Myanmar’s government is pushing for the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh to start returning to the country, in an effort to project an image of peace and reconciliation to the outside world. Yet as grim as the situation is for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, where they live in what is now the world’s largest refugee settlement, their prospects back in Myanmar are even worse.
It is little surprise, then, that few if any Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have taken up the offer. This is Myanmar’s second attempt at facilitating the repatriation of Rohingya, after an earlier effort failed last November. Bangladesh’s government, which supports repatriation, has been making life harder for Rohingya refugees in the country. In early September, it shut off mobile internet access in refugee camps, a move condemned by human rights groups because it could make it more difficult to deliver humanitarian services.
The Bangladeshi government desperately wants to close the overcrowded camps, fearing major disease outbreaks, but only if Rohingya refugees leave the country and do not integrate into Bangladeshi society. It fears the refugees’ impacts on the job market and social stability.
Tensions are rising in the area around the massive refugee camps near the city of Cox’s Bazar, just over the border from Myanmar. On Aug. 22, a group of Rohingya refugees allegedly murdered a local Bangladeshi politician; Bangladeshi police officers then killed four Rohingya refugees. As Human Rights Watch noted, the police claimed the Rohingya were killed in “crossfire,” a phrase often used by security forces in Bangladesh in cases of extrajudicial execution. A mob also recently attacked shops frequented by Rohingya, while prominent Bangladeshis are leading a campaign to ring all the camps in barbed wire. Earlier this month, after massive flooding, aid agencies launched one of their biggest emergency responses in the camps.
Yet lost in much of the coverage of the Rohingya’s suffering in Bangladesh is how dire the situation remains in Myanmar. It is so dire, in fact, that more atrocities are possible, two years after alleged crimes against humanity as part of a military crackdown decimated the Rohingya population in western Myanmar’s state of Rakhine.
United Nations investigators have called for Myanmar’s generals to be charged with genocide against the Rohingya, while the European Union and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has begun a pre-inquiry into potential action against senior army officials in Myanmar.
As grim as the situation is for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, their prospects back in Myanmar are even worse.
Amid the focus on aid for desperate refugees inside Bangladesh and accountability for the massacres committed in western Myanmar, there is the looming danger of repeated violence, as highlighted by a new report released last week by a United Nations fact-finding mission to Myanmar. Investigators noted that the Rohingya remaining in the state of Rakhine, who number less than half the population that lived there some five years ago, are still at “serious risk of genocide.” The government in Myanmar, they added, “continues to harbor genocidal intent.”
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, said the government “has done nothing to dismantle the system of violence and persecution, and the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine live in the same dire circumstances that they did prior to the events of August 2017.” The head of the fact-finding mission, Marzuki Darusman, added his own harsh assessment: “Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide,” he said in a statement.
There are multiple reasons why another genocide is possible in Rakhine. Myanmar’s military has in recent months launched a new major offensive in the state, with some of the same units that committed atrocities two years ago. Although they are mainly targeting a Buddhist insurgent group, the Arakan Army, security forces are still committing abuses against Rohingya civilians.
In addition, the armed forces have punished few perpetrators of the previous violence, sending the message that attacks, rapes and murders of Rohingya—and of other civilians—in Rakhine is tolerated at the highest levels. Meanwhile, a campaign of ethnic cleansing has continued. The authorities have razed areas where many Rohingya had lived, in order to make way for government or commercial buildings, or resettlement by Buddhists. Myanmar’s government has steadfastly refused to offer Rohingya legal protections like a real pathway to citizenship.
The civilian leader in Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi, has also done nothing to prevent another genocide. In a new book, former British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that as far back as 2013, the then-pro-democracy advocate reportedly told him that the Rohingya were in fact Bangladeshis, implying that they did not belong in Myanmar. Members of the U.N. fact-finding mission said that civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, should be held accountable for abuses against the Rohingya. The acknowledgment that the civilian government was abetting war crimes has raised the possibility that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate could eventually face charges of crimes against humanity.
In the run-up to next year’s general elections in Myanmar, there is little reason to think that Aung San Suu Kyi will shift and do anything to help restrain the armed forces. Just the opposite. She probably will want to look as strong as possible on the campaign trail, where her party may face off against current army commander Min Aung Hlaing, who could run for president. He is currently traveling around Myanmar in what appears to be preparation for a political campaign, publicly urging goodwill toward Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
Yet many voters have little sympathy for the Rohingya, including Buddhist Bamars who make up the ethnic majority of Myanmar, and who will know Min Aung Hlaing as a military commander who battled not only the Rohingya but also multiple ethnic insurgent groups in other corners of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi will not want to look weak in comparison to him. It is another reason why the situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar could still get much worse.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.