Myanmar: scant signs of progress for displaced Rohingya

Abby Seiff

On 26 September 2019, 30 Rohingya Muslims were arrested in the south of Myanmar while travelling from Rakhine State to Yangon, where they planned to seek work or passage abroad. Local media reported that the 21 adults were sentenced to two years in prison with labour and the eight teenagers sent to a ‘youth training school’. The 30th member of the group, aged five, is currently being detained with his mother. Their crime? Travelling without permission.

Such detentions are hardly rare in Myanmar. The colonial-era Residents of Burma Registration Act 1949 is used in conjunction with more recent laws that deny the ethnic Muslim minority citizenship along with the most basic of human rights, such as the right to travel freely. The 1982 Citizenship Law stripped the Rohingya of citizenship, failing to classify them among 135 legally recognised ethnic groups.

Such persecution has recently become more acute. In August 2017, a military-led crackdown began after an armed Rohingya group launched a coordinated attack on more than 30 police posts, killing 12 members of the security forces. Those attacks came after months of mounting violence and years of sporadic sectarian clashes; they were met with a scorched-earth style military response.

Apart from the hundreds of villages burned to the ground, Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed by violence in Rakhine State between 25 August – 24 September 2017.

According to a report by a panel of UN investigators, released in August 2019, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw – its armed forces – were involved in the majority of acts of sexual violence recorded against Rohingya women and girls in 2017. The report’s authors claim the sexual violence showed the military’s ‘genocidal intent.’ Myanmar has denied these allegations.

The Myanmar government has shown itself unable, if not outright unwilling, to protect these communities and ensure their ability to live free from violence

Federica D’Alessandra
Co-Chair, IBA War Crimes Committee

Some 740,000 Rohingya fled the violence into neighbouring Bangladesh. Of the estimated half a million Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine State, more than 100,000 are in bleak, resourceless, internally displaced persons camps. The rest live in what amounts to an open-air prison – with no right to move freely, obtain work, attend school or receive healthcare.

In total, approximately one million Rohingya now live in and around the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, near the Myanmar border in Bangladesh. Their lives are interminably on hold.

The situation in the camps is far from sustainable. The refugee camps are densely packed and located in an environmentally fraught area. Landslides and flooding are common, along with public health emergencies, such as cholera and diphtheria outbreaks. Sexual violence occurs frequently and schooling is restricted. Tension has been mounting amid the sense that there is little end in sight, with the Bangladesh capital Dhaka last month blocking internet access in the camps and ordering barbed wire and guard towers.

Since July 2019, Myanmar has restarted talks with Bangladesh on repatriating the Rohingya population. While Myanmar claims to have verified some 3,500 people for return, no refugees have agreed to do so.

The Myanmar government’s actions suggest it has little true desire for the Rohingya to return. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute analysed satellite images and found at least 40 per cent of Rohingya villages had been razed, with some of the land giving way to camps and military facilities.

‘The government of Myanmar may have offered to repatriate the Rohingya, but there is widespread consensus among international observers that conditions have not been put in place for their safe and sustainable return,’ says Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA War Crimes Committee and Executive Director of the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.

‘Entire villages and their livelihoods have been destroyed, families torn apart,’ says D’Alessandra. ‘Returning at this stage would relegate hundreds of thousands of people to dependence on international humanitarian aid. This is not sustainable at best and, in its worst iteration, the wilful impediment of such consignments or its adverse administration could lead Rohingya communities to starve.’

Further, the Myanmar government has been adamant that it will not budge on the question of citizenship, instead promoting a National Verification Card (NVC) scheme to refugees. The scheme has come under fire as a means of erasing identity. In a report issued in September 2019, human rights organisation Fortify Rights claimed that the Myanmar government has ‘forced or coerced Rohingya to accept NVCs, which effectively identify Rohingya as “foreigners”’.

Nearly 100 per cent of the people Fortify Rights interviewed reported feeling pressure to accept such documentation and a similar number of respondents said their movement and ability to work had been restricted while in Myanmar.

One Rohingya interviewee told researchers in August that he will only go back to Myanmar if ‘three of our demands are met – they give us our citizenship as a Rohingya; they give us compensation for all the destruction they have caused; and complete security of life is ensured for us.’

Yet, two years on from the military crackdown and despite the reports of a recently concluded 30-month UN independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar, Yangon’s military investigation has yet to charge any high-ranking Tatmadaw commanders. The Myanmar government has also been dismissive of the International Criminal Court, which has opened a preliminary investigation of the crimes against the Rohingya.

‘To this date, the Myanmar government has shown itself unable, if not outright unwilling, to protect these communities and ensure their ability to live free from violence, and they have not provided evidence that things will be different once refugees return,’ says D’Alessandra. ‘There has not been a reckoning of the atrocities that have been perpetrated again on them and other ethnic minorities to date, nor have guarantees of non-repetition been put in place.’