrest[ed], people get [tortured] and people start leaving in 1978. Since then, things are growing worse and worse and never changed to a better way.
On discrimination against minorities in Myanmar
It’s not only the Muslim, not only the Rohingya. Religious discrimination in Myanmar is practic[ed] for many years, many decades. The categories are very different. Discrimination with the Christian community, the level is different. Discrimination with the other [non-Rohingya] Muslim, the level is different.
The discrimination with the Rohingya is higher than other communities as well because Rohingya are a huge community in Rakhine State … they [the government] don’t want Rohingya to be a political power, to claim political partnership. This is the main issue. That’s why the government is promoting a discriminatory policy and they’re weakening the Rohingya community. So this is mostly political, because they don’t want Rohingya to be a political power.
On the Rohingya diaspora
Many [Rohingya] people are living in Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia … I have met families in Malaysia who are living [there] for 20 years and they never had the opportunity to go back to home to meet their families.
They don’t have any kind of protection in terms of citizenship or national protection. So now, around 2 million Rohingya [are] living outside Myanmar. The Rohingya left in the country is about 700,000 to 800,000.
So Rohingya are not safe anywhere, not in their own country, not in diaspora. A majority of the people in Pakistan, Saudi [Arabia] and Malaysia, they’re integrated. But a few people are living in Malaysia in camps, Thailand, Indonesia and India as well.
On the possibility of repatriation
Rohingya are facing a severe situation in Bangladesh because there are about 1 million people in the camps. They don’t have anything, even they don’t have a roof, they’re using plastic sheets as a roof. They’re willing to go back home, but they’re scared the situation is not safe for them, so many people say, “We prefer to die in Bangladesh rather than go back home.”
But some people say, “If we can live in our country with the safety, security and dignity, we prefer to live back [in] our country.”
The current situation in Rakhine State, it’s not a situation where they can come back soon.
There’s more than 100,000 people living in IDP [internally displaced people] camps around Sittwe [the capital of Rakhine State]. So the government has to demonstrate their willingness and their honesty with the repatriation, that when the people repatriate to Myanmar, their citizenship has been guaranteed. [The] government has to dismantle all the IDP camps and resettle those people to their original place, original land.
It’s a very awful situation, so the international community must take serious implementation, swift and urgent. And one thing, people should not be put again in the camp when they’re repatriated. What we want, people should be repatriated with dignity and should be repatriated in their own, original home, rather than to put in the camp. We are wondering [if], when the people come back, they might be put in the camp again. The international community must take care of this.