A Roiling Question: The Right Way to Help the Rohingya

Tommy Trenchard/Caritas/CAFOD
World News /14 Jan 2018

A Roiling Question: The Right Way to Help the Rohingya

After more than 650,000 Rohingya were forced to escape from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, Myanmar’s military made a surprising confession this week: in at least one instance, its soldiers and local Buddhist villagers in Rakhine state did in fact murder ten Rohingya captives in early September.

That announcement comes as cold comfort to the thousands of Rohingya families who have lost loved ones to the predation of Myanmar’s military campaign. Even as the army acknowledges one past crime, others continue to be carried out. The outside world’s ability to keep tabs has been hindered by government censorship. Reuters’ reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, for example, have just been charged with violating the “Official Secrets Act” despite resounding international demands for their release.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Information claims the reporters “illegally” acquired information on behalf of foreign media. In reality, the authoritarian security state is resorting to old habits as the alarm bells ring over its persecution of the Rohingya.

Despite their best efforts, international aid groups and local organizations are struggling to meet the needs of refugees. The mass exodus of August and September has slowed, but vulnerable Rohingya continue to arrive in Bangladesh with next to nothing. Forced into camps that lack clean water and proper sanitation, the outbreak of disease seems inevitable.

Limited resources and major barriers to access conspire against these Rohingya survivors, and the Bangladeshi government is not making things easier. Bangladeshi officials are less than sympathetic to displaced Rohingya, limiting aid provided by international agencies to discourage “illegal immigration” and insisting on moving refugees to an island that barely qualifies as dry land.

Even so, the perilous journey to a begrudging refuge in Bangladesh is better than staying in Rakhine. Tensions between the Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors date back to the start of the colonial era. Many hardline Buddhists see Muslims as foreign interlopers despite centuries of shared history, holding such deep-seated antipathy that mobs of civilians are willing to resort to violence to keep aid shipments from Rohingya populations.

Despite these obstacles, humanitarians do their best to help. A UN aid conference in October cobbled together $345 million in pledges, although the Red Cross found itself begging for $33 million to fund its Rohingya response in Bangladesh just a few days later. Many individual donors want to do their part for a good cause, but given the dearth of accurate information, how can they know where to turn?

Rohingya refugees jump from a wooden boat as it begins to tip over after travelling from Myanmar, on September 12, 2017 in Dakhinpara, Bangladesh. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As with any crisis, individual donors need to think carefully about which organizations they support. While the Red Cross has access to remote Rohingya communities and “restricted” areas, many others do not. New approaches to fundraising and collective action, such as crowdsourcing, promise to overcome the limitations facing relief efforts, but that’s only true if they have the right premise in mind. If not, black-and-white campaigns can give outsiders the false impression of helping vulnerable Rohingya while leaving their real needs unmet.

One problematic example of crowdsourcing centers around “genocide gems,” which campaigners claim bankroll Myanmar’s military with the connivance of international jewelers and luxury brands. Over 75,000 people signed an online petition backed by SumOfUs and the International Campaign for Rohingya last year, calling on Cartier to end its business relationship with Myanmar’s mines. Cartier decided it would change suppliers, encouraging the two groups to set their sights on the Italian brand Bulgari. The campaign is still celebrating its success, but has it really made a difference?

The answer is most likely no. The realities of the trade are more complex than the “genocide gems” movement lets on. For at least a decade, Western attempts to target Myanmar’s jade trade have not stopped the country from selling a vast share of its rubies and sapphires to neighboring China, India and Thailand. In practical terms, that means Western boycotts will not have the impact campaigners hope. This is doubly true when major markets like China are perfectly happy to ignore international outcry and continue doing business with Myanmar.

Nor will a boycott change the calculus of key military figures like commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The tatmadaw of Myanmar’s armed forces may be using the bloody campaign against the Rohingya as a springboard to the presidency, counting on the same nationalist sentiments that worsens the plight of the Rohingya community. Returning Myanmar to its previous state of economic isolation will only make his task easier.

Beyond the immediate scope of the campaign, the group piloting it offers its own lesson on the importance of transparency. The International Campaign for Rohingya, for example, claims to be working to “advocate and amplify the voice of Rohingya,” but the gem boycott seems to be its only initiative and the campaign gives little indication of how the funds its receives are spent. That’s a valid question to ask, considering organizational founder Joseph K. Grieboski is a Washington lobbyist known for allegations of secretly being a paid advocate for the Church of Scientology.

The Campaign doesn’t address how Grieboski’s role intersects with his lobbying work, or whether his work on Rohingya issues is connected to one of his major clients: the Saudi Arabia-based Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC is a vocal critic of Myanmar’s behavior towards the Rohingya, but its strong stance juxtaposes harshly with its support for Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen.

For individual donors deciding whether a $20 gift would be better spent by Grieboski’s outfit or the Red Cross, these are important details. In other cases, however, the dangers of funds being misused are much more readily apparent. In Pakistan, local extremist groups claiming to accept donations on behalf of the Rohingya are in fact exploiting the crisis to raise money for their own activities. In Rawalpindi, the Falah e Insaaniyat Foundation held a fundraising campaign for its supposed relief efforts that observers in Bangladesh clearly state do not exist.

At a time when the long-suffering Rohingya are at their most vulnerable, it is absolutely vital that donor assistance goes to the right places. Established organizations like the Red Cross may not be the sexiest options, but they are almost certainly the most effective ones.

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