The government of Myanmar reached out late last month to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar with a seemingly straightforward plea: “Come back home.”
That offer might have seemed irresistible for those familiar with conditions in the teeming refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. And the dozens of Rohingya refugees that Physicians for Human Rights has interviewed there over the past two years are almost unanimous in their desire to return to Myanmar. But that desire is offset by what they know about the nature of the government that made that offer. And those refugees have made clear that they’d rather endure the privations of their Bangladeshi refugee camps than risk returning to Myanmar any time soon.
That’s a wise choice. Memories of the catastrophic campaign of widespread and systematic targeted violence by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya in northern Rakhine state beginning on August 25, 2017, are still painfully fresh among the survivors who fled to Bangladesh in fear of their lives. That campaign, executed on the pretext of an anti-terrorist operation aimed at the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, entailed what both Physicians for Human Rights and the United Nations have documented as a catalogue of atrocities against Rohingya civilians including mass killings, rampant sexual violence, torture, mutilation and the torching of hundreds of Rohingya villages.
In the two years since those crimes, the 740,000 Rohingya survivors of that violence who fled to safety in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar have watched in dismay as the Myanmar government has defied all international efforts for accountability. The authorities have failed to conduct impartial and independent investigations and have stymied the efforts of the UN and other bodies seeking to do so. A four-member commission formed by the Myanmar government to investigate the alleged crimes announced in December 2018 that it had found no evidence to corroborate the UN’s accusations, an assertion roundly rejected by human-rights groups.
Any lingering hopes among Rohingya refugees that the government was willing and capable of providing meaningful accountability for the bloodshed of late 2017 were dashed with the confirmation this May that the Myanmar military had pardoned the only military personnel successfully prosecuted for their role in the violence: seven soldiers convicted in April 2018 of killing 10 Rohingya men and boys in the infamous Inn Din village massacre of September 2017.
The Rohingya in the refugee camps are in no hurry to return to Myanmar while their military victimizers roam free with the explicit approval of a government that refuses to utter the word “Rohingya” and continues to justify their mass slaughter as a reasonable response to “terrorist activities.” Recent revelations via analysis of satellite imagery by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute indicate that the Myanmar military has continued its scorched-earth policy by continuing to burn down remaining Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine.
But Rohingya concerns about possible repatriation extend beyond the clear and present dangers posed by an unaccountable military with a proven penchant for ruthless violence against defenseless men, women and children. In 1982, the Myanmar government denied the Rohingya legal recognition by unilaterally stripping them of their citizenship. That citizenship denial has helped spur a distressingly popular racist narrative in Myanmar that depicts the Rohingya as illegal migrants rather an ethnic minority with a well-documented centuries-long presence in the country.
The government has been adamant in its refusal to restore citizenship rights to Rohingya, instead referring to them as “Bengalis” and offering them so-called “National Verification Cards” rather than national identity documents that specify citizenship. The Myanmar delegation that visited Cox’s Bazar last week made no mention of restoration of Rohingya citizenship rights.
The Myanmar government appears to be gambling that its substance-free overtures on repatriation will help quell some of the criticism and extend indefinitely the status quo of gross impunity for the crimes against the Rohingya
The Myanmar government’s obstinate denial of both accountability for the crimes of 2017 and a guarantee of citizenship raises serious questions about the sincerity of its repatriation rhetoric. That suggests a calculated strategy by the government to counter growing international opprobrium about the suffering of the Rohingya – and the subsistence and protection costs their care imposes on Bangladesh – on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the mass killing campaign that began in August 2017.
The Myanmar government appears to be gambling that such substance-free overtures on repatriation will help quell some of that criticism and extend indefinitely the status quo of gross impunity for the crimes against the Rohingya.
UN member states have an opportunity take decisive action to prove Myanmar wrong. International efforts toward accountability for Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya, such as the United Nations’ independent investigative mechanism and nascent International Criminal Court moves toward establishing its own Myanmar probe, have through their necessarily slow and opaque operations in processing evidence and moving toward prosecutions inadvertently helped bolster the Myanmar government’s denial narrative.
On the eve of the second anniversary of the slaughter of the Rohingya, UN member states can play an instrumental role in countering that narrative and putting the issue of accountability at the center of international engagement with Myanmar by filing complaints to the International Court of Justice for the government’s violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Such complaints will obligate the ICJ to investigate allegations of genocide and pursue reparations for Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya.
UN member states should also impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against government and military officials – and their family members – implicated in the 2017 targeted violence against the Rohingya.
It will require the exertion of maximum pressure via all legal and diplomatic channels to compel the Myanmar government to reverse its policy of dual denial of accountability and citizenship necessary for an eventual voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh. Individual UN member states should seize the opportunity to signal to Myanmar that their patience has limits and there will now be meaningful consequences for its intransigence.