Four years on, no end in sight to the plight of the Rohingya
In the wee hours of August 25, 2017, a group of militants—the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—attacked around 30 police posts in the north of Rakhine State, Myanmar. According to media reports, 10 police personnel, an immigration officer, one soldier and 59 militants were among the casualties. The militants were said to be equipped with knives and homespun bombs.
What followed was a brutal bloodbath unleashed by the Myanmar military—also known as the Tatmadaw—in the name of counter-insurgency operations. Rakhine State, home to about a million Rohingya Muslims, was turned upside down by the Tatmadaw—going village to village, door to door, exacting revenge on the Rohingya. Villages were razed to the ground. People were burnt in their own homes. Men were killed in scores; women and girls were gang-raped by the Myanmar military—in many instances, multiple times—their private parts intentionally mutilated, their bodies and souls bearing the scars of sexual violence; infants and children were shot, burned with their parents, and at times left out in the open for scavengers to feast on.
According to an estimate by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—popularly known as Doctors Without Borders—at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of that ethnic cleansing operation. MSF itself called the number "an underestimation." The atrocities of the Tatmadaw led to the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, including around half a million children, who took on the desperate journey to cross to the other side of the Naf river into Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar.
It was later noted in a UN fact-finding panel report that the atrocious military offensive in Rakhine State was orchestrated with "genocidal intent".
According to a report published by Thailand-based rights group Fortify Rights, the Tatmadaw attack on the Rohingya community had been premeditated. Titled "They Gave Them Long Swords: Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar", the report traced and documented how between October 2016 and August 2017, in preparation for the ethnic cleansing operation, the Myanmar authorities, "Systematically 'disarmed' Rohingya civilians, confiscating household items that might be used as weapons or in self-defence. Systematically tore down fencing and other structures around Rohingya homes, providing the military with a greater line-of-sight on civilians. Trained and armed local non-Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine State. Suspended humanitarian aid and access to Rohingya, systematically weakening the civilian population and removing monitors on the ground. Enforced a discriminatory Muslim-only curfew in northern Rakhine State and evacuated thousands of non-Rohingya citizens from the area. Built up an unusually sizeable military presence, incommensurate with the threats at hand."
The world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya fled for their lives in the face of the vicious Tatmadaw crackdown. While today marks the fourth year of the latest Rohingya displacement, it is certainly not the first instance that this has happened.
The predominantly Buddhist Myanmar has historically harboured an exclusionary attitude towards the Rohingya, which has been reflected in their 1948 citizenship law, and especially in the policies adopted during and after the rule of General Ne Win, who grabbed power in 1962. General Ne Win, in various phases, systematically excluded the Rohingya Muslim minorities, initially excluding from citizenship those people whose ancestors had entered the country after 1823. Then, the 1974 constitution recognised 134 "national races"—this did not include the Rohingya, who were treated as a non-indigenous minority. Later, the Burma citizenship law of 1982 stated that only children of the "national races" will be considered full citizens of the country, thus excluding the Rohingya further.
Over the decades, there have been frequent spikes in attacks on the Rohingya, which have led to multiple episodes of displacement, specifically in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012-2013, 2016 and again from 2017 onwards. Yet, little has been done to ensure safe living conditions in their native land. A generally accepted etymological notion of the word Rohingya is that "Rohang" comes from the word "Arakan" and "gya" means "from", in the Rohingya dialect. The irony is, these people terming themselves as "from Arakan" are barely allowed to live in their own lands.
It is not that the world did not react to these atrocities committed against the Rohingya. There have been multiple UNGA resolutions condemning these human rights abuses, and there have also been instances when sanctions were imposed on the Myanmar junta by countries and blocs. Unfortunately, none of these seem to have played any role in stopping the ethnic persecution of the Rohingya.
The 2017 Rohingya displacement created multiple layers of pressure on host countries, including Bangladesh, which is now sheltering more than 1.2 million refugees. It takes the Bangladesh economy an estimated USD 1.21 billion every year to support Rohingya refugees, as mentioned in an article by The Diplomat.
According to a report published recently by a local news outlet citing an official from the Office of the Refugee Realief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), around 30,438 infants are born in the Rohingya camps each year. And in the face of waning donor support, Bangladesh is grappling to support the refugees, especially in the backdrop of the ongoing global pandemic. In 2017, against an appeal of USD 434 million, the world community pledged USD 344 million as part of a six-month response plan; in 2018, it was USD 656 million against an appeal of USD 951 million. In 2019, the figure fell to USD 635 million. The worst was yet to come. In 2020, against a request for USD 1,058 million, the donors only pledged USD 509.95 million till October 2020. Till May this year, only USD 340 million has been pledged against a request of USD 1,000 million—just north of a third of the requirement.
The living conditions in the Rohingya camps are also growing worse by the day. Sanitation, hygiene and health have become major concerns, especially in the wake of faecal contamination of the land and water, which has led to an increased risk of water-borne diseases.
Due to deforestation of more than 6,800 acres of forest land where the Rohingya have been sheltered in squalid camps, the refugees remain exposed to the risk of landslides and mudslides during monsoon. As recently as July this year, the Bangladesh authorities had to evacuate around 10,000 Rohingya due to lethal landslides.
Now unable to accommodate the growing number of Rohingya refugees in cramped camps, the Bangladesh government has been left with no choice but to relocate around 100,000 of them to the remote island of Bhashan Char. While the long-term habitability of Bhashan Char is questionable and is being doubted by the international community and humanitarian agencies, what other choice does Bangladesh have now?
With international funding declining drastically and living conditions in Cox's Bazar worsening, Bangladesh is almost left on its own to support these persecuted refugees. Despite the pandemic and the myriad challenges faced by the people of this nation, the Bangladesh government allocated Tk 202 crore in the last budget as part of social safety net programmes for refugees.
While during the time of Aung San Suu Kyi there was a small ray of hope that a safe repatriation of the Rohingya would be possible in the medium to long-run, that has been smothered after the military coup in Myanmar.
With no end in sight to the protracted stay and struggles of the Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh is doing its best to provide for them, even while the international community is failing them in both enabling safe repatriation and supporting them with livelihoods. Right now, relocation of the Rohingya to Bhashan Char looks like the most feasible option that Bangladesh can offer. The international community should support Bangladesh in making Bhashan Char more liveable and safe for the Rohingya, or provide the country with more funding so that it can arrange better accommodation for them. Complaining and pointing out flaws is not going to help any of the parties involved, not least the refugees. Until the international community is able to ensure that the Rohingya will be protected in their homeland from the Myanmar military regime's brutal crackdowns, the least they can do is support Bangladesh in providing for them.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb