The Rohingya have been oppressed for decades by their own country, Myanmar, where successive governments have violated their rights to identity, nationality, and security through systemic discrimination, violence, and repression.
Myanmar's military, which again seized power from a temporary civilian government in a February 2021 coup, continues to commit atrocities against the Rohingya as part of its systematic denial of their right to live in peace and dignity as full citizens.
When some of the Rohingya sought refuge in neighboring countries, the welcome they received also often fell well below international standards of human rights law. While the international community has rightly condemned the atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar— including the recent genocide determination by the US — and provided them with substantial humanitarian assistance, long-term sustainable remedies for the destroyed lives of so many individuals and communities remain elusive.
I have spent almost a decade researching the Rohingya crisis, and wrote the first book on the Rohingya genocide, and it seems to me that even though most of the Rohingya have finally escaped the genocidal terror of the Myanmar army, their situation and prospects are, if anything, worsening. The concrete problems of how they are to live safe and free from the looming threat of extermination seem to be becoming more intractable, and long-term solutions more elusive by the year.
As things stand, we may reasonably expect the Rohingya identity to disappear completely within one generation. Their language, culture, history, their way of life, will all have been diluted to extinction in the multitude of refugee camps that are now home to the majority of people who call themselves by the centuries-old name, Rohingya.
And if we continue to limit ourselves to the bare minimum of measures to which the international community so often defaults in refugee crises, this future may already be a foregone conclusion. It is for this reason that the old, staid measures and the old approaches will not suffice. Innovative policy thinking is now desperately needed.
That is why the New Lines Institute is launching the Global Rohingya Initiative, a coordinated international effort to address this crisis in a more universal and inventive way, crafted in cooperation with, and centered entirely on the needs and aspirations of, the Rohingya themselves. Rohingya community leaders are obviously much better placed to understand the myriad complex problems facing their own people in exile, and a partnership between such community leaders and the major stakeholders in the aid efforts is the only realistic way to effectively tackle at least some of the existential threats that these communities face.
The Rohingya must be empowered to speak for themselves, represent themselves and develop solutions to their own problems in the manner best suited to them.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Though this may depart from the current norms of providing basic material assistance to refugee camps on the limited assumption that their situation is temporary and easily reversible, the objective here is clear, and clearly necessary: to provide a platform for the Rohingya to address both the short-term material needs of individuals and communities in exile, but also, crucially, to help the Rohingya navigate through the continuing genocide as a common cultural group, and develop innovative policy ideas and solutions for the short, medium and long term.
The initiative will focus on three essential issues in the task of keeping the Rohingya together as a coherent cultural group: policy and politics, humanitarian issues, and accountability.
In policy and politics, we will aim to explore decades-old underlying political issues within the Myanmar civic and political structure, including identity, belonging, and security, which continue to support the marginalization and violent exclusion of Rohingya people from the body politic of the country of their birth. The initiative will help the Rohingya develop realistic solutions, and address the lack of meaningful policy and political mechanisms from the international community to support them.
The humanitarian focus will address the issues of resettlement, integration and the longer-term plans for the return of Rohingya refugees to their ancestral homeland in Myanmar. The initiative will explore the necessary conditions for a safe, voluntary, and durable return to their native Rakhine state in western Myanmar, and how the international community can support these efforts. This may not happen all at once, and it may not even start for some time. But the obstacles for the eventual return of the Rohingya have to be studied in detail, and solutions developed and implemented systematically.
Finally, the issue of accountability for the perpetrators of the crimes against the Rohingya will also be given due attention, because there can be no long lasting peace without justice. This initiative will discuss the role and responsibilities of nation states and international organizations in pursuing accountability for the Rohingya genocide and the intersection between accountability efforts and broader efforts to address impunity in Myanmar. It will examine ways in which current accountability mechanisms can be supported, and where necessary new mechanisms developed.
Overall the ambition of this project is to empower the Rohingya so they can take their destiny into their own hands. It is no longer acceptable for others to speak for them. The Rohingya must be empowered to speak for themselves, represent themselves and develop solutions to their own problems in the manner best suited to them. New Lines Institute simply aims to be the facilitator to these efforts, the ideas factory, the secretariat, and the platform by which the Rohingya address the international community in this endeavor.
Major stakeholders have already expressed their interest in supporting the initiative. So far, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the foreign ministry of Bangladesh, senior UN, US and UK officials and others have signaled their intent to do so.
Inevitably, however, addressing such complex historical problems always needs more innovative thinking and solution-building. We are therefore issuing a call for papers from innovative thinkers and experienced practitioners from around the world, to volunteer ideas and help us develop new lines of thinking for these complex problems.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Genocide" (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim