Between Burma and Bangladesh

Sean Gleeson

More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine state in the last three months. At least 40,000 unaccompanied children were among those to cross the border, some presenting with bullet wounds. Nearly 60 per cent of Muslim villages in the north of Rakhine have been partially or wholly burned down. Survivors have accused Burma’s military of indiscriminate murder and sexual violence. The army carried out a devastating crackdown after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in late August.

‘First, they killed my brother,’ one woman told Human Rights Watch, describing an attack by five soldiers the day before her village was burned down. ‘Then they threw me to the side and one man tore my [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me … They were threatening to shoot me.’ Earlier this month the military published an internal investigation into its conduct, exonerating its soldiers of any use of excessive force.

‘It is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,’ the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday. Unlike crimes against humanity and genocide, which Ratko Mladić was found guilty of this week, ethnic cleansing isn’t a crime in international law.

The United States and European Union have demurred on reimposing the economic sanctions lifted during Burma’s transition to quasi-civilian parliamentary democracy. China and Russia have blocked all but the most tepid denunciation from the UN Security Council. The government in Naypyidaw continues to bar entry to a UN fact-finding mission, mandated earlier this year by the Human Rights Council in response to the exodus of 90,000 Rohingya refugees in similar circumstances last October. Domestic public opinion is overwhelmingly behind Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and the military.

Burma and Bangladesh yesterday signed an agreement to begin the ‘repatriation’ of Rohingya refugees in January 2018, though Burma doesn’t recognise their claims to citizenship; according to the official – and popular – consensus, they are illegal immigrants. The state-run media have compared them to ‘human fleas’. A statement from Suu Kyi’s office praising the bilateral deal criticised Western countries and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation for having ‘portrayed the matter as an international issue’.

It has long been axiomatic among Burmese nationalist circles that Muslim countries, led by Gulf nations, are orchestrating a Muslim takeover of Burma by stealth. Suu Kyi’s national security adviser, U Thaung Tun, whose long diplomatic career involved playing down the numerous human rights abuses of Burma’s former military junta, wrote in the Wall Street Journal of a ‘sophisticated campaign designed to discredit and destabilise’ the government.

‘Any forced repatriation at this time puts Rohingyas at risk of further human rights violations and would constitute refoulement,’ according to Sean Bain, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists. Yesterday’s agreement, based on a repatriation deal struck after the violent expulsion of nearly 250,000 Rohingya in 1992, will ostensibly guarantee a safe return for all refugees who wish to go back to their villages. Neither government is in a position to make those guarantees.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who operates independently of civilian authority, has accused humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh of exaggerating the number of refugees who have crossed the border since August. He has also said that any return must be acceptable to the ethnic Rakhine majority; there is eyewitness and video evidence of Rakhine civilians participating in arson attacks on Rohingya villages.

Others in the government have insisted that the refugees must be able to prove their residence in the state, an impossible request after the gradual withdrawal over decades of any official recognition. Win Myat Aye, Burma’s social welfare minister, has mooted the idea of ‘model villages’ to rehouse those whose homes have been burned down. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees slammed the plan: there are already internment camps elsewhere in the state; more than 100,000 Rohingya live in them. There are no schools, and access to healthcare depends on the whim of local administrators.

The agreement does not specify an end date for the proposed resettlement. The immigration minister, Myint Kyaing, said last month that the government only had the capacity to process 300 returnees per day. Under the fanciful assumption that the agreement will be implemented in good faith, with the willing participation of the conflict’s survivors, the armed forces and the people of Rakhine, the last refugee will return home sometime in 2024.


  • 28 November 2017 at 7:44pm
    Anaximander says:
    You're assuming Myanmar is a normal state. It isn't. Myanmar's constitution stipulates that the military have exclusive control over borders, citizenship and residential status. The Prime Mininster has no control over them.
    Thus Aung Sang Soou Kyi is powerless to stop what is, to my mind, actually attempted genocide.

    • 29 November 2017 at 12:01am
      PresiProf says: @ Anaximander
      Yes, but Aung San Suu Kyi is not entirely helpless either, unless holding on to power is all-important. When confronted with such a monstrous situation, surely she could have at least mobilised the enormous amounts of goodwill garnered over the years from the international community. Let public opinion in other parts of the world put pressure on their leaderships to act. Let her political career go up in flames. It's better than her throwing her hands up in the air and doing nothing or, worse still, providing a fig-leaf to the army.

      I know that wise folks will point me in the direction of Realpolitik and encourage me to abandon woolly-headed views. But I would like to remind them that the oppression of the Rohingyas is not a new phenomenon that suddenly cropped in the past few months. It is only that the West has finally taken note--arguably too late to really correct the structure enabling the Rohingyas' marginalization. But look at the difference the sudden spotlight has made, stirring outrage even among people who had until recently probably never heard of the community or the names Rakhine and Myanmar!

    • 3 December 2017 at 10:16am
      Sean Gleeson says: @ Anaximander
      I wrote about Myanmar's dyarchic system of government for the LRB earlier this year:

      It's true that the 18 months or so that Aung San Suu Kyi's party has been in power, even the most cursory attempts to assert civilian control over the military's constitutional roles in defence and local government have been swiftly rebuffed. Whether that renders her powerless is, to my mind, another question.

  • 29 November 2017 at 12:23pm
    mike madha says:
    1. The fact is the concept of land as private property is not static in Myanmar.
    2. Arakan state has not always been part of Myanmar. There were independent kings of Yakhine neh (Arakan State) some of those kings were even Muslims.
    3. There is a saying in Burmese "Kala ma-naing Yakhine Meh" (Can not conquer/control Indians lets bully Yakaine. Thus proving Burmese people historically connsidered Yakine as a different area.
    4. Colonial power arbitarily assigned Arakan as Part of Burma and Burma itself as a Province of India, during parts of Clonial rule.
    5. When boundaries and maps were finally drawn some villages that should have been inside Burma went to East Pakistan now called Bangladesh and vice versa.

    There are still many villages in Bangladesh where majority of people are Buddhist, have Buddhist stupas, and even speak Burmese to this day as their mother language, just as some people inside Burma speak a Bengali dialect but consider themselves as indigenous to the area.

    I am not suggesting that therefore there should perhaps be land swaps between Myanmar and Bengladesh but modern states must accept that one size fits all citizenship does no longer apply. Citizens are of many types, religions and culture and if born in one country they are its citizens, especially if they have been in that area for generations.

    Forceful repatriation without guarrantee of life, liberty and etc etc is not on. Perhaps some border areas should be declared as UN designated areas protected by UN and guaranteed by UN.

    Mike Madha

  • 29 November 2017 at 8:04pm
    rnabi says:
    There is no doubt that the repatriation and resettlement would be the best solution if Myanmar was in favour of it. Neither the Myanmar state nor society has that goodwill. Aung San Suu Kyi wants to apply the concept of democracy and freedom to different people differently. According to her, she is exercising caution in dealing with the issue to reinstate peaceful co-existence of different ethnic groups. She claimed that she restrained from making "incendiary comments" in order not to upset some groups, meaning those who hold the power to force so many people out of the country. Those who are not on the side of the powerful are simply scared to take a side and even to recognize the identity of the Rohingya. For example, during his visit Pope Francis was advised by the local Church authority to avoid the use of the word Rohingya. The government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and so do use the word Rohingya that would recognize them as an ethnic minority. With this position how the government will let the Rohingya return to Rakhine, it remains to be seen.

  • 30 November 2017 at 3:51pm
    vkagarwal says:
    This blog reestablishes what is known from many other news sources but does not go deeper into what's causing(giving rise to,or caused) the current crisis. Clear understanding of the position of each side and the current mess cannot be gained by only partisan and selective statements and photos. 'International Community' normally is neither international nor a community-people always have ulterior motives and vested interests in choosing their words. A stand-back,thorough, and fearless writing alone can clarify the situation for a reader and would be highly appreciated. Otherwise, one is just left with the feeling that bad things are being done by some bad people and someone should do something about it;that's it!

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