Justice and Resilience: the Reality of Rohingya Women Refugees

This post is by Jee-Young Song. Jee-Young has joined the Global Justice Academy as our Communications Intern over the summer break, as part of the University’s Employ.Ed Campus Programme. Jee-Young is a rising third-year law student, reading for the LLB. In her second week in post, she went along to this IIF-funded meeting of the Bangladesh Studies Network, convened and ran by Lotte Hoek and Delwar Hussain from the School of Social and Political Science. Here, Jee-Young reflects on the key messages from the afternoon.

On Friday 8 June 2018, academics and other industry professionals gathered for the Bangladesh Studies Network Meeting. Various issues were discussed, ranging from the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster to the inevitable subject of the Rohingyan refugee crisis.

As part of the event, Jessica Olney, representative for a social justice NGO, delivered a public lecture titled ‘Concepts of Justice, Accountability and Resilience amongst Rohingyan Refugee Women in Cox’s Bazaar’ (pictured left).

Jessica detailed her work with Rohingyan refugees and informed the audience on the reality of the refugee campsites. Her organisation, she explained, was especially supportive in helping women gradually participate in civil societies and subsequent peace processes. The NGO is not big, nor does it provide physical aid to the refugees. Rather, its aim is to harness social justice, to empower people and thus combat the oppressive state of Myanmar.

The lecture started with a discussion of the current situation in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Contrary to media portrayal, Jessica argued that steady progress had been made. A ‘web’ of civil societies (all centred around leading resistance through social justice) was emerging within the camps, and due to the absence of formal representation, these societies had de facto become representative of the camp. In response to this, opportunities to network had been steadily trickling in. There was, however, one major concern: the Rohingyans had been completely left out of this development.

Jessica explained that for the Rohingyans, there had been almost no civil society development, nor any coalitions, outwith religious institutions. The Rohingyans were in fact very vocal about their position in politics and their own human rights. Yet with such a diaspora, there has been no framework of leadership put in place to enable them to engage and negotiate with other civil society networks, or with Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital) for that matter.

This was arguably a driver of conflict, a lack of proper representation being a contributory factor towards the dehumanisation of the Rohingyan refugees. It was therefore the NGO’s aim to encourage the steady participation of Rohingyans in civil society networks.

But the problem remains that existing Rohingyan leadership is overwhelmingly male. Taking note of this, there is now a growing demand of women refugees who wish to partake in leadership roles. So, despite the religious pressure and shaming within the camps, workshops have been set up to provide leadership training for these women. This was where the themes of justice, resilience and accountability were discussed.

The Theme of Justice

When Jessica asked the women for what the definition of ‘Justice’ was, a fascinating answer had been given: for the Myanmar army and government, the perpetrators of the acts of violence committed against them, to be punished in an international court of law. Of course, this is fairly straightforward, and it is what an ordinary citizen (such as you and I) would say. Yet it was a very interesting answer to come from women who live in a place where there is no rule of law. They had never experienced proper justice, yet they had clearly shown that they have a deep notion of what justice is, or should be.

Even so, the women never professed their ideas of justice in a negative or arbitrary manner. They did not once discuss what would happen to the perpetrators, or any punishment they wished to see. Instead, they discussed the rights they wanted restored to them. Again, despite coming from a ‘lawless’ background the women had shown a deep knowledge of the basic human rights that they deserved; they wanted freedom of movement, a dignified repatriation to Myanmar, a right to education and so forth. Jessica also described how they had seemed very focused on the process of justice – the setting up of courts and other institutions, for example – and how they had repeatedly stated a popular phrase within the camps:

Where there is justice, there will be peace.”

This very clearly struck a chord with the audience. The media portrayal of the Rohingyans risks instilling in us all a negative assumption that the refugees are illiterate, ignorant, or at the very least have a lack of knowledge of the politics surrounding their crisis. But these women had shown that even the most repressed of people can have an acute understanding of what a proper justice system should entail – as well as knowledge of geo-politics (with Jessica sharing how the women had even inquired about China’s role in the crisis). It is therefore apparent that the general public, and the media, need to see the Rohingyans’ situation with a different lens, in order to better understand their relationship to these geopolitical issues.

The Theme of Resilience

The talk then went on to the theme of resilience. Jessica reiterated how the Rohingyans have experienced unthinkable cruelty at the hands of the Myanmar army, and how as of yet there is no justice from the international courts mentioned above. How do they cope with this?

Their answer to this was sharing.The women professed how the trauma gets worse if they do not share and keep their thoughts to themselves. They want to be noticed and heard; only then would they find relief.

In a way, Jessica explained, this is their unique way of resisting the suffering that had been inflicted upon them – and again the audience was clearly amazed with the positivity of the women, even in the face of adversity. Trauma-healing was also mentioned by the women as an element of resistance, with most refugees being determined to recover from their past and start anew. Various agencies have set up mental clinics to support this; however, this was where the challenge of religion came in.

The mental health clinics aren’t at all popular because of the preference to seek treatment from talismans and traditional astrologers instead. Jessica revealed that this is part of an overall dynamic where there is minimal space for a moderate, secular society to operate. Repression of Islam by the Myanmar government means that there is a huge religious revival within the camps, with dynamics shifting constantly due to the strength of the religious leaders. Combined with the anger many feel after being completely excluded from civil society negotiations, not only are secular agencies losing power, but this increased reliance of religious networks means that the risk of radicalisation had also arisen. This has not gone unnoticed by local Bangladeshi, who have began to accuse the refugees of terrorism – causing further strife within the camps.

Despite this, Jessica ended the lecture on a positive note. The positivity and sharpness of the women has been inspiring, and in spite of religious tension, progress is still being made. She voiced the hope that local governments would look to similar models of civil society networks (such as on the Thai-Burma border) to enable these refugees to convene, eventually move back to Myanmar, and take part in the process of transitional justice. Above all, she highlighted how important it was to avoid ‘Rohingya fatigue’ in the media. The refugees need to be seen from a different lens, especially in the context of the potential of women in leadership roles; and (in a direct address to the academics in the audience), a new body of scholarship needs to evolve to help this process.