In fall of 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to avoid persecution in Myanmar precipitating an historic migration crisis. After the UN and the international community warned that the Myanmar military offensive against the Rohingya was tantamount to ethnic cleansing, Myanmar reached an agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees over a period of two years beginning January 23, 2018.
Even after this agreement, there is still a concern that the repressive regime in Myanmar has not changed its view of the Rohingya and that persecution of them will resume. Human rights groups have condemned the violence as a crime against humanity, and the UN has described the exodus as a “human rights nightmare.” The UN Security Council must act and invoke sanctions against Myanmar if it fails to protect the Rohingya people upon their return.
The Muslim Rohingya are one of 135 ethnic groups in the predominately Buddhist Myanmar. Prior to the migration, approximately one million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State, on the western coast of Myanmar, where they accounted for about one-third of the population. The Rohingya are different in ethnic origin and language as well as religion. Since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has refuted claims and refused to recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group. The International Crisis Group summarizes the situation in Rakhine State as a “toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict…and extreme poverty and under-development.” Buddhist nationalists have prevented the Rohingya from securing the right to vote and anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Myanmar inhibits the government from taking steps to counter the nationalists. Essentially, the Rohingya are disenfranchised, stateless, and poor and are living in Myanmar’s least developed state with a poverty rate of 78 percent.
Rooted in this quagmire of human despair, the Rohingya exodus in August 2017 was precipitated when a militant faction of Rohingya known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. Declaring ARSA a terrorist organization, the Myanmar government’s response was brutal. In the first month after the attacks, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed and among them 730 were children under the age of five. Migrating to Bangladesh was problematic; the Rohingya arrived destitute and traumatized. The settlement camps were squalid. Under pressure from the UN and NGOs, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement in late November 2017. In the joint memorandum of understanding, Myanmar agreed that there would be no limit on the number of Rohingya allowed to return and that there would be no legal consequences for those Rohingya who wanted to return unless they had been involved with terrorists. The agreement, however, covers only those Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh after the August 2017 incident and not the many who had migrated to Bangladesh prior to that event and who had suffered persecution and discrimination in the prior years.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed that repatriation will be voluntary but the Rohingya wanted their safety assured and the discrimination against them to stop. While Myanmar has begun to build transit camps for the returning Rohingya, none of the conditions that would assure their protection are in place. A UN spokesperson from the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the crisis. However, Myanmar and Bangladesh have not consulted the UNHCR on the agreement even though it calls for the significant involvement of the UNHCR in its execution. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UNHCR have expressed their concern about forcible repatriation of the Rohingya, and Guterres cautioned that reconciliation is needed for the proper implementation of the agreement. Myanmar responded that it needed preventive measures against Rohingya attacks and prepared a list of 1,000 alleged militants. In short, despite UN urgings to Myanmar to address grievances of the Rohingya, there has been no reconciliation.
Myanmar must be held accountable by the UN. As a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is obligated to recognize “the inherent dignity” to all human beings, including the Rohingya, and to secure their “right to life, liberty, and security.” As the guardian of the 1951 Refugee Convention protocol, the UNHCR must assure that Myanmar follows the core principle of non-refoulement for returning Rohingya. The UNHCR can take a leading role with international human rights organizations to protect the returning Rohingya. In December 2017, Human Rights Watch and eighty other NGOs urged the UN Security Council to take prompt, concerted and effective international action against Myanmar. Noting that prior “words of condemnation” by the Council had not resulted in an end to abuses or had not held those responsible to account, the NGOs endorsed an arms embargo against the Myanmar military, sanctions on senior officers for crimes against humanity, and financial sanctions on those who ordered criminal acts in the line of command. Finally, their appeal urged the Security Council to turn to the international courts if necessary to assure accountability.