Late last month, some 200,000 Rohingya living in refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh gathered to mark the anniversary of the brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military that drove more than 700,000 people to flee western Myanmar in August 2017. Citing security concerns, the Bangladeshi government promptly banned phone companies from providing mobile services to the refugees living in the camps of Cox’s Bazar — one million or so. The authorities have become increasingly worried about an uptick in crime in and around the camps, an increase in drug smuggling from Myanmar and the potential influence of foreign jihadists among the Rohingya. Their patience is eroding.
Why, then, are there so many Rohingya still in Bangladesh two years after the mass exodus, especially since the government struck a repatriation plan with Myanmar in early 2018? Because many refugees don’t want to return. Because Myanmar doesn’t want them back. And because foreign governments don’t much care. Even as they call for the refugees’ return — which is an impossibility in the near term — those countries are nursing their economic and political relationships with the Myanmar government.
Only 200 refugees, both Muslims and Hindus, are thought to have gone back to Myanmar this month. There have been no significant returns in the last two years, and none, to my knowledge, through formal procedures. Recent repatriation deals with Bangladesh — which were really only dusted-off versions of ineffectual agreements from the 1990s — have accomplished nothing. The Bangladeshi authorities produce lists of Rohingya they propose to send back without consulting them. Twice this year, including in August, the candidate-returnees refused to leave.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group fighting for Rohingya rights that attacked police posts in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, in the fall of 2016 and the summer of 2017 — precipitating violent expulsions, mass flights and, human rights groups say, crimes against humanity — has reorganized in the camps at Cox’s Bazar. The group reportedly is intimidating refugees into staying put; it has denied the charge on its official Twitter account.
Mostly, Rohingya refugees are simply too terrified to countenance returning to Rakhine without first obtaining serious guarantees from the Myanmar government: among other things, the restitution of lost land and property, access to public services, formal recognition as “Rohingya” and, perhaps most contentious, full citizenship. The government has refused to grant any of these measures, unless the returnees can prove that they satisfy the draconian requirements of the 1982 Citizenship Law — a cause of their disenfranchisement in the first place. The Rohingya are reviled by the local Rakhine community and, as Muslims, are treated as interlopers by much of the Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority throughout the country.
The experience of the Rohingya who still live in Rakhine State can hardly reassure the refugees. An estimated 660,000 remain, most in villages, but nearly 130,000 of them in squalid camps for internally displaced people. The government has announced plans to close the camps, but has no clear proposal for doing so or for then ensuring Rohingya’s basic freedom of movement. In fact, for years before the recent waves of violence, the Rohingya were prevented from even traveling from one village to another without official permission.
Some Rohingya are now accepting from the government so-called nationality verification cards that label them as “Bengali,” rather than “Rohingya,” in the hope that formal identification will allow them to relocate elsewhere in Myanmar. But this step is anathema to many Rohingya, because “Bengali” has long been used as a label of racist objectification that marks them as outsiders, originally from Bangladesh, and therefore as not belonging in Myanmar.
Myanmar officials brush off such criticism, claiming that it is international nongovernmental organizations that are hindering repatriation efforts (because they profit, financially, from the refugee crisis) and that Bangladesh is reneging on its commitments. Yet the BBC and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have reported the widespread destruction of former Rohingya villages in Rakhine, challenging the Myanmar government’s claim that it is doing its part to ensure the refugees’ safe and dignified return. Satellite images confirm that an archipelago of confinement camps has been erected in the place of the villages — a gulag in the waiting, in which any Rohingya who did return would likely see their rights and freedoms even more restricted than before.
And then, a new security problem has emerged: an insurgency by the Arakan Army, a guerrilla group of ethnic Rakhine with longstanding grievances about the central government’s neglect of the state’s residents and exploitation of its natural resources. Long based in training camps in northern Myanmar, the Arakan Army has managed to bring several thousand well-trained soldiers to Rakhine and since late 2018 has staged hundreds of attacks against security forces — using sophisticated improvised explosive devices, overrunning police stations and attacking convoys on roads and waterways. According to Arakan Army statements, its operations killed some 1,100 security personnel during the first five months of this year. (The military, known as the Tatmadaw, denies this.)
The Tatmadaw has responded with major troop buildups, heavy artillery and airstrikes. More than 65,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Rakhine and Chin, have been internally displaced, according to a United Nations special rapporteur, and — like the Rohingya — have little access to supplies or aid. The government turned off internet access in nine conflict-affected townships for much of the summer. Scores of civilians have been arrested and charged with, among other things, terrorism. Support for the Arakan Army is soaring among ethnic Rakhine; anger toward the Tatmadaw is at fever pitch.
Remarkably, the Arakan Army has not targeted the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine, and it has rarely voiced anti-Muslim sentiments; its energies are focused against the Tatmadaw and on winning more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine. But this cannot be reassurance enough for would-be Rohingya returnees: They know that the Rakhine’s historical distrust of Muslims endures and could be reignited.
The safe return of refugees is impossible, or unsustainable, without both an official acknowledgment of the abuses that sparked the exodus and accountability for them. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen detailed in his classic book “States of Denial,” a study of why people and communities turn away from the suffering of others, governments that have committed mass atrocities often go to extraordinary lengths to construct what Mr. Cohen calls “maximum possible deniability.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, and her administration have practiced their own form of maximum deniability.
Not only has the government done too little to acknowledge the immense suffering of the Rohingya, it has also claimed that the refugees fled of their own accord and that a mass conspiracy is concocting fake news about any atrocities. The forced expulsion of the Rohingya has turned many Myanmar people into what Mr. Cohen would call denialism “bystanders;” they are very unlikely to welcome back any refugees. And with a general election looming in 2020, the government is unlikely to insist that they do, for fear that it would pay for that at the ballot boxes.
The international community will not insist either, it seems.
China and Russia have acted as the diplomatic guardians of Myanmar: Moscow wants to sell it weapons, and Beijing wants to protect its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure and energy projects in Rakhine.
Japan is so deeply concerned with containing China’s influence that it, too, has sided with the Aung San Suu Kyi administration. “Peace and stability are essential for building a democratic state,” Taro Kono, then Japan’s foreign minister, said during a visit to Myanmar in July, essentially parroting a Myanmar government line. Japan is also a major aid provider and economic investor in Myanmar, and its public support for the government is partly predicated on its desire to protect these long-term interests.
Western countries, including the United States and Britain, have been sidelined, even though they largely pay for the humanitarian responses to Myanmar’s manifold crises, not only in Rakhine and Bangladesh, but in other conflict zones as well. After Washington and London stung Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi with copious criticism for the Rohingya crisis, Western nations lost much of their political influence with her.
The United Nations itself has shown little leadership throughout. Earlier this year, an independent report by Gert Rosenthal, a former foreign minister of Guatemala — which the organization had commissioned — described the United Nations’ “dysfunctional performance” in Myanmar, calling it a “systemic failure.” A special fact-finding mission issued a final report last week after a two-year investigation, pointedly referring to the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine as potential targets for genocide.
But when business continues as usual even as such reviews are submitted, the United Nations’ spasmodic ritual in self-castigation starts to look like a perverse attempt at exonerating the organization rather than an earnest attempt to tackle its shortcomings or any underlying problems.
Muslim countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have expressed outrage over the Rohingya’s treatment, even calling for Myanmar to be brought before the International Court of Justice. But their concern seems largely disingenuous. Pakistan and Malaysia, for example, have insisted on the full repatriation of refugees, despite the obvious risks and hurdles. There is little talk, meanwhile, of welcoming refugees in fellow Muslim countries in Asia or the Persian Gulf.
The Myanmar government has put on a cynical and sinister show, pretending to welcome refugees back, all the while seeking to deflect condemnation for the Tatmadaw’s crimes. The international community is largely indulging this pretext. A new insurgency in Rakhine makes reconciliation among local communities even less likely. Bangladesh continues to shoulder the gargantuan burden of accommodating the refugees.
Safe returns are not viable in the near term, and so it is essential to continue supporting Bangladesh and help it improve living conditions in the camps — encouraging more education, health care and community-empowerment programs. The ultimate aim is still for the Rohingya to return home. The immediate aim should be to ensure their safety and well-being.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on Myanmar based in Yangon.