Rohingya refugees staged mass demonstrations at camps in southeastern Bangladesh on Thursday to demand the world help repatriate them to Myanmar, as they marked the fifth anniversary of a brutal Burmese military offensive that spurred an unprecedented exodus.
Officials from the United Nations, the United States and other members of the international community also commemorated the occasion by expressing their support for Rohingya, who refer to Aug. 25 as “Genocide Remembrance Day.”
At about two dozen camps in Cox’s Bazar, the district where the refugees are sheltering along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, thousands took part in rallies with the slogan “Hope is Home.”
“We no longer want to be refugees. We want to go back to our homeland,” Mohammed Jubair, secretary general of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), said during a rally at the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, a sub-district in Cox’s Bazar.
“I am requesting the international community to exert more pressure on Myanmar for a safe repatriation.
Rohingya also demanded that those responsible for the bloody crackdown by the Burmese military that started on Aug. 25, 2017, be brought to justice and that those who were expelled be repatriated to Myanmar’s Rakhine state with full dignity and civil rights.
“The world already knows how the Myanmar army killed the Rohingya people. That’s why we cannot forget this day,” said Khin Maung, director of the Rohingya Youth Association, who lives in Cox’s Bazar.
“Now we live in camps. Food, living conditions, nothing is good. We’ve been here for a long time. That’s why we want to return to our villages, to our country, as soon as possible.”
But the prospect of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees returning safely to their villages and townships in their home state of Rakhine has become dimmer because of post-coup bloodshed across Myanmar after Burmese generals seized power last year.
A Rohingya youth who attended the Kutupalong rally said he and others worried about what might await them if they return to their Myanmar homes.
“We want an end to such a refugee life. But the present situation in Myanmar is not safe enough, we want help from the world community,” Abdur Razzak said.
According to one Rohingya human rights activist based in Rakhine, some 600,000 Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh in 2017 have been subjected to stricter repression since the 2021 coup and their movements within the state are even more limited.
“Currently, they are facing many hardships. They are barred from visiting other villages and subjected to religious and ethnic discrimination all the time,” said activist Zarni Soe.
“Now that the AA [Arakan Army] and the Burmese army are fighting again in northern Rakhine state, we might even see worse things coming.”
About 740,000 Rohingya settled in Bangladesh after they fled the Myanmar crackdown, bringing the number of refugees in the camps to about 1 million. The refugee population concentrated in this corner of Bangladesh is the world’s largest.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Myanmar’s junta declined to comment on the anniversary when RFA Burmese contacted him.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, met last week with Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations special envoy to Myanmar, where they discussed repatriation, according to a transcript provided by the foreign ministry.
“The major issue here is we cannot accept the term ‘Rohingya’ which they themselves have claimed while they are not Bangladeshi, but of Bengali race. We will accept the refugees in Bangladesh only after thorough verification process in accord with our existing law, but not through international demands,” the senior general said then.
“We are not saying that we will not take back the Bengalis. We will accept [them] if they can prove that they have resided in the country.”
Heyzer, who later traveled to Bangladesh, issued a statement from there on Thursday where she called on Myanmar “to establish conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return to Myanmar of all refugees and forcibly displaced persons.
“The rights and security of the Rohingya people must be guaranteed and embedded in Myanmar-led solutions toward a peaceful, democratic and inclusive future guided by the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State,” Heyzer said.
After he met with Heyzer in Dhaka, Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s state minister for Disaster Management and Relief, expressed hope that the Rohingya could return to their homes in Rakhine soon.
“We hope that the repatriation will be started in September or October at least on a small scale,” he told reporters.
Addressing a seminar in Dhaka, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen noted that Bangladesh so far had hosted the Rohingya without a single one being repatriated to Myanmar.
Shortly after the exodus began, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials in November 2017 agreed to begin voluntary repatriation three months later – but all attempts since then have failed.
Bangladesh has been facing a prolonged security crisis because of the presence of so many refugees in the southeast, he said, adding that the only solution is the safe, voluntary and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya.
International support for Rohingya
On the eve of the fifth anniversary, foreign ministers and officials representing the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, and the European Union collectively condemned the past and present atrocities allegedly committed by Myanmar’s military.
“Five years ago, the Myanmar military launched a violent attack on Rohingya communities in Rakhine, killing, raping, and torturing thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children,” they said in a joint ministerial statement.
The ministers also expressed concern about the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission’s establishment of “consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses, of which many amount to grave crimes under international law.”
“The same actors that committed these reprehensible actions led the military coup d’état in February 2021, and today continue to perpetrate atrocities against political dissidents and vulnerable populations, including other ethnic and religious minorities across Myanmar, and have done so for decades,” the ministers said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was among those top diplomats offering support for the Rohingya.
“The United States stands in solidarity with the Government of Bangladesh and other Rohingya-hosting governments in the region. As an essential component of an international, comprehensive humanitarian response, we are working to significantly increase resettlement of Rohingya refugees from the region, including from Bangladesh, so that they can rebuild their lives in the United States,” he said in a statement.
Several hundred Rohingya families are in the United States and many have settled in Chicago and Milwaukee, according to reports in U.S. media.
The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington also came out with a statement to mark the anniversary.
“Five years after the genocide, the Rohingya community faces a precarious future,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “Those living within the country face ongoing threats, and those who have fled abroad cannot return until the risk of genocide has abated.
“The U.S. and other governments must redouble their efforts to support Rohingya, hold perpetrators of the genocide accountable, and make sure Rohingya and others can forge a peaceful future in Burma,” she said, using the old name for Myanmar.
The United Nations and United States have labeled the brutal attacks against Rohingya by government forces and militiamen as genocide.
Elsewhere, officials and lawmakers from ASEAN countries called on the Southeast Asian bloc to step up pressure on member-state Myanmar.
“ASEAN has to do more, with a real sense of urgency,” Malaysian Foreign Minister said during an event with Rohingya activists to commemorate the anniversary.
“The international community should not just look at the Rohingya as helpless victims, but as people with their own identities, culture, and dignity, who are resilient and able to determine their future.”
Mercy Barends, the Indonesian representative to the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said Min Aung Hlaing and his allies should be in court and prevented from staying in power.
“They have taken the international failure to act five years ago as a license to illegally grab power from elected officials on Feb. 1, 2021, and commit further atrocities that continue to this very day,” Barends said in a statement.
“It is long past time for ASEAN governments and their partners to take swift and stern action against the perpetrators of the most serious crimes against humanity on the Rohingya people.”
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief who is leaving her post at the end of August and who met with Rohingya during a four-day trip to Bangladesh last week, also marked the anniversary of the start of the exodus into the South Asian nation.
“[T]he yearning for one’s homeland, the desire of so many of the Rohingya to return home resonated deeply with me. Sadly, the conditions needed for them to be able to return to their homes in a voluntary, dignified and sustainable way are not there yet,” she said in a statement on Thursday.
Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah in Kuala Lumpur and RFA Myanmar contributed to this report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.