As we observe yet another World Refugee Day, we are dismayed by the lack of action from world leaders in response to the Myanmar military’s campaign of terror against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Over just two months in 2017, more than 700,000 people were forced to take refuge along the border of Bangladesh, in what is among the largest refugee exoduses of our time. They joined 300,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh who had escaped previous waves of violence and the hundreds of thousands of other ethnic and religious minorities either internally displaced in the conflict-ravaged borderlands of Myanmar or living in refugee camps along the Thai border.
This clear pattern of abuse is not confined to Rakhine state but shifts depending on the military target. It continues unabated despite international calls for an investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his top military leaders for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The huge number of displaced civilians from Myanmar is testament to an ongoing cycle of violence and abuse that has devastated ethnic minority areas throughout Myanmar for decades. Eastern Myanmar saw nearly a million people from Karen, Mon, Karenni and Shan states forcibly displaced from their homes between 1995 and 2005. Shan state alone saw more than 300,000 uprooted during the Myanmar military’s scorched earth campaign from 1996-1998, which left over 100,000 refugees in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. In Kachin state, more than 100,000 have fled homes since the resumption of war in 2011. More recently, Rakhine state has seen a new wave of displacement with at least 40,000 people unable to return home due to ongoing conflict.
Incredulously, despite the recent surge in armed conflict and displacements, momentum seems to be building for these refugees and internally displaced people to return. Myanmar’s government wants to close camps in Kachin, Shan, Karen and Rakhine state, while donors are reducing funding to camps in Thailand, placing pressure on refugees to return without assurances of safety. Rohingya refugees, meanwhile, have played no part in the deal to repatriate them forged between UN agencies, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In a country where the Myanmar military is still launching huge offensives and committing the worst of human rights violations, where landmines still lie scattered across rural ethnic areas, and where unscrupulous investors are grabbing ethnic minorities’ land on an unprecedented scale via a dubious new Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, what conditions will Myanmar’s displaced communities be thrust back into?
While prospects for their voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return remain uncertain, their refuge in camps is also precarious. A proposal has also been made to relocate over 100,000 of the Rohingya to Bhashan Char, a storm-prone island of silt in the Bay of Bengal. The plan should not go ahead without a full independent technical and humanitarian assessment of whether the island is suitable for relocation.
Many Rohingya want to return home if conditions there are conducive to return, including restoration of their citizenship rights. This plan for island relocation threatens that prospect.
It is clear, though, that any solution must come from Myanmar’s government itself. Nay Pyi taw, however, seems more focused on shielding itself from its obligations to ensure the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya, whether through the establishment of the Independent Commission of Enquiry, which does not appear to seek to secure accountability or to address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis, or through unwillingness to cooperate with international accountability mechanisms.
With each cycle of violence a new generation of refugees learns that the circle of displacement will continue so long as the Myanmar military remains above the law and unaccountable. Empty promises without the necessary actions and a holistic approach that includes trust-building and reparations on the part of the Myanmar government will not convince people to go back. Nay Pyi Taw has failed to guarantee the Rohingya’s safety, freedom of movement, return to original land with property rights, or citizenship.
Solutions seem far away, backed by very little political will from either the Myanmar military or the National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The international community must step into this void, take responsibility and do all in its power to end the violence against minorities, hold perpetrators to account and support the victims to seek justice and reparation. Delaying action will only further embolden the Myanmar military to act with impunity, ensuring future atrocities and hindering the democratic transition in Myanmar. The situation calls for the International Criminal Court or other independent global body to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Action must be taken without further delay.
If the international community is committed to supporting Myanmar’s transition to democracy and sustainable peace, the voluntary, safe and dignified return of IDPs and refugees must be its priority. This would mean talking to the displaced populations, listening to their perspectives, and ensuring that all decisions on their future reflect their needs. Now is not the time to withdraw but to continue supporting them until conditions for their safe and dignified return home are met.
Khin Ohmar is a Myanmar democracy and human rights activist involved in organising the 8888 pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya, a human rights and peace advocate and a former political prisoner from Myanmar.
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