In September, during a speech in Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachalet branded the findings of the international inquiry on Myanmar as “shocking”. The United Nations described the actions of the Burmese army as “ethnic cleansing”, “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”; the Burmese army denies any wrongdoing.
Thousands have been killed, tens of thousands raped, their villages have been burned and today 700,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps over the border in Bangladesh. This was the destiny of the million people belonging to the Muslim minority, who up until the end of last year lived in Burma’s Rakhine state. Accused by the Burmese army of being illegal migrants, their lives became a waking nightmare. The pretext was a response to attacks attacks carried out by insurgents opposed to the Myanmar government’s oppressive stance on the Rohingya; in any case, the Burmese army’s response was disproportionate.
The Rohingya refugees thus found themselves crammed into refugee camps on Bangladeshi territory, the camps built on clayey soil. Water and food shortages, in addition to the absence of basic hygiene standards, have characterised a situation that has dragged on for over a year with a solution still not in sight.
Last February, in my capacity as Chairman of the Human Rights Sub-Committee, I was part of a European Parliament delegation that visited the affected areas. We set out with a great weight of worry on our minds, a weight that felt even heavier on our return because of everything we heard and saw during the visit.
I went to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where I visited the camps that are home to the Rohingya, and I met members of the organisations trying to look after them. There, the full scale of the crisis hit me: vast camps, possibly the largest in the world, home to over a million people. When the delegation visited the camp, 65 pregnant women and 29,000 unaccompanied minors were living there. In that makeshift settlement, groups of new arrivals told us of harrowing stories of violence, rape and other adversities from which they had fled.
Though ten months have passed from the European Parliament delegation’s visit, little has changed. The only change that has occurred has been the materialisation of the Bangladesh-Myanmar deal on the repatriation of migrants. This is a deal that neither the United Nations nor any NGOs had a role in brokering; a deal that in theory allows the Rohingya to return to their homes, only that the Rohingya’s homes have all gone, and many have no relatives left to go home to anyway. The majority of the refugees are in fact terrified of having to return to the places where they were tortured and raped. Indeed, they prefer the precarious conditions of life in the clayey soil of the camps to having to relive the massacres of which they were the victims. And now, following a lull, it seems as though the violence first used to expel the Rohingya may well be used to send them back.
All this has occurred under the unflinching gaze of Burmese political leader Aug San Suu Kyi, whose silence many find incriminating. Renowned the world over for her human rights activism (her contributions being recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize and the Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought), Suu Kyi has failed to step up to the mark during this grave crisis and it is likely that this has permanently tarnished her reputation. During recent months, many within the European Parliament have spoken out, urging her to be stripped of her Sakharov Prize. This is understandable, although I must point out that whilst no such mechanism for this exists, we could implement a monitoring system for laureates, to guarantee that in their daily deeds they live up to the character for – and the faith in – which they were awarded the Prize. Moreover, Parliament’s action never ends with the awarding of the prize, especially when this serves to shed light on situations of freedom or private rights.
As we saw during the institutional meetings that took place during the European Parliament’s mission there, Myanmar is a country immersed in the sensitive process of transitioning to democracy, a process that affects the future of the country itself. It is apparent that there is a clear division in the government between the military and civilians, but also between those who think that reformist politics must go ahead and those who believe that the status quo, forged in the past, should be maintained.
The European Union must above all else continue to support the process of transitioning to democracy, as this is an essential step in achieving development based on the respect for freedom and rights. The dialogue between the EU and Myanmar on human rights must focus on various issues. It is necessary to implement the monitoring of the human rights situation, ensuring unrestricted access to Rakhine to provide humanitarian aid. We need a full implementation of the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, aimed at the repatriation of refugees, but with the involvement of the UNHCR. This must be done in full respect of the refugees (and the traumas they have suffered) and must ensure that, once they return to their country, the Rohingya have roofs over their heads.