The harrowing scenes of human suffering on the Myanmar–Bangladesh border have provoked outpourings of sympathy and some firm statements by international politicians. At least half a million people have been brutally expelled from their homes and are now living in miserable conditions in muddy refugee camps and storm-drenched shanty towns. As the international community debates how to respond, it needs to take a clear-eyed view of the situation and recognise a brutal truth: the refugees are almost certainly not going home.
Consequently, policymakers must not hide behind the fiction that Bangladesh is only temporarily hosting the refugees in preparation for their rapid return home. Over-optimistic assumptions now will lead to worse misery in the long term. Instead, the world needs to plan on the basis that Bangladesh will be hosting a very large and permanent refugee population.
The expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State in northwestern Myanmar is the culmination of decades of discriminatory policies enacted by the country’s military rulers since 1962. In 1978, the Burmese military’s ‘Operation Dragon King’ pushed 200,000 Muslims into Bangladesh. International pressure forced the military to allow most of them to return. Then, in 1991–92, the military again expelled a quarter of a million people. Bangladesh forced some of them back over the border and eventually the military agreed to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to manage the repatriation of most of the remainder.
State-sponsored abuses of the Rohingya and ethnic violence perpetrated against them by chauvinists among the ethnic Rakhine population have continued. The abuse became dramatically worse in 2012 when tens of thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee their homes, although most remained inside the country. This year, armed attacks by self-proclaimed defenders of the Rohingya, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, gave the military an excuse to mount what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.
It is tempting to believe that, as before, the Myanmar government will allow the expelled Rohingya to return after international pressure. However, recent geopolitical developments in southeast Asia and the election of a democratic government in Myanmar in 2015 make this much less likely.
Southeast Asia is now an arena of geopolitical competition between China and its rivals: mainly the United States, India and Japan. All are battling for influence. Both China and India have made public statements of support for Myanmar’s government in the current crisis. In that context, diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions imposed by Europe or the United States will only have one effect – to push Myanmar towards China.
Moreover, those in the EU and US who want to see democracy survive in Myanmar will be unwilling to push the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi too far. There is an extraordinary degree of hostility towards the Rohingya among the majority Bamar population. This has broken out into street violence on occasions but even where the situation is calm, anti-Muslim prejudice is easily awoken. The current government is very unlikely to challenge such sentiments at a time when it is trying to preserve its position against the military’s continuing domination of political and economic life.
Myanmar is one of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but ASEAN is unlikely to impose any meaningful pressure. Only Malaysia has been publicly critical of Myanmar’s government. Indonesia has attempted to mediate – its foreign minister Retno Marsudi has held face-to-face meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi – but without apparent effect. Both countries have sent aid and volunteers to the Rohingya refugee camps but there is absolutely no talk of sanctions or other overt pressure.
The question then is: what will happen to the refugees? One option could be resettlement, but neither Bangladesh nor any of the other states in the region are willing to take them in. Malaysia already hosts 60,000 registered Rohingya refugees and probably another 150,000 unregistered ones. Unknown thousands of Rohingya have fled to Thailand and Indonesia by boat but have often fallen victim to unscrupulous human traffickers in cahoots with local officials. Thailand has already said it will refuse to allow new ‘boat people’ to land.
The only likely outcome therefore is the near-permanent presence of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya along the Bangladesh border. Delaying preparations for a permanent refugee population in the hope that they will be allowed to re-cross the border back into Myanmar will only make the situation worse. Seventy years ago, another ‘temporary’ movement of people into refugee camps created decades of instability around the Middle East. The world must remember the Palestinians as it plans for the future of the Rohingya.
Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.