Bangladesh starts fencing Rohingya camps

THE HAGUE: Members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority prayed for justice on the eve of hearings at the UN's International Court of Justice during which leader Aung San Suu Kyi will defend the country against genocide charges. Gambia launched proceedings against the Buddhist-majority Myanmar in November, accusing it of violating its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention. It is only the third genocide case filed at the court since World War Two.
During three days of court proceedings Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, is expected to repeat denials of genocide and argue that military operations in question were a legitimate counterterrorism response to attacks by Rohingya militants. This week's proceedings before a panel of 17 judges will not deal with the core allegation of genocide, but Gambia has requested a court order for Myanmar to halt any activity that may aggravate the dispute.

Gambia will argue that Myanmar's forces carried out widespread and systematic atrocities under a campaign known as "operation clearance", from August 2017 that constituted genocide. Its court petition accused Myanmar of genocidal acts "intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses."

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 after the military-led crackdown and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh. Hasina Begum, 22, said she was among many women raped by Myanmar soldiers who also burned down her village. "They have done these things to me, to my relatives and my friends. I can tell them face to face, looking them in the eyes, because I am not lying," she told Reuters.

Leaving the refugee camp in Bangladesh for the first time since she fled, Hasina arrived in The Hague on Monday with two other victims and an interpreter. "I feel great," Hasina said from her hotel room on the eve of hearings. "Myanmar military raped many of our women. We want justice with the help of the international community."

Back at the camp, some Rohingya said they were praying to see justice delivered, while others posted on Twitter that they intended to fast to mark the event. The United Nations has said the campaign was executed with "genocidal intent". While the United States stopped short of calling it genocide, it said the acts amounted to "ethnic cleansing" and imposed sanctions against military leaders.

Gambia, a tiny, mainly Muslim West African country, will argue that by either enabling or failing to prevent genocide Myanmar failed to meet its requirements under the convention. The tribunal, also known as the World Court, has no enforcement powers, but its rulings are final and have significant legal weight.

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi military has started erecting fences around camps housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees despite complaints from community leaders and rights groups. An AFP correspondent on Tuesday saw troops in military fatigues erecting pillars for barbed-wire fences around one large camp at Balukhali in the southeastern border district Cox's Bazar. Bangladesh's refugee commissioner Mahhbub Alam Talukder confirmed to AFP that construction had begun but declined to comment further.

Army chief General Aziz Ahmed said late last month that army engineers had begun erecting the pillars and that the military has "placed orders" for barbed wire. The camps house nearly a million members of the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, around 750,000 of whom fled a military offensive in neighboring Myanmar in Aug 2017.

Frustration has been growing in Bangladesh about hosting the refugees, particularly since the latest attempt to repatriate them to Myanmar failed in August. The refugees are already forbidden to leave the camps although their sprawling nature means authorities have been unable to police all their movements. New checkpoints on the main roads leading to the camps stop Rohingya and send them back to the settlements when they try to travel to other parts of Bangladesh.

It has imposed a blackout on high-speed Internet in the Rohingya settlements, confiscated SIM cards and mobile phones used by the refugees, and filed cases against hundreds for illegally obtaining citizenship cards. The move to construct barbed-wire fences has been condemned by Rohingya leaders who said they would create a "panic" among the Rohingya. "It will restrict our movement. We have to walk a long distance to get food rations from the authorities," said Mohammad Hashim as he watched troops digging holes for pillars. "The children won't be able to play anymore."

'Big prison'
Earlier rights groups also condemned the move, saying the fencing could transform the camps into "a big prison". "The Bangladesh government shouldn't turn Rohingya refugee camps into open air prisons. Barbed wire and guard towers should be reserved for criminals, not people who fled Myanmar to escape from mass atrocities," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a comment to AFP. "The Bangladesh government now risks squandering the global goodwill it had earned when it allowed the Rohingya to cross into safety," he added.

UN experts have expressed serious concerns about these restrictions. Local resident Abdul Gaffar, who lives near the Balukhali camp, also complained. "The pillars erected for fencing were constructed on the locals' paddy field. Many locals living here will also be trapped inside fences," he said. - Agencies