Today, August 25, marks two years since Myanmar launched a brutal wave of violence against the Rohingya. Over the course of just a few weeks, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, burned hundreds of villages, killed thousands of people in unspeakable ways, raped countless women and girls, and forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee their homeland in Rakhine state for the safety of neighboring Bangladesh.
This physical violence marked the culmination of a genocidal campaign of systematic discrimination, persecution, and dehumanization at the hands of the Myanmar government. Myanmar has stripped from Rohingya the rights they once enjoyed, including citizenship and the right to vote and prevents Rohingya from moving freely, accessing basic health care or education, earning a livelihood, or practicing their religion. Rohingya are denied their identity and are instead demonized as illegal “Bengali” immigrants, terrorists, and “detestable human fleas.”
Despite the trauma Rohingya have suffered, many want nothing more than to return to Myanmar, the land where their fathers and grandfathers were born. And while Myanmar claims it is ready to begin repatriation, Rohingya will continue to refuse to return, as they did last week, unless their rights and safety are guaranteed. Myanmar has done little to suggest it wants a different outcome.
First, Rohingya remain concerned about their safety and security. The very Tatmadaw forces that perpetrated abuses against the Rohingya cannot be trusted to protect them. With outside access to Rakhine almost entirely blocked and an Internet blackout imposed across most of the state for the past two months, there is no check on the Tatmadaw, as ongoing rights abuses against Rakhine and Rohingya demonstrate. At a minimum, unfettered humanitarian access and human-rights monitoring must be guaranteed.
Second, Rohingya’s citizenship status must be addressed. Myanmar continues to deny Rohingya claims to citizenship, instead coercing them to accept National Verification Cards (NVCs). A supposed “gateway to citizenship,” NVCs are in fact a further degradation of the citizenship documents Rohingya once held, imply they are foreigners, and require that they undergo an onerous verification to acquire citizenship, a process that should be unnecessary given Myanmar’s meticulous record-keeping. Moreover, Myanmar’s promises of improved freedom of movement and access to basic rights have proved illusive for Rohingya in Rakhine that have accepted the NVC or been granted citizenship.
Third, Rohingya must be able to return directly to their land, a task made more difficult by Myanmar law, which allows burned land to become the property of the state, as well as the government’s bulldozing of many of the villages it torched. Rohingya have reason to worry that if they do return, they will be stuck in “temporary” camps for years much like the nearly 130,000 Rohingya held in concentration camps since 2012. Plans to close the camps without addressing Rohingya rights risks entrenching a policy of apartheid.
Finally, Rohingya must have assurances that the Tatmadaw will not be emboldened to continue abusing them and other ethnic minorities with impunity. And yet the Tatmadaw is accountable only to itself, and Myanmar’s countless Rakhine commissions, military and civilian, have proved incapable of delivering justice. The wheels of international justice have begun to turn, but not quickly enough to impact the lives of the Rohingya stuck in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and suffering in Rakhine.
Recent talks between Rohingya refugees and Myanmar officials in Cox’s Bazar could have served as a foundation for sustainable and voluntary returns. Indeed, the discussions led to an agreement to hold further dialogue in two months. Instead, the talks were a missed opportunity, with any trust built quickly shattered by Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s announcement of fresh repatriation plans without first consulting with Rohingya.
Though it is Myanmar’s responsibility to create conditions conducive to return, a more concerted approach is needed to compel a change in its approach.
First, repatriation must continue to be the ultimate, if not immediately achievable, objective. Myanmar has made clear that its intention is to buy time in the hopes that international pressure will dissipate; maintaining a focus on what Myanmar must do to create conditions conducive to repatriation will help sustain the pressure needed to bring tangible improvements on the ground.
The best way to lay the foundation for eventual Rohingya repatriation is to improve conditions for the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine, even as such efforts are complicated by ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Rakhine-led Arakan Army. Until detention camps are closed, respect for basic rights and access to services improve, and outsiders observers gain effective access to Rakhine, Myanmar’s critics must be more bold in sanctioning those most responsible for on-going crimes against the Rohingya. An arms embargo and targeted sanctions should be imposed on the Tatmadaw, its top brass, and its businesses, with the removal of sanctions benchmarked to the concrete steps Myanmar takes to address security, rights and development in Rakhine.
For their part, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which claim to want a speedy repatriation, must recognize that physical preparations and development alone will be insufficient to persuade Rohingya to return and use their more friendly relations with Myanmar to prod it to do more.
Second, Rohingya must be guaranteed a stake in discussions about repatriation and their futures. While Rohingya are often portrayed as powerless victims, they effectively mobilized to resist repatriation last November and did so again last week. The Rohingya will not allow a solution to this crisis to be imposed upon them, so they must be included in the planning for repatriation and for a peaceful and prosperous Rakhine. Rather than fearing Rohingya agency, the international community should further empower Rohingya with the skills and resources to defend and advance their rights.
Ensuring Rohingya refugee children and youth receive formal education in line with the Myanmar curriculum would help to sustain hope in the camps, to facilitate eventual repatriation, and provide a bridge between current Rohingya leaders and the next generation.
Myanmar’s inaction cannot continue to confine Rohingya to camps on either side of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The Rohingya deserve better.