A problematic return to Myanmar

Is it possible to send Rohingya back to a country that still largely believes they don’t belong? Sara Perria reports on what’s next for the refugee group and the paralysis of the international community on the issue. 

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February 8, 2018
Myanmar military troops take part in a military exercise in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in Myanmar on February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Lynn Bo Bo

Just last August, forests covered the Bangladeshi hills running along the border with Myanmar. Now the view is one of endless orange and grey plastic tents housing hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the smoke of wood fires.

Nineteen-year-old Rizwan made the journey here, to Kutupalong, now the world’s largest refugee camp, after the Myanmar military first launched its “clearance operations” against militants in his hometown of Maungdaw, back in September 2017. He has kept track of his journey, sending updates to this reporter.

First, while still at home, he sent messages on WhatsApp to say he was fine. Then came images of a nearby village in flames, followed later by a grim selfie in front of his own burnt down home, as the crackdown quickly turned into what the United Nations has denounced as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

A few days later, he joined a mass exodus of traumatized refugees crossing the Naf river to Bangladesh. The UN says almost 700,000 Rohingya, most of them stateless, have been forced to flee Myanmar since last August. For Rizwan, months have passed and he has little to do in the camp, nor much prospect of leaving.

“I hope to go to Malaysia. I don’t see a future here,” he says.

Malaysia may be the dream destination for many, but on January 16, Bangladesh and Myanmar finalized the details of a repatriation plan, first signed in November, which aims to send all refugees back to Myanmar within two years. Foreign ministries of the two countries said Bangladesh would set up five transit camps on its side of the border, while Myanmar would build two reception centres and a transit camp for 30,000 returnees.

Officials said Myanmar would initially take back 300 refugees a day and that the process would start on January 23 — but the start date has already been postponed. In the meantime, more Rohingya are still reported to be crossing into Bangladesh.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, was not involved in the drafting or negotiating of the agreement and has warned against forced repatriation. UN officials say conditions are not safe to return, and there is a danger that Myanmar will hold the Rohingya in camps indefinitely, like the more than 100,000 still confined to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine state since violence there began in 2012.

More than 350 Rohingya villages have been damaged or burned down since last August. Rohingya say their homes were torched by the Myanmar military and Buddhist vigilantes, and that many women were raped and unknown numbers of people killed. The military denies human rights violations and has blocked access to independent observers, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who was due to visit in January. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on January 17 he expected to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar soon.

“We want to go back to our motherland but we are worried the military will commit atrocities against us,” says Nurul, who used to work for an international NGO in Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine state. He is now living in Kutupalong with his family.

“We heard a lot of condemnation, condemnation. We had enough of condemnation, we want the UN to do something now,” he adds.

Despite past failures of peacebuilding efforts, expectations are still running high among the Rohingya that the UN will do something to end their plight, such as sending a peacekeeping mission to Myanmar. Those hopes appear unrealistic, however.

Many Western nations, including the United States and the EU, rushed to lift long-standing sanctions against Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won democratic elections in 2015 and formed a power-sharing government with the military. (Canada had eased sanctions in 2012 and opened its first embassy there in 2014.)

Despite the recent violence, there appears to be little appetite to re-impose sweeping sanctions — especially those that would impact the general population — and, within the UN Security Council, Myanmar seems able to rely on China and possibly Russia for protection from referrals to the International Criminal Court or military intervention. (Several UN members requested just this week that the Security Council discuss the issue further, however.)

Growing tensions within Myanmar, and with the outside world

The emergence of Rohingya militants under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in response to decades of persecution of the Muslim minority has been used by the Myanmar military to reassert its role as guardian of the state.

Scorched earth apart, the generals have been adept at manipulating grievances of the Buddhist Rakhine in the state and fuelling a siege mentality that has generated a xenophobic and nationalist wave throughout much of Myanmar, with Facebook the instrument of choice for spreading hate-speech.

As the crisis has unravelled, starting with clashes and expulsions in late 2016, the approach of the international community has shifted from engagement and aid with few or no conditions to condemnation without consequences.

"International coverage has focused almost exclusively on Aung San Suu Kyi instead of the military’s actions."

UN efforts in Rakhine state and more broadly across Myanmar have been overwhelmingly focused on development and poverty alleviation without addressing the root problems of human rights abuses, reflecting a misplaced faith among Western governments and aid agencies that human rights would prosper once a democratically elected government led by Suu Kyi was in place. Less attention was given to the institutions and education needed to cultivate rights-based policies, while Western policy makers thought the Myanmar military would be won over by promises of weapons and training.

Hoisted onto a pedestal, Suu Kyi’s government, incapable on many levels of running an administration in urgent need of reform after decades of economic and social decay, has seen its reputation shredded on the global stage for what appeared to be acquiescence to ethnic cleansing. At the same time, the government’s already difficult relationship with the military has deteriorated further, although fears of a coup have been dismissed by analysts in Yangon as “paranoia.” 

The international coverage that has focused almost exclusively on Suu Kyi instead of the military’s actions has created a perfect environment for the men in uniform to push their repressive agenda with the bonus of weakening the international standing of the Nobel laureate.

Meanwhile, her attitude towards the UN, which in Myanmar is widely perceived as biased against the government, has become increasingly confrontational.

“The breaking point was the fact-finding mission,” commented a senior UN official in Yangon, referring to the March 2017 UN Human Rights Council decision to investigate possible crimes against humanity against the Rohingya through what some would call, in effect, a limp legal tool. The mission, denounced by the military and barred from entering Myanmar by the government, had been created in response to the earlier wave of ethnic cleansing in 2016.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s national advisor, Kyaw Tint Swe, comes from the ranks of the previous regime and spent 10 years at the UN defending Myanmar from being treated as a pariah state. The whole government has a mindset shaped against a new colonization,” said the UN official, who asked not to be identified. 

“Trump’s election hasn’t helped,” he added, noting the new US administration’s hostility towards the UN. However, Washington imposed sanctions on individuals in the military late last year, but not the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. (Canada imposed sanctions against Major-General Maung Maung Soe on February 16.)

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Payam Akhavan, an Iranian-Canadian human rights lawyer and former war crimes prosecutor, warned that Myanmar’s unaccountability comes at a “terrible cost” for the world in terms of suffering present and future.

“There hasn’t been much international pressure except a bit of finger pointing here and there. There have been no credible threats of action that would hurt the interests of Myanmar,” he said. 

What next?

Akhavan said the issue was a lack of political will rather than a need for structural reforms. In the wake of lessons learned from Srebrenica and Rwanda, the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the adoption in 2005 of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the world had moved “two steps forward, one step back,” he said.

“The implications are that we need to regroup and figure out how to put the question of preventing genocide and mass atrocities back on the table at the UN,” Akhavan added. Facebook and other social media companies also have a legal and moral duty to prevent the spread of hate-speech, he added.

Social networks have reinforced the spreading of ethno-nationalism, amid a decline of press freedom throughout Southeast Asia. Against this backdrop, ASEAN, the organization aimed at promoting economic relationships between states in the region (of which Muslim countries such as Malaysia are also members), has not played a role in reining in the Rohingya crisis.

Western diplomats say there is no doubt a solution has to come through engaging with the civilian government, as it is a legitimately elected government competing for power with the military, over which it has no constitutional control. Decades of sanctions have left Myanmar isolated, weakened and, ultimately, under the sway of an expanding China.

Diplomatic efforts are focused on pushing the Myanmar government to implement the recommendations of a commission it formed, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which include setting in motion the process of granting the Rohingya citizenship and equal rights, and end the apartheid regime. The situation has changed dramatically since the release of the recommendations in August, but Suu Kyi said she backs the commission’s plan — putting her on collision course with the military, which has rejected it.

Yet a panel of international advisors, formed as a result of the commission, got off to a rocky start when one of its members, former US governor Bill Richardson, resigned, saying the commission risked being “a cheerleading squad for the government” — an accusation rejected by the other members of the panel.

Rohingya camps
A Rohingya girl washes clothes at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

All factors point to a possible stalemate and a long stay for the Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh. The risks of epidemics, natural disasters and social tensions are rising as the monsoon season looms, now just a few months away.

“Things are not likely to change unless something tragic happens,” an anonymous source familiar with the commission’s work said, referring to the possibility of fatal mudslides on deforested hills. “The Myanmar government will say that they are taking some [Rohingya] back. They have given a list of names without asking people first, and they have approved the verification process before processing the applications of these people so that they could then blame Bangladesh for the stalemate. But nobody believes in this game.”

A senior UN official says Myanmar will not involve the UN unless it needs to, “maybe after, to certify the legality of what they have done, which is not going to happen if the conditions are not in place,” he said.

Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, said in a televised interview that “this is a long-term problem.”

“The UN and all the international agencies have a lot of difficulty getting the donors to appreciate the fact that they’ve got to be there for the long term…When the rains come, you know, it’s going to be very tough,” he said.

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya based in Yangon and the director of the Center for Social Integrity, which works in Cox’s Bazar camps to provide opportunities to youth, said Suu Kyi has a moral obligation to shape public opinion within Myanmar and that without further action, the situation can get much worse.

“But now we have to think about what to do in the short term, what is feasible for us Rohingya to do now, while the diaspora is just thinking the international community will solve the problem,” he said.

Patching a divided mosaic

While the international community could help facilitate dialogue in Rakhine state, Kyaw Moe said work is needed in the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh to oppose the radicalization growing on “false promises” made by the militants.

The senior UN official in Yangon agreed, saying that power dynamics in the camps will be crucial if there is any hope of finding a peaceful outcome to the crisis.

“Among other aspects, the leadership that will emerge from the camps can play an important role in negotiating their future with the government and other parties,” the UN official said.

He said it was important to find an alternative to the influence of the Rohingya diaspora — largely in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia — and counter the risk of moral support for ARSA growing in the camps, despite the fact many also fear the militants. ARSA has used a radical and religious platform to penetrate the community through imams, and the insurgency itself has been fuelled by Myanmar’s persecution of the minority, who used to number about one million, or a third of Rakhine state.

 While historically other ethnic armed groups around Myanmar’s borders have had fighters in uniform with a clear, secular and hierarchical military leadership, ARSA introduced a new form of guerrilla warfare blurring the divisions between combatants and civilians. Calls to martyrdom have provided the Myanmar military with the pretext to denounce ARSA as international “terrorists” and attack entire villages in response. And after border attacks by ARSA were met with a ferocious response by the Myanmar military in October 2016, it would appear that ARSA’s leadership must have envisaged a similar or worse reaction when its fighters launched crude but effective attacks on security outposts last August.

Underlining the depths of ethnic complexities in Rakhine state — where the Myanmar military has also been attacked by a group calling itself the Arakan Army — police reportedly killed eight people after protests erupted in Mrauk-U among Rakhine Buddhists on January 16. A few days later, unknown assailants killed the state government official who ordered the police crackdown.

The Rakhine Buddhists, the state’s largest ethnic group, were protesting against a government decision to cancel an event marking the anniversary of the destruction of the city, which was invaded by Burmese forces in 1785. Since its invasion, Buddhists have felt hemmed between the encroachment of Muslim groups from the West, Burmese from the East and, later, migrant workers that came with the era of British colonial rule. Grievances from that history, compounded by poverty, remain to this day.

While Myanmar remains as fractured as ever along ethnic lines, the military and parts of the political and Buddhist elites have skilfully reinforced anti-Rohingya – and sometimes more broadly anti-Muslim — sentiments in order to maintain their dominance in society.

When this reporter visited Rakhine state capital Sittwe recently, Kaung San Hla, a Buddhist Rakhine and local NLD secretary, took it upon himself to demonstrate that the problem with the “Bengalis” — as the Rakhine and Bamar call the Rohingya — is not their Muslim religion, but that they are not one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the state.

“The Bengali are not one of the 135 ethnics,” he said repeatedly in the course of an hour-long journey from Sittwe to visit a village inhabited by the Kaman, a small ethnic group of Muslims who are part of the 135 (an artificial classification dating back some decades, which anthropologists and historians say is rooted in political expedience rather than ethnography).

The Kaman are Muslim like the Rohingya, “but they speak our language, they dress like us,” San Hla said before visiting a group of Kaman elders.

Later, the elders, sitting around a table with San Hla and elegantly dress in a longyi skirt and Burmese-style jacket, agreed. The Rohingya are not an “original” group of Myanmar, said village leader Aung Thein.

What he didn’t say, however, is that thousands of Kaman elsewhere in Rakhine state were also forced out of their homes in the intercommunal violence of 2012 and have been confined since then to IDP camps. Their citizenship has brought no protection against the deprivation of their rights and confiscation of their land and property.

Their story illustrates the hard road ahead for the Rohingya’s acceptance back into Myanmar society.

“I don’t believe in the possibility of a return,” the senior UN official in Yangon said. “You need the will, which should come with the admission that Myanmar has done something wrong, not proceeding as if previous policies of segregations never happened. If you don’t change this narrative, there is no solution.”  

This article was updated February 16, 2018, to include the announcement of new sanctions imposed by Canada against Major-General Maung Maung Soe.