ON AUGUST 25, the world’s attention turned to marking the plight of more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh two years ago to escape a savage Tatmadaw “clearance operation” in Rakhine State that was launched in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Survivors reaching Bangladesh told of extrajudicial killings – including of children – as well as the rape of women and girls, and the torching of their villages. They joined about 300,000 Rohingya who fled Rakhine after earlier waves of violence.
Since then, the world’s media has mainly focused on the teeming refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh that are home to almost a million refugees, and for good reason. A profound sense of hopelessness prevails among the refugees, who are confined to makeshift huts and dependent on aid handouts. The 500,000 children in the camps see no way to make a life for themselves in Bangladesh, or to one day return home.
Although conditions are dire in Cox’s Bazar, it is critical to remember the plight of the almost 600,000 Rohingya who remained in Rakhine. They have been all but forgotten.
The great majority of them are confined to camps in central Rakhine, or huddled in often partially destroyed villages across the north. They continue to eke out a precarious existence, denied citizenship of the country in which they were born, and denied access to livelihoods, education, health care and freedom of movement.
The Rohingya in northern Rakhine are essentially confined to their villages by a web of laws and local orders. Some require a Village Departure Certificate to move between villages or a “Form 4” to move between townships. They face curfews that have been imposed for the past two years and they live in fear of harassment, beatings or worse from soldiers, the police and militias.
Perhaps most desperate of all are the 128,000 Rohingya – more than half of them children – who have been confined since 2012 in de facto detention camps in Sittwe, Pauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Myebon townships, and in the Aung Mingalar “ghetto” in downtown Sittwe, the state capital. The camps are often subject to flooding, cut off by checkpoints, and controlled by management committees that regulate every aspect of the lives of the Rohingya, who are dependent on aid handouts.
It is impossible to convey the degradation of life in these camps. I have visited them many times, and they are among the worst places to live and to bring up children that I have seen during a long career in humanitarian work around the world. Families are crammed into a single room in a five-family “longhouse”, bordered by endless lines of latrines in a sea of mud.
Children receive a few hours of instruction each day from lightly trained volunteer teachers in basic temporary “learning spaces”. Those needing medical care must wait several days to receive permission and then have to pay for an expensive armed escort to travel to Sittwe General Hospital, where Rohingya are confined in a separate ward with barred windows.
As one displaced child told us: “We are just passing life by. There is no joy in whatever we do. If I think of that my head spins round and round.”
How long does this humiliation have to last? What purpose does it serve? Is it an attempt to break their spirit? To push Rohingya into the hands of people smugglers so they can seek refuge in a foreign country?
Reversing the years of oppression for Rohingya in Rakhine State is vital not only for those still living there, but also for the refugees in Bangladesh. It is impossible to ask anyone to return to a country where they are denied citizenship, security and the basic necessities of life.
The first and most important step for the return of refugees from Bangladesh is not the establishment of reception facilities on the border. It is creating an environment in which all people in Rakhine State can have a reasonable hope of living in dignity.
The only solution is to dismantle the methods and systems of repression in Rakhine State. Abolish the cruel and divisive categories of citizenship based on race and religion, so that all people have an equal right to live, work, study, seek health care and travel.
Tear down the fences, remove the checkpoints and allow people to move freely. Task the police with ensuring security for everyone, so that they are regarded by all communities as genuine guarantors of the peace. Government officials, community and religious leaders must speak the language of tolerance, with clear consequences for those who foment hatred and division. Those responsible for crimes against humanity must also be held to account.
Focus on the real threats, such as the extraordinarily high levels of malnutrition among all communities in Rakhine. Or the barriers that all – but particularly the Rohingya – face in accessing quality education. Plug the gaps in child protection and mental health expertise to address the chronic problems of domestic violence, abuse of children and depression that plague a society riven by conflict. Promote development by allowing the Rohingya to again play a vital role in the Rakhine economy.
Perhaps most importantly, government and military leaders must broaden conceptions of what it means to be from Myanmar. The Rohingya have been excluded from Myanmar society, but they are not alone. Hindus, Muslims and persons of Chinese and South Asian descent across the country have all suffered discrimination for decades.
The gross rights abuses endured by the Rohingya have also been felt by many other communities, including the Rakhine, Kachin, Karen and Shan. The crisis faced by the Rohingya is not unique, but rather emblematic of exclusionary policies that have divided Myanmar for decades. It is up to Myanmar’s leaders to change course and forge a national identity that is respectful and inclusive of its great diversity.
Two years have passed since unspeakable violence swept Rakhine State and it is time to start addressing the root causes of this enduring crisis. A blueprint for action was outlined by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State two years ago, but those recommendations are still mostly unfulfilled. Ending the humiliation and hardship faced by the Rohingya does not need to come at the expense of the welfare of other communities. With goodwill, compassion and respect for the humanity of people regardless of ethnicity or religion, it is possible to envisage a better future all people.