01 Oct Symposium on the Current Crisis in Myanmar: An Update on the Situation of Myanmar’s Rohingya
[Laetitia van den Assum is a diplomatic expert who has served as Netherlands ambassador on four continents. She was also a member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by the late Kofi Annan.]
Dedicated to the memory of Rohingya leader and activist Mohib Ullah who was brutally assassinated in Bangladesh on 29 September 2021.
Four years ago, 750,000 Rohingya from Myanmar fled to Bangladesh, forcibly expelled in a murderous campaign by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military forces. To this day, no progress has been made with their repatriation, while the situation of those who stayed behind in Myanmar continues to be appalling.
Close to one million Rohingya refugees remain in camps in Bangladesh. Their circumstances have been deteriorating. Elements of detention have been strengthened, especially with the construction of barbed-wire fencing and the growing numbers of refugees transferred to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the delta that is prone to flooding and where, despite promises, livelihood activities and basic services like health care and education are below standard or non-existent.
In late September 2021, the minister of Home Affairs of Bangladesh said that he expected the repatriation of the Rohingya to start soon. Given the dire situation in Myanmar, including Rakhine state, this will instill further fear in the refugee population. Under the present circumstances repatriation is unimaginable.
According to UNHCR, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Rohingyas fleeing across the Andaman sea by boat. More refugees died than in 2015, the year of SE Asia’s ‘boat crisis’. Only people driven by ever growing desperation will take the huge risk of putting themselves in the hands of ruthless human traffickers.
In Myanmar itself, the situation of the around 500,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state has been worsening, even though violent conflict has been largely absent from the state since November 2020.
They languish in closed villages and in now nine years old decrepit ‘temporary’ detention camps that only had lifespan of five years. Moreover, food insecurity has grown significantly.
In Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, stateless Rohingya refugees have been suffering from restrictive COVID-19 policies. In addition, in India the legal status of Rohingyas has become increasingly precarious, leaving them at risk of forced repatriation or refoulement to Myanmar as well as arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention.
The Impact of the Military Coup and its Aftermath
Since the February coup against Myanmar’s democratically elected government, the military regime has failed to receive recognition, both from most of its own population and from the international community.
The coup has failed. Its plotters have not been able to secure control. While they have a firm grip on the military and defense sectors, this is not the case with much of the government’s civilian governance infrastructure. Critical sectors of the economy as well as public services, ranging from transportation to finance, health and education, are collapsing. Wide-ranging protests, strikes and increasing attacks by new People’s Defense Forces (PDF’s) continue to confirm that popular sentiment remains overwhelmingly against the military regime.
While long-established Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO’s) have generally condemned the coup, many are ambivalent towards the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) which they consider influenced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government. Under her rule, the government did little to endear itself to ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, some EAO’s have provided military training to large numbers of fleeing protestors, have sheltered NUG members and others seeking refuge, and are prepared to collaborate with other actors.
The new PDF’s are asserting themselves in many parts of Myanmar, forcing the Tatmadaw to open more fronts and lowering the morale of its troops. Warfare is asymmetric and a long and bloody war of attrition seems likely. In late 2021, when the dry season starts, the country is likely to witness even greater violence.
The current situation is increasingly chaotic and unpredictable. To exacerbate this, a significant humanitarian emergency is taking hold throughout the country at a time when many existing response mechanisms are failing.
Immediately after the coup, its leader tried to give the impression that he was keen to arrange repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. He probably did this to placate the international community. Since then, however, he has retracted and has returned to his earlier hate speech. In late September 2021, the military-owned Myawaddy newspaper published an OpEd that openly attacks the Rohingya, linking their quest for freedom and equality to western powers who want to install a puppet regime in Myanmar.
The Arakan Army (AA), active in Rakhine state, has used an informal ceasefire with the military to establish its own civilian governance systems, including in Rohingya areas. It has stayed in contact with the military regime because it believes this will ultimately aid its objective of greater self-rule in Rakhine.
The AA has also said that it wants to include Rohingya in the training it provides for administration and police functions. While that is a welcome announcement, some have pointed to the risk of Rohingya getting caught between the AA and the Tatmadaw who are both vying for control of Rakhine state. In September 2021, this risk was underlined by the Tatmadaw’s direct warning to 18 Rohingya village leaders that they should not engage with the AA.
The NUG has also made overtures to the Rohingya, particularly with a new policy plan that promises an end to the abject discrimination the group remains subjected to. In addition, on 20 August 2021, the NUG deposited a declaration with the registrar of the International Criminal Court, accepting its jurisdiction with respect to international crimes committed in Myanmar territory.
The serious restrictions imposed on the Rohingya in Rakhine have not been lifted. While the apartheid-like situation continues, recent reports also indicate serious food insecurity. Rohingya in closed villages and displacement camps report not receiving relief assistance for close to four months.
Although the Rohingya have continued to suffer, the coup has sparked a gradual and important transformation trend that builds on the growing acknowledgment that democracy cannot flourish without respecting Myanmar’s long persecuted minorities, including the Rohingya. Younger generations who are a vibrant force in the resistance movement are now rejecting the ethnonationalism embraced under decades of military rule and they say so openly.
The principles of inclusion and anti-discrimination are also embraced by the NUG which was appointed on a platform that includes abolishing the 2008 constitution which enshrines ethnonationalism and discrimination.
While these developments are encouraging, a long transformation process still lies ahead. Apart from legislative measures, changing people’s mindsets is also a major challenge. Successive military regimes have sowed ethnic and religious division as a divide-and-rule tool, stoking fear of ‘others’. Fear, once instilled, is difficult to overcome. But the growing rejection of ethnonationalism is a start, and those trying to take inclusive policies forward deserve support.
Even before the February coup, a group of Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state worked on a ‘Declaration by the diverse and united communities in Arakan’. Adopted on 18 January 2021, it expresses agreement on the importance of peaceful coexistence and the building of a new society based on respect for each other’s identities and the promotion of peace, justice equality and human rights. It deserves to be built on. The Arakan Army has expressed similar sentiments.
Despite the dire and uncertain situation of Rohingya in Rakhine, Bangladesh keeps pushing for repatriation of refugees in its territory. But with Myanmar in chaos and no responsible government in place, this is not an option. The Covid-19 pandemic which continues to rage is another impediment. Plans to repatriate Rohingya must be postponed until the situation improves significantly.
- A comprehensive solution for Myanmar’s crisis is not in sight. ASEAN is fronting for the international community but is unlikely to achieve tangible results. In the short term, the military regime will continue to use extreme violence to achieve its objectives, even as it remains unable to govern in a purposeful way.
- The movement to reject ethnonationalism as a defining characteristic of the state deserves to be supported. But it can only be led by the people of Myanmar themselves.
- Immediate priority should be given to the growing humanitarian emergency which already affects many parts of the country, including Rakhine state where most Rohingya live. Given the security situation, many existing delivery mechanisms are constrained while regime forces are hindering access to badly affected areas.
- Given the constraints, a patchwork approach is needed. This implies looking at each specific area, identifying local actors and establish how they may best be supported. Under the present circumstances, no two areas are the same and solutions must be tailormade. Given their vulnerability, the Rohingya in Rakhine state must be given priority.
- China has led the way in the provision of cross-border assistance, including for Covid-19. Its example should be followed by Myanmar’s other neighbours, Laos, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. The UN has a role to play in uniting them in a joint approach, including the establishment of humanitarian corridors.
- As the dry season approaches, the people of Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, should brace for a resumption of hostilities between the AA and the military.
- For the foreseeable future repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is not an option. Bangladesh should continue to be supported by the international community. But as many Rohingya enter their fifth year as refugees, Bangladesh should be prevailed upon to allow construction of better-quality shelters and the immediate start of accredited, formal education programmes. Barbed-wire fences around the camps should be removed. During recent massive fires and serious flooding, they turned into death traps.