One year ago, there came a fateful turning point in the already unhappy story of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. Denied citizenship in the land where they had lived for generations, they were already barred from education, healthcare, land rights and employment. Then arrived the so-called ‘Black Day’ of the Rohingyas, 25 August 2017. A premeditated wave of violence was unleashed upon them in their home villages by the Myanmar authorities.
These were acts of calculated persecution, sanctioned by government, orchestrated by military leaders and performed in cold blood by trained soldiers. Rohingya men and boys were slaughtered, women and girls raped, villages burnt to the ground and 700,000 people driven across the border into Bangladesh.
Last week, almost a year to the day later, the United Nations had finally published its report on lengthy and exhaustive investigation into what happened in Rakhine state. Its findings could not clearer or more damning. Blame is placed directly at the door of the Myanmar military. Six senior officers are named as warranting trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide.
The country’s de facto leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi is blamed for doing nothing to stop the onslaught. This woman who was one hailed as a human rights heroine, almost a living saint, we now see with feet of clay and blood on her hands.
She still has the Nobel and Sakharov Prizes on her mantlepiece and the Nobel committee refuses to withdraw the accolade. One wonders, whether such honours in future ought only to be made to figures with a proven track record in safeguarding everyone’s freedoms, not just their own.
As so often happens, there is a historical divide behind the blood-letting in Myanmar. Historically Burma’s Buddhist nationalists, including Suu Kyi’s father, have supported the Japanese, while the Rohingyas stood by Britain and her allies in World War II. Clearly the current leader is not accountable for her father’s views or actions; but she - by her own actions - has shown she cares nothing about putting an end to this breach.
After a whole year of sympathetic words by the international community I want this UN report to be a second turning point in the Rohingya story. One for the better.
I want this, at last, to be the point where the world wakes up to the Rohingyas’ plight, to the sickening scale of the genocide in Rakhine and to the crimes against humanity perpetrated by individuals and sanctioned by the state. I want a clear message sent to the Rohingyas and to Myanmar’s leaders: This will not stand. Help is at hand. You will be safe. Crimes will be punished.
The response so far from the international community has been well-meaning but erratic, feeble and ineffective. This investigation should change the dynamic and galvanise an appropriate response. It not only exposes crimes, it identifies the criminals., which in turn poses the question: who will bring them to justice?
This places a direct and urgent duty of care and responsibility on international leaders. They, and the agencies they direct, must now help the Rohingya refugees, start planning a serious guarantee for their safe return (as fully-recognised citizens), and crucially to investigate, arrest and deliver suspects to court.
In Parliament, I have actively called urgency debates and a series of resolutions urging international leaders - pleading with them - to take the Rohingya crisis more seriously, to respond appropriately to such flagrant abuse of human rights.
As a politician, I usually try to remain cool and dispassionate, but on this issue I admit things have become more personal for me. I am angered by the cruelty and the injustice of this persecution and I am frustrated that it has not been addressed, corrected and punished. I have been on two fact-finding visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar, speaking to witnesses of the atrocities and interviewing figures from the Myanmar authorities.
Twice I have been on humanitarian missions to the refugee camps delivering food and medicines to the hungry and desperate thousands there. I have looked into the eyes that saw their husbands and sons shot and hacked to death, their daughters and wives sexually abused and their villages smouldering and smoking.
That is my mandate when I say the UN must now turn its threats of prosecution into genuine intervention. This should be backed by an international military presence if necessary - on the side of justice and humanity.
This report has to be welcomed for its thoroughness and objectiveness. It masses a weight of evidence that should be irresistible. The fact that UN investigators were denied access to Myanmar speaks volumes, yet they have diligently pieced together their evidence from eyewitness accounts, photographs, video recordings and satellite images.
Hopefully with the support of my fellow MEPs, I shall be calling for three urgently-needed steps from global leaders.
The Rohingya must be guaranteed safe return to Myanmar, with protection - if needed - from a peacekeeping force overseen by the UN. They must be granted the citizenship they have been denied for too long so that they can work, farm, trade, educate their children and receive basic health care. Finally, there must be independent and unhindered investigations, arrests and people brought to justice.
Failing these steps, the international community should consider alternatives, including a special economic zone where the Rohingya will be given a legal status. Bangladesh needs to be offered suitable incentives too, such as regional investment infrastructure, so that native Bangladeshis embrace this change.
The best way to show intent would be an immediate summit of global leaders, the EU, involving interested parties and the major nations - called and administered by the UN.
After a year of misery, prevarication and inaction, this report and this anniversary must be the signal for a concerted international effort to right these wrongs.