If Myanmar's pattern of inaction toward addressing widespread violence and discrimination against its Rohingya Muslim minority continues, the United Nations may soon have to “ring the alarm bell,” said Christine Schraner-Burgener, United Nations envoy for Myanmar, on Monday. She added that there has been little progress in bringing the Rohingya crisis in the conflict-ridden nation to an end over the last two years.
The height of crisis took place in August 2017, after a Rohingya rebel group executed an attack on police posts and a military base. In response, the military began a “clearance campaign” in Rakhine state, which it called a counter-terrorism effort. The violence led hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek emergency refuge in Bangladesh, where they now live in refugee camps.
“A key step to democratic consolidation in Myanmar will be ending the vicious cycle of discrimination and violence, especially in Rakhine. This will remain my highest priority,” Schraner-Burgener said.
She highlighted various challenges, including drug production, lack of development, human trafficking, conflict involving 20 armed rebel groups, and 70 years of isolation under harsh military dictatorship. Schraner-Burgener said she believes these factors are preventing improvement in the country and hindering progress in returning the Rohingya safely to their homes.
“The only viable solution for the refugees is the safe, voluntary, dignified repatriation to Myanmar, and the key responsibility for creating conducive conditions in Rakhine lies with Myanmar,” the UN envoy for Myanmar said.
The Rohingya, whose roots in Myanmar can be traced back centuries, are one of the ethnic groups living in the northern state of Rakhine. The Rohingya have long been outcasts in Burmese society, considered by many to be “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh despite their long history within the country.
They have been prohibited from obtaining citizenship since 1982, and are denied many basic rights, including freedom of movement, which grants the ability to travel freely within the country or return to the country after traveling abroad. Many Rohingya have been restricted to camps and designated areas, and lack access to health care, education, and employment opportunities.
The Rohingya are a religious minority — with most identifying as Muslim — within the predominantly Buddhist country, which also adds to the communal tension.
During the height of the conflict, the military were accused of horrific and violent crimes, including rape, murder, and destroying villages. Though the military denies these actions, which the UN called “genocide,” it has been condemned for its violation of human rights by the international community.
Though no longer possessing ruling power over the country, the military still holds significant influence in Myanmar, making it difficult for civilian leaders to regain control of the situation
To establish the conditions that will enable the Rohingya to return home, Schraner-Burgener said the first step must be a ceasefire in a new conflict between the military and the Arakan army, a rebel group formed by Rakhine’s Buddhist ethnic minority that is fighting to establish an autonomous state. The violence has caused the displacement of 30,000 Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar since the beginning of this year, and both sides have been accused of major human rights abuses against innocent civilians.
“This is having a devastating impact on all local communities caught in the crossfire, independent of their religious or ethnic background,” she said.
Highlighting the positive steps that are in the works, the UN ambassador for Myanmar, Hau Do Suan, revealed that the government has approved the repatriation of 13,000 Rohingya from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh and will send representatives to explain the process to the refugees. Schraner-Burgener also announced that the Myanmar government has developed a plan to close Rohingya camps, but emphasized that there must be a larger push to provide them the rights and opportunities of which they have long been deprived.
But, without this combination of international efforts and cooperation within Myanmar, it is unlikely that there will be any real change. This, Schraner-Burgener said, will be the worst outcome.
“It will be a great tragedy to look back in 10 years and realize that we failed a generation of refugees by falling short of doing everything in our collective power to provide them opportunities and hope,” she added.