December 22, 2019

Rohingya genocide: The Gambia’s fight for humanity

The Daily Star
December 21, 2019
Hasan Al-Mahmud
Aung San Suu Kyi led Myanmar’s defence team at the landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearing. PHOTO: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN
When almost all the countries are silent about Myanmar’s genocide in its Rakhine state and the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, a western African country, The Gambia, has raised its voice boldly. Recently, The Gambia has taken Myanmar to the international court for the first time since the Rohingya genocide started a few years ago, and the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been called upon to respond to this allegation as the representative of the country. Here is how and why The Gambia did this.

The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, but it has a significant influence on the politics of West African nations. Also, it actively participates in solving Islamic issues around the world. The Civil War of Liberia and Sierra Leone (1991–2002) was also minimised through the active involvement of The Gambia. Now, Gambia’s Attorney General and Minister for Justice Abubakar Tambadou has filed a case at the Hague in the Netherlands and has been playing a pivotal role in trying to convict Myanmar for crimes against Rohingya that occurred in its Rakhine state. Tambadou has the experience of dealing with the dictatorship that lasted 22 years in his country; he has also worked on the genocide of Rwanda in the UN court, which indicates that he is a suitable person to bring this issue on stage.

A research titled, “Forced migration of Rohingya: the untold experience”, published by Ontario International Development Agency, Canada on July 18, 2018, has estimated in January 2018 that during the genocide, the military and the local Rakhine Buddhists killed at least 24,000 Rohingya people; gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence were used against 18,000 Rohingya Muslim women and girls. 116,000 Rohingya were beaten up, and 36,000 Rohingya were thrown into fire. According to the UN reports of September 2018, over 700,000 Rohingya people, although according to the local NGOs the figure is almost 1,200,000, had fled or had been driven out of Rakhine state. Later, they took shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees.

Myanmar has been accused by various United Nations agencies, International Criminal Court officials, human rights groups, journalists, and governments, including the United States. CBS News (February 1, 2018), Los Angeles Times (March 13, 2018), CNN (March 12, 2018), Amnesty International (December 11, 2017), Guardian (April 10, 2018), and so on have reported that what the Myanmar military did is a text book example of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a report titled, “Rohingya Refugee Crisis” (September 21, 2017) where they mentioned that the UN had found evidence of wide-scale human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings; gang rapes; arson of Rohingya villages, businesses, and schools; and infanticides. Surprisingly, the Myanmar government dismissed all these accusations saying it “exaggerations” as Al Jazeera reported in the report titled, “Government dismisses claims of abuse against Rohingya” (August 6, 2017).

In these circumstances, Abubakar Tambadou came forward and said in the court, “the lives of the Rohingya in that country (Myanmar) are in danger.” He believes that The Gambia may not be a neighbour of Bangladesh and Myanmar, but as a signatory of the Genocide Convention, they have a responsibility to stop and prevent genocide. From the beginning, The Gambia has been asking for support from the OIC (Islamic Organisation of Cooperation), and finally, as a sovereign country, The Gambia alone appealed. On the first day of the hearing, Tuesday (December 10, 2019), they appealed to the court to take interim action to stop the genocide. The next day, Myanmar’s top civilian leader and peacemaker Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi denied genocide having been perpetrated.

In addition to the country’s law minister, three other legal experts from The Gambia disputed Myanmar’s claims and made statements on Thursday. Their main point was that Myanmar did not deny injustice to the Rohingya; also, the assertion that genocide was not the motive for all those actions taken by the Myanmar army is misleading and disregard international law.

The Gambia’s lawyer Paul Reicher first spoke on behalf of the country during a third day hearing before a panel of judges headed by the ICJ President Abdul Quai Ahmed Yusuf. He repeatedly demanded a speedy interim action against the Myanmar army until the trial was completed. Myanmar denies the motive for genocide in the brutal atrocities committed against the Rohingya. Myanmar’s lawyer, Professor Sabas, spoke of seven indicators to prove the motive for the genocide. The seven indicators are in Gambia’s petition, and Myanmar has not denied them.

Observing Suu Kyi’s speech, Paul Reicher made a vital observation—he mentioned that the court must have noticed that Suu Kyi did not use the word “Rohingya” in the court. She described them as Muslims, except when she was talking about the separatist mirror groups. From this, it is easily understood just how hateful and destructive the country’s attitude is towards them.

The Atlantic, an American magazine, asks about Suu Kyi’s moral degradation through a headline, “What happened to Aung Sun Suu Kyi?” They wrote their sub-headline, “A human-rights icon’s fall from grace in Myanmar,” where they mentioned that Suu Kyi had not done anything practical to stop the killings in the Rakhine state. Her seemingly callous indifference has felt like a betrayal to many outsiders. How can Suu Kyi, an avatar of human rights for so many years, stand by while her government violently tramples them?

When the situation was not in favour of Myanmar, its lawyer Sabas had to agree that crimes against humanity may have taken place in Myanmar, but according to him, it was “not genocide.” Myanmar was involved in the crimes, which was proved by another defensive statement by Myanmar’s lawyer Stoker: The Gambia has no right to sue Myanmar even if a crime has occurred. In the reply, The Gambia tabled their logic on how they do indeed have the right to talk about this.

The hearing was finished by the last speaker Aung San Suu Kyi, who assured, showing a photo of a football field, that they do not want anything like inter-caste conflict to resume. After Suu Kyi’s speech, the president of the court, Yusuf, said that the court is going to inform the update to both parties as soon as possible. The hearing ended with his announcement. In this battle of words, Myanmar was defensive while The Gambia was strong with the complaints and their logic.

Apart from the debate, what The Gambia has done in favour of landless Rohingyas is a remarkable example of practicing humanity. Somehow, The Gambia has fought for Bangladesh as well, as the country is facing many challenges in terms of environment, food, and national security in hosting the Rohingya refugees. Therefore, The Gambia deserves thanks from the people of Bangladesh for standing with them in their time of need.

Hasan Al-Mahmud was a Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) Fellow, Montana State University, USA. He writes on contemporary issues, education, and literature. 

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