Rohingya refugee children look out from their shanty in Chakmarkul refugee camp in Teknaf on August 26, 2020. (AFP)
Rohingya refugee children look out from their shanty in Chakmarkul refugee camp in Teknaf on August 26, 2020. (AFP)

Bringing the Rohingya home

Rohingya will continue to languish in camps in Bangladesh until there is a change of attitude by key stakeholders, including the Tatmadaw and Dhaka.


It’s been three years since hundreds of thousands of Muslims in northern Rakhine State who identify as Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.

In those three years, not a single one has legally returned to Myanmar, and the COVID-19 outbreak has only added to the uncertainty over when they might.

These refugees are living in densely-crowded camps, where healthcare and education are deteriorating and human rights are violated. They are innocent victims, hostages of clashes between the Tatmadaw and the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

It’s worth reflecting on those now suffering, and how the crisis might be resolved. 

It has long been known that Muslims in northern Rakhine have lived under restrictions that amount to serious violations of their human rights, but the latest refugee crisis began in October 2016, when ARSA attacked Border Guard Police outposts. The attacks left several police dead and caches of weapons missing. In response, the Tatmadaw launched a clearance operation many say involved human rights violations.

ARSA’s October 2016 attacks came six months after the National League for Democracy government took office, and two months after a Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led committee appointed an advisory commission, headed by former United Nations secretary general Mr Kofi Annan, to recommend concrete measures to improve the welfare of all people in Rakhine.

It’s worth questioning the timing of these attacks. Although they may be regarded as a reaction to oppression, it can be concluded that ARSA launched the attacks because it did not accept the NLD government’s decision to seek a resolution based on the recommendations of the advisory committee.

After the first ARSA attacks in October 2016, the armed group and the Tatmadaw prepared for their next moves. The Tatmadaw and government authorities imposed further restrictions on Muslims, which they justified with the growing security threat.

One effect of the restrictions was that Muslim fishers could no longer make a living. ARSA began organising in villages, and if it encountered villagers who did not accept its work or who it suspected of cooperating with government authorities, it killed them as a warning to others.

In the aftermath of the attacks, journalists on a government-organised media trip to northern Rakhine interviewed a Muslim librarian and a Muslim village administrator. Later, ARSA brutally murdered both, considering them collaborators. There were many murders in Muslim villages at the time, but the authorities failed to take effective action against those responsible. Some suspect authorities deliberately tolerated ARSA infiltrating these villages. It is also possible that the Tatmadaw had taken a wait-and-see approach, assuming that if ARSA launched another attack it would respond with enough force to ensure the group was annihilated.

That opportunity came on August 25, 2017, when ARSA launched coordinated attacks on about 30 security posts in northern Rakhine, killing 12 members of the security forces. Dozens of the attackers also died. The Tatmadaw responded with a massive “clearance operation” that it claims killed about 370 ARSA fighters in five days. A UN fact-finding mission reported a death toll that was many times that and included civilians.

ARSA was armed just with swords, daggers, spears and pointed bamboo poles. They knew they could not defeat the well-armed Tatmadaw, backed by the air force and navy. Their intention was not to conquer the security forces but to cause them problems and stir up trouble. As soon as the attack was over, ARSA members fled, mostly slipping across the border into Bangladesh. They exhorted local Muslims to abandon northern Rakhine. Amid a climate of fear and the brutality of the Tatmadaw clearance operation, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled.

As the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh negotiate their repatriation, the refugees have stipulated several conditions without which they refuse to return. First, they want to be recognised as citizens, and to enjoy the freedom of movement that citizens enjoy. They also want the protection of a third-party country or organisation. While these demands remain unmet, the Bangladeshi government continues to exploit the crisis for its own domestic political gain, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the camps, where the Muslim refugees remain stranded.

The Tatmadaw achieved its objective of annihilating ARSA in Rakhine, but it now stands accused of genocide by some members of the international community, who have also imposed targeted sanctions on senior Tatmadaw officers. The hope of ARSA and international Rohingya activists that Muslim refugees live in Myanmar under the guardianship of foreign forces is yet to be realised; all they have to show for their efforts so far is the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have languished in camps for years.

This unfortunate situation has arisen despite the good intentions of the National League for Democracy government headed by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD’s aspiration for diverse ethnic groups  to live in peace in a developed Rakhine State has not materialised. Instead, the government also faces accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice of the United Nations.

The Tatmadaw needs to change its attitude so that the Muslims in refugee camps can return to Rakhine. It needs to accept that these people have the right to live in Myanmar. The government needs to fully implement the recommendations of the Annan commission and it needs to persuade the Tatmadaw to accept the facts. To reduce pressure from the international community over the return of the refugees, the government should seek assistance from Japan, who is willing to help and has good relations with the government, Tatmadaw and western countries.

International activists must understand that their efforts to isolate Myanmar internationally are not helping the refugees. The NLD government is trying to solve the crisis and can help the refugees; impeding their efforts will not help. Moreover, the international focus on Muslim refugees diminishes support for other ethnic groups facing similar abuses. Activists should focus on more practical ways of helping.

The Bangladeshi government also needs to stop exploiting the crisis for the sake of domestic politics and instead implement practical negotiations with Myanmar on repatriation.

Concerted action is needed from all stakeholders if there is to be any chance of resolving the sad plight of the refugees.

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