One day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally labeled the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing,” representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar announced they had inked a preliminary agreement negotiating the possible repatriation of the displaced, persecuted, Rohingya population back to Myanmar. Amnesty International called the news “unthinkable” for a country that has not yet addressed the atrocities committed against this minority population, let alone the system that has oppressed them for decades.
Since August 25, when a small insurgent group of Rohingya Muslims attacked border guards in Myanmar, the Buddhist Myanmarese military has engaged in a brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority population. Some 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state for Bangladesh since August. They carry with them stories of unfathomable brutality: Whole villages have been burned, men, women and children have been killed, and women report they have been subject to systematic gang rape at the hands of uniformed soldiers.
Much of the world has looked to Myanmar’s civilian leader, the Nobel prize-winner and celebrated democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, hoping she would influence her military to stop the random, brutalizing attacks. She has failed to do so.
Tillerson’s words were a long-awaited acknowledgement by the Trump administration of the real impact of the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian disaster. (The United Nations high commissioner on human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has been using the term for months.) Yet even when Tillerson met with Suu Kyi on November 15, he notably skirted the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” which carries with it a responsibility for the United States to address the problem more robustly. Finally saying it on Wednesday meant the administration may be mulling imposing sanctions on the Myanmar military and government.
But the preliminary agreement to begin the process of returning the refugees comes as a surprise to human rights watchers. Given the destruction of Rohingya villages, it is not clear what the Rohingya will be returning to even if the systemized discrimination of and violence against the Rohingya had been properly addressed. And it has not been.
Back in September, I spoke to Paolo Lubrano, an Oxfam worker in Cox’s Bazar, a town on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border where the majority of refugees have settled. “We are hearing really horrendous stories of people who have survived by the skin of their teeth,” Lubrano told me by Skype. Lubrano described “dire violence” and a huge number of very young, and very traumatized, Rohingya refugees. Among those fleeing Myanmar, he added, are many pregnant women who have been walking for three, four, or even five days to find safety.
On November 16 the world learned that many of those women have been fleeing gang rape. “Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a statement on Human Rights Watch’s website.
Human rights groups aren’t celebrating the idea of returning refugees.
That’s in part why human rights groups met the news of potentially repatriating these refugees with horror, rather than encouragement. “While precise details of this deal have not yet been revealed, talk of returns is clearly premature at a time when Rohingya refugees continue to trickle into Bangladesh on an almost daily basis as they flee ethnic cleansing in Myanmar,” Amnesty International’s Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights Charmain Mohamed said in a statement emailed to journalists on Thursday afternoon.
“There can be no safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar while a system of apartheid remains in the country, and thousands are held there in conditions that amount to concentration camps.
“Returns in the current climate,” he added. “are simply unthinkable.”
Mohamed’s reference to concentration camps wasn’t an idle one: The crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017 may have been the most brutal attack on this minority population, but Myanmar’s Buddhist military has consistently attacked the Rohingya for years.
As I wrote back in September, many reports on Rohingya persecution and marginalization begin with Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law, which stripped the country’s 1 million Rohingya of citizenship, leaving them without access to health care or education. Waves of violence soon followed.
In Myanmar, even the word “Rohingya” itself is taboo: The country’s leaders do not use it, and some have asked the international community not to use the name. The Rohingya are not included among the 135 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the state.
A 2013 Harvard Divinity School study concluded: “Today, the Rohingya face discrimination in areas of education, employment, public health, housing, religious activity, movement, and family life.” That includes a mandatory two-child limit per Rohingya household — a restriction that is only applied to the Rohingya. They also suffer from onerous restrictions on freedom of movement and the freedom to marry. Rohingya must request the right to marry from the government, a requirement also not imposed on other groups.
In late May 2012, four Muslim men gang-raped and killed a Buddhist woman. That horrific crime became a spark for mass violence between the two religious groups and a brutal government crackdown on the Rohingya. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report found that around 125,000 Rohingya, and some local non-Muslims, had been forced to flee their homes for squalid refugee camps in Rakhine state. Children had been hacked to death. Many thousands of homes were burned. The report’s authors concluded the violence amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
In retrospect, the crackdown was a dark harbinger of the military attacks that would take place in 2016, and then again over these past few months.
In 2014, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof visited Myanmar and walked through refugee camps still crammed full with Rohingya. The Times posted a brutal video, narrated by Kristof, titled “21st Century Concentration Camps.” The people he met there had no freedom of movement and little to no access to health care. Their existence hung by a thread. It’s very hard to watch.
That same year, Fortify Rights, a human rights advocacy group based in Southeast Asia, published a report that detailed the problem further. “This report,” they wrote, “provides evidence that protracted human rights violations against Rohingya result from official state policies and could amount to the crime against humanity of persecution.”
Then in early 2015, researchers from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide visited Myanmar on a fact-finding mission. They reported on the “human rights violations [that] have put this population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide.”
“We saw firsthand the Rohingya’s physical segregation, which has resulted in a modern form of apartheid, and the devastating impact that official policies of persecution are having on them,” the resulting report from the museum explained. “We left Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place.”
But 2017 has been the most brutal year yet.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Tillerson finally acknowledged the breadth of the problem.
He noted the attack on the border guards in August but said “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued. These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh. After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in Northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”