Myanmar
Displaced Rohingya face a life without prospects

Attitudes towards Rohingya people in Myanmar have shifted, due in part to the civil war. But this does nothing to alleviate their misery. By Rodion Ebbighausen

Five years ago, Myanmar's army launched what it called "clearance operations" against the Muslim-minority Rohingya people in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh. Civilians were murdered, girls and women were raped and entire villages razed to the ground. About 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where most remain to this day in refugee camps.

Myanmar's armed forces said the campaign was in response to attacks mounted several days earlier on police stations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant resistance group. The UN and human rights organisations judged the retaliation as disproportionate. The army is accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide. Currently, a case against Myanmar for violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is pending before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Decades of discrimination

The Rohingya are not recognised by Myanmar as a distinct ethnic group and have been subject to discrimination and demonisation for decades. Many lack citizenship rights and cannot move around freely, send their children to school or access medical care. Presently, over one million Rohingya live in Bangladesh, and some 300,000 to 400,000 live in other foreign countries.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Bachelet visiting a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh in mid-August 2022 (photo: AFP)
Michelle Bachelet, UN human rights envoy until the end of August, during her visit to the Cox's Bazar refugee camp of the Rohingya in Bangladesh in mid-August 2022. She only mentioned the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar once, saying that this must "always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist"

But about 400,000 Rohingya still live in Myanmar, mostly in camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. This is where most of the Rohingya in the country lived before being driven out. But the dominant population in the state is made up of the Arakanese, a Buddhist ethnic group, who have been in conflict with the central government and military for decades.

Though most Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, many others in the country regard them as illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They also accuse them of having too many children or marrying Buddhist women, thereby threatening the country's Buddhist traditions. This is unlikely to happen given that 87% of the population is Buddhist.

It was influential nationalist monks who spread the myth of a Muslim takeover in incendiary sermons and on social media ahead of 2017. Studies have shown that the smear campaign caught on because anti-Rohingya prejudice and systematic discrimination had been widespread for decades.

Changing attitudes?

However, attitudes towards the Rohingya have changed since the coup in February 2021 and the army's jailing of Aung San Suu Kyi and the brutal crackdown on protests. Now that the army has targeted the majority ethnic Bamar population, there is also a certain form of solidarity, particularly among Generation Z.

Young activists, some of whom have turned their back on the policies of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), are fighting the military and demanding "justice for the Rohingyas" – whatever that may actually mean.

Poster in Yangoon with photo montage of Suu Kyi with Myanmar's generals in front of ICJ building in November 2018 (photo: AFP)
Aung San Suu Kyi and the accusation of genocide: a poster in Myanmar's capital Yangon shows a photo montage of Suu Kyi with Myanmar's generals in front of the International Court of Justice building in The Hague. In 2019, Myanmar was accused of genocide against the Rohingya. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi rejected this accusation at the time, backing Myanmar's generals. However, as Myanmar's representative, she acknowledged, "It cannot be ruled out that in some cases excessive force was used by members of the armed forces in contravention of international humanitarian law." Any violations would be dealt with and punished by courts in Myanmar, she said at the time. A dubious statement, especially since in the only case heard at the time, a pardon was granted to the perpetrators a short time later

The National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government that was formed in exile after the coup, issued a statement regarding its Rohingya policy in June 2021 and reiterated its position in March 2022: "The policy commits to the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons, and to comprehensive legislative and policy reform in support of citizenship, equality in rights and opportunity, and justice and reparations". The NUG also appointed Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya, human rights adviser. He recently spoke about the situation in Myanmar.

Currying favour with the West?

It is difficult to say with certainty how genuine or far-reaching this solidarity with the Rohingya actually is. And as the NUG has hardly any real political power in Myanmar, its statement currently amounts to little more than a declaration of intent.

What is clear is that the NUG's main priority is its fight against the military. Since it is still counting on the support of the West, which so far has been very restrained and has only provided humanitarian assistance, its new-found solidarity with the Rohingya might be motivated by its own interests. After all, the U.S. and European governments are very concerned about the human rights of Myanmar's Rohingya. Thus, the NUG is accommodating the Western position even though some of its members rejected it before 2021.

Comprised largely of members of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party, the NUG finds itself in a dilemma over this matter. In 2019, Suu Kyi, who was State Counsellor of Myanmar at the time, went to the International Court of Justice to defend Myanmar against accusations of genocide. By doing so, she was effectively protecting the military, with the backing of many of her supporters.

Graphic showing Myanmar and Bangladesh (source: DW)
Between Myanmar and Bangladesh: the Rohingya are not recognised by Myanmar as a distinct ethnic group and have been subject to discrimination and demonisation for decades. Many lack citizenship rights and cannot move around freely, send their children to school or access medical care. Presently, over one million Rohingya live in Bangladesh, and some 300,000 to 400,000 live in other foreign countries. But about 400,000 Rohingya still live in Myanmar, mostly in camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. This is where most of the Rohingya in the country lived before being driven out

If her stance on the Rohingya is now called into question, it means that she was either mistaken or instrumentalised by the military. Both ideas are hard to stomach for many people who revere Suu Kyi like a saint. In fact, such suggestions could even lead her supporters to oppose the NUG.

There are no surveys or empirical studies on how people in Myanmar view the Rohingya. It is, therefore, unclear whether broad swathes of the population have changed their mind about this ethnic minority since the 2021 coup, given the decades of discrimination preceding it.

Repatriation impossible

What is certain is that under the current circumstances, the Rohingya refugees stranded in Bangladesh cannot yet be repatriated.

During a visit in early August, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet only mentioned the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar once. She said that this must "always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist".

For his part, Aung Kyaw Moe said that not much had improved in Rakhine State and "the situation is almost the same as in 2017". Speaking on the "Myanmar in a PodShell" podcast, Myanmar analyst Tony Waters seemed to agree and predicted that "repatriation to Rakhine is not going to happen, that is self-evident for everybody who follows Myanmar". 

Meanwhile, Myanmar's civil war rages on and its economy lies in ruin. In Rakhine State, the ceasefire between the Arakan Army and Myanmar's armed forces is increasingly fragile. If hostilities resume, the Rohingya could well once again find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Rodion Ebbighausen

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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