Nothing better illustrates the disconnect between Myanmar government policy plans to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Rakhine state and the reality of the ongoing flight of Rohingya Muslims than to view the stunning drone footage by photographer Roger Arnold from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The aerial footage shows around 15,000 civilians crammed on a thin split of land headed to Cox’s Bazar over the past few days to join over 550,000 others who have fled a brutal military campaign which began seven weeks ago in the wake of attacks by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Myanmar security forces.
Yet despite the continued exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh, the embattled and increasingly maligned Aung San Suu Kyi announced plans on October 12 for a comprehensive resettlement of some of the Rohingya who have fled the conflict.
The de facto national leader outlined three priorities: repatriation of those who have crossed over to Bangladesh and the effective provision of humanitarian assistance; resettlement and rehabilitation; and economic development for Rakhine state that leads to durable peace.
While all fine sentiments, if not badly belated, are they politically feasible? In recent days, Suu Kyi’s government has established a humanitarian assistance, resettlement and develop body she first broached in a recent speech on the Rakhine situation.
The new ‘Committee for the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance Resettlement and Development Enterprise’, a collective of government, civil society and international groups, will aim to manage both public and private donations for humanitarian relief and resettlement operations, including through an online portal where donors can “Adopt an Area” or make cash donations.
However, the body’s announcement doesn’t once mention the security forces who have driven out over half a million people in one of the swiftest forced population transfers in recent history.
The Union Enterprise appears initially to be a government scheme to spark social support for the reconstruction of Rakhine state, evoking the organic community response and assistance to victims of the devastating 2008 Cyclone Nargis, and the 2015 country-wide flooding when thousands of people raised cash donations and material support for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the natural disaster.
Myanmar’s business identities, too, are being tapped to donate as they often do after natural calamities.
The opposed realities of the official announcements and documentation of the extreme state-sponsored violence makes the resettlement and rehabilitation plan seem surreal. State media reported this week about special government plans for the reconstruction of 48 ethnic Mro houses allegedly destroyed by ARSA terrorists, 22 new Myanmar Post and Telecommunications phone towers, and 156 miles worth of upgraded roads in Maungdaw, an epicenter of the recent violence.
Meanwhile, the economic zone long planned near Maungdaw town has been launched amid the death and destruction. The initiatives would all seem progressive if not for the concurrent release of a devastating Amnesty International report, fittingly titled “My World is Finished”, that documents widespread killings, systematic destruction of villages by arson, and sexual violence in the Myanmar military’s recent ‘clearance operations.’
For now, the government’s repatriation ideas are at an aspirational phase. It is impossible to see conditions anytime soon being in any way conducive to large scale refugee returns, which if done without careful planning would inevitably be another dark chapter in the repression of the Rohingya.
While Suu Kyi’s government forms new committees to give the illusion of progress and planning, the absence of an overarching framework of principles and requisite risk assessments could fuel further violence or an even greater humanitarian catastrophe. There are several serious challenges to resettlement, rehabilitation and development.
First is the security dilemma. At this early stage, it’s hard to fathom who would feel safe to return given the sadistic nature of military’s recent lethal security operations. Government initiatives, committees and Suu Kyi’s speeches do not appear to fully comprehend the gravity of the crisis in terms of its scale, speed and savagery.
How many refugees would voluntarily return when those same security forces remain in the vicinity and are likely to have a heavy hand in the implementation of any repatriation? The threat of renewed ARSA attacks, meanwhile, risk provoking another round of violence targeting civilian populations.
The abysmal conditions in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar could soon become a petri dish of desperation ripe for recruitment by extremists, drug dealers, and other exploitative forces. If, as the United Nations and the European Union have said in statements in recent weeks, the security operation was pre-planned, why would the security officials who conceived and conducted the operation stand by to watch it be reversed, even partly, by resettlement?
Second, where will the refugees be allowed to return in Myanmar and under what circumstances? The government’s scheme in general terms has the air of a sinister ‘Field of Dreams’ scenario: build it and they will (be forced to) come.
The worst case possible is the resettlement sites become squalid, slow-death camps, locked off from regular access to basic provisions and ripe for ARSA recruitment and extremism. Some already see an early phase equivalent of a social engineering scheme to replicate the isolation of Palestinians in Israel’s West Bank.
The least bad scenario is that they become a Rakhine version of Potemkin villages that Suu Kyi can tour and pronounce success as she rolls out the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations for reconciliation elsewhere in the state.
Her government has already conducted a series of horror tours for diplomats, the media and the UN that clearly illustrate the extent of the carnage in Maungdaw, how the security forces rendered northern Rakhine state a charnel house, and yet then issue blanket denials of the scale of the problem.
Third, what role will Bangladesh play? Bangladesh has had an immense human catastrophe thrown across its border, joining existing Rohingya refugees and migrants the government obviously wants to return. But how much can Dhaka be involved in any returns that reek of refoulement? UN principles of refugee returns being conducted in safety and dignity are a long shot.
Bilateral relations between Naypyidaw and Dhaka are dreadful and have been for years, and the latest crisis has plunged ties into a new downward spiral. Two previous large scale returns, in 1978 and 1995, were rife with reports of abuses by both sides. What documentation is Bangladesh providing for new arrivals and how will they be accepted under the Myanmar government’s resurrected 1992 repatriation plan?
Those bilateral agreements may have been functionally sufficient then, but the 1992 plan outlines criteria for repatriation, including documents of proof of Myanmar citizenship or residency, almost impossible to fulfill following the several weeks of violence and several years of Myanmar slowly stripping away the legal rights of the Rohingya.
Past bilateral agreements state that after Bangladesh issued Refugee Registration Cards then Myanmar would agree to: “repatriate in batches all persons inter-alia; carrying Myanmar Citizenship Identity Cards/National Registration Cards; those able to present any other documents issued by relevant Myanmar authorities and; all those persons able to furnish evidence of their residence in Myanmar, such as addresses or any other relevant particulars.”
Fourth, what role will the UN and INGOs be allowed to play in the proposed repatriation? The UN is not likely to be willingly complicit in the construction or supply of return settlements that could easily turn out to be detention facilities with even sharper restrictions on basic freedoms than the Rohingya faced before the August 25 ARSA assault that reignited the conflict.
Two previous large scale returns, in 1978 and 1995, were rife with reports of abuses by both sides. What documentation is Bangladesh providing for new arrivals and how will they be accepted under the Myanmar government’s resurrected 1992 repatriation plan?
The UN and INGOs were expelled from northern Rakhine state during the first days of this crisis. It is hard to envision a scenario where they will be permitted unfettered access to refugees in need, particularly amid recent vilification as accomplices of ARSA terrorists.
Suu Kyi waving her magic wand of promises seems insufficient to facilitate the reconciliation between Myanmar and the UN anytime soon, even as dysfunctional as the UN’s operations in Myanmar have been. It is not clear Suu Kyi’s government fully comprehends the gravity of the UN’s outrage or that its fact-finding mission is in effect a UN investigation into state security forces.
The issue has incensed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, seized the attention of the Security Council, and made High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, apoplectic. The UN Human Rights Council is now on a crusade to document the abuses of the Maungdaw violence and hold Myanmar accountable. Its latest report based on research in Bangladesh concluded widespread abuses that demonstrate pre-planning by security forces to drive out the Rohingya.
Fifth, Myanmar’s domestic appetite for Rohingya returns is at a racist rock-bottom.
If Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government calculated that standing up for the rights of the Rohingya was political suicide before the crisis, then it should be in overdrive for spurious spin to sell the repatriation plan to the country, especially after several weeks of vituperative social media support for the official line against ‘extremist Bengali terrorists.’
Any large-scale returns could inflame the bonfire of Rakhine nationalist anger into a firestorm, and imperil any implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations in other parts of the state, particularly without a more acute commitment to ‘do no harm’ principles than previously.
Six, the international community, including Western donors, the UN, rights groups and media, has made the issue one of the central global stories of 2017. Myanmar’s reputation, however unfairly overblown and misreported by sections of the media, is now at its lowest point in decades after a period of accolades for a supposedly successful democratic transition.
Even in a peripatetic international news cycle, the issue of repatriation will rightfully evince intense scrutiny and judgement. The government can expect any report of abuses will be amplified and any restrictions on monitoring intensely condemned. The media will likely report from these resettlement sites on the existing prevailing narrative that Myanmar spontaneously violently expelled and pre-planned the extirpation of the Rohingya.
The government and military have shown themselves to be almost pathologically incapable of presenting the complexity of the situation, putting their trust deficit on the issue in the deep red. It has also made an enemy of the international media and will likely never rebuild the relationship if they continue their current mix of denials, threats and vague remedies.
Finally, Suu Kyi’s government will be dragged into addressing all the many other crucial issues it promised to prioritize that have backslid down its agenda. Two years after a partial nationwide ceasefire was signed by eight insurgent groups, Suu Kyi’s peace process is floundering with many ethnic armed organizations criticizing the government and military for its hardline stance and lack of facilitating negotiations.
Fighting continues in Shan and Kachin states, with sharp curbs placed by the military on humanitarian assistance and over 100,000 civilians still living in internally displaced people camps.
Myanmar still faces immense development challenges in health, education, and employment and business opportunities, issues the NLD’s dreadful handling of the Rakhine situation and the security forces’ resurgent ruthless character have kept on a back-burner.
And while Suu Kyi and her NLD may feel the need to discuss repatriation and set in train planning ideas, the challenges and complexity of the situation are now well beyond her in-denial government’s control.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst