Euro-Burma Office head Harn Yawnghwe on Rohingya crisis in an exclusive interview to RTD
There seems to be no end in sight for one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, which erupted on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh almost a year ago. Nearly a million Rohingya refugees still remain in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh after fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar. To find out more about the past, present, and future of the Rohingya crisis, RTD contacted Harn Yawnghwe, head of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO), which promotes democracy in his home country. The peace activist, who is also the youngest son of the country’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, shared his insight in an exclusive written interview.
“Rohingya means people from Rohan or Rohin = Rakhine. People say we have never heard of the name Rohingya before, so they did not exist,” Harn Yawnghwe wrote. “At independence the 1947 Constitution said all people within the borders of Burma are citizens. The Rohingyas were there at that time. They had ID cards identifying them as Rohingya and citizens. The government’s Burmese Broadcasting Service had a Rohingya-language program. So the Rohingyas existed and their identity was officially recognized.”
“It became illegal to learn to read and write one’s own ethnic mother tongue. All education was in Burmese,” Harn Yawnghwe continued. The government crackdown spread to Christians and other ethnic minorities that professed Buddhism. “But the Muslims and especially the Rohingyas were a problem. They had distinct ethnic and cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs that would be difficult to eradicate and the Rohingya were concentrated together.”
The authorities began targeting the Rohingya in a 1978 initiative dubbed ‘Operation Dragon King,’ which aimed to register citizens in Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) and expel the “so-called foreigners,” Harn Yawnghwe says. “250,000 fled to Bangladesh accusing the Army of forcing them out through intimidation, rape and murder.” However, Myanmar had to let 180,000 Rohingyas return.
“They are doing so to reduce international pressure. They are scared that the issue will be taken up by the International Criminal Court. They are not serious about repatriation because they say they will process 100 people a day. This means over 20 years to repatriate the Rohingyas. It will not happen,” Harn Yawnghwe stressed.
“The Buddhist Rakhine and the Buddhist nationalists have stated very clearly that they do not believe that the Rohingyas belong to Myanmar. They say they do not want them back. The homes of the Rohingyas have been burnt and bulldozed by the Myanmar government, so it is not clear where they will live if they go back,” Harn Yawnghwe said.
“The Rohingya people have been oppressed since the 1970s” and, given the amount of persecution they have endured, it may seem “surprising” that militant groups like RSO or ARSA haven’t found much support among the population, according to Harn Yawnghwe. However, he noted that “most Rohingyas do not believe in violence.”