On 25 August 2016, violence dramatically escalated in northern Arakan/Rakhine State, after insurgents staged a major coordinated attack against security forces outposts. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the offensive, in order to “liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes”.
The ensuing military clearance operations killed hundreds of people and forced over 507,000 civilians from all communities to flee their homes. Independent reports documented that “operations” mostly involved the Tatmadaw indiscriminately burning Rohingya villages and opening fire on their residents, with some instances of villagers joining the militants to fight the security forces. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein declared “[t]his turn of events is deplorable. It was predicted and could have been prevented”. He noted that “decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016 [see Escalation of violence], have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing”. The latest wave of deadly violence in Arakan State did not happen overnight. Independent accounts, including a flash report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) on 3 February 2017, showed that, since 9 October 2016, the Tatmadaw has targeted Rohingya with “unprecedented” violence. Burmese authorities, including military Commander-in-Chief Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, have repeatedly denied the accusations of human rights violations [see Government “terrorist” narrative].
The outbreak of violence took place just hours after the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – also known as Annan Commission – released its final report, jeopardizing the implementation of its recommendations. The Annan Commission – inaugurated on 5 September 2016 at the behest of Aung San Suu Kyi and chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – was mandated with providing recommendations to secure peace and prosperity in Arakan State. Its final report, which did not name the Rohingya at Aung San Suu Kyi’s request, urged Burma to eliminate all restrictions on the people’s ability to gain citizenship, move freely and participate in politics.
Refugee and humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh
The military “clearance operations” prompted a new exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. On 31 August, UN sources estimated that more than 27,000 people had crossed the border, while 20,000 more remained stuck in an unoccupied area between the two countries. On 3 September, the estimated number of new arrivals was 73,000, while on 8 September it was over 270,000. The most recent report on 3 October put the figure at 507,000, but high mobility has been making it impossible for aid agencies to verify these numbers.
This added to the pre-existing displaced population, estimated at around 164,000 by the ISCG – chaired by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Among these, nearly 34,000 long-term displaced Rohingya were officially registered as refugees at Kutupalong and Leda camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and approximately 87,000 arrived as a result of the clearance operations that followed the 9 October 2016 attacks in Maungdaw Township.
About 100 Rohingya, including women and children, were known to have drowned between 25 August and 14 September in boat disasters that occurred as refugees tried to cross the border during the monsoon period. On 28 September, another boat capsized in rough waters. The bodies of 23 people were retrieved, but 40 others were missing and presumed drowned. Many were likely to be children too weak for the strong currents. The latest incident occurred on 8 October, when a boat sank in the Naf River with nearly 100 people on board. At least 12 died, including 10 children.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that vast majority of refugees were women and families with children, in poor condition, exhausted, hungry and desperate for shelter. The surge of refugees, many sick or wounded, strained the resources of aid agencies and communities. More than half of the refugees now live in squalid conditions, crammed into makeshift sites composed of plastic sheets, lacking clean drinking water and sanitation. The hazardous conditions were intensified by some of the worst monsoon floods in recent years. Emergency Coordinator at Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) Robert Onus said the scale of the crisis was “…impossible to describe unless you see it with your own eyes”.
The Bangladesh government sought help to deal with the influx. PM Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh wanted refugees to return home and called for Burma to allow their safe repatriation. She offered to create “safe zones” for Rohingya in Arakan State, but rights groups warned that safety could not be ensured and segregation could only worsen the conflict. On 2 October, Bangladesh and Burma announced that a joint working group would discuss the repatriation of refugees. On 4 October, Amnesty International (AI) said that it is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that refugees are not forced back to Burma as long as they remain at risk of human rights violations.
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