Rohingya sell and buy food products in a street market in the Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / Diego Cupolo / NurPhoto

The brutality that began in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on August 25, 2017, marked a crescendo in a decades-long, state-led campaign of physical and structural violence, discriminatory policies and practices, and dehumanizing hate speech targeting the Rohingya.

In just a few weeks, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, murdered thousands of Rohingya civilians, torched hundreds of villages, and forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

Three years later, the world continues to fail the Rohingya people.

With security guarantees, protection of fundamental rights, meaningful justice and accountability, and a promising future no closer, Rohingya face an impossible choice between an ongoing risk of genocide at home, a life of inertia crammed into the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, or perilous journeys by sea in the hopes of reaching a destination that accepts them.

The international community must do more to ensure that these are not the only options available.

First, the United States should recognize the crimes committed against the Rohingya as genocide, and others should follow suit. The UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and countless others have already made such a determination. A declaration by the US and others would serve as a call to action, galvanizing much-needed attention and resources for the crisis. 

Second, the international community must compel a change in Myanmar’s behavior toward the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. 

Since 2017, Myanmar has done nothing to address the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine. Myanmar continues to deny Rohingya citizenship, instead coercing them to accept National Verification Cards that provide no legal protections and requires that they self-identify as foreigners.

Rohingya face onerous restrictions to freedom of movement, limiting livelihood opportunities and access to education, health care, and critical humanitarian assistance. And Rohingya are excluded from civic life, disfranchised and barred from running for office in parliamentary elections this November.

significant escalation in conflict between the ethnic-Rakhine-led Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw has only made matters worse. Government-imposed restrictions on Internet access across much of Rakhine since June 2019 and recently extended through at least October have further impeded access to humanitarian assistance, planning for the elections (which may be canceled in parts of Rakhine), and accurate information about Covid-19.

The international response to Myanmar’s crimes in 2017 and its intransigence since has been ineffectual. Condemnations of Myanmar’s actions, largely symbolic sanctions, and slow international justice and accountability mechanisms are not sufficient to deliver near-term improvements for Rohingya in Myanmar or Bangladesh (though the latter, prompting Myanmar to admit war crimes and crimes against humanity may have occurred, demonstrate that Myanmar is not impervious to international pressure). 

Targeted sanctions should be imposed on Tatmadaw-controlled businesses, China should be pressured to wield its veto to protect Myanmar at the UN Security Council, and all stakeholders must be more entrepreneurial in manufacturing opportunities to exert leverage over both the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s civilian government.

Third, the international community must commit to supporting the humanitarian response in Bangladesh, while ensuring greater Rohingya involvement in key decision-making processes and pushing Bangladesh to allow more impactful and sustainable investments in Cox’s Bazar.  

Though Rohingya refugees are safer in Bangladesh, their future is nonetheless bleak. Bangladesh deserves credit for providing safe haven to the Rohingya – and humanitarian responders have done well to minimize the loss of life among a Rohingya population vulnerable to disease and the elements – but remains focused on a short-term approach that does not serve its interests or that of the Rohingya. 

Providing Rohingya access to formal education and opportunities to provide for themselves, for example, would serve them well once it is safe for them to return to Myanmar, as many would like.

And restoring 3G and 4G Internet access, blocked since peaceful demonstrations on August 25 last year, would improve access to information and assistance, particularly amid restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and provide a critical lifeline to Rohingya otherwise cut off from family still in Myanmar and the outside world.

Increasingly desperate, Rohingya are embarking on dangerous boat journeys at a rate four times that of last year, with some spending months at sea only to be pushed back. And despite the risk of arrest and imprisonment, some Rohingya are even returning to Myanmar, a choice that is less a reflection of improved conditions in Myanmar than an indictment of Rohingya’s dismal prospects as refugees in Bangladesh.

As Rohingya mark yet another Genocide Day, the international community must move beyond symbolic acts of pressure on Myanmar and narrow humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh to provide Rohingya with the opportunity for a more hopeful future.

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Steve Ross

Steve Ross is a senior adviser and program director for The Richardson Center for Global Engagement.