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The Rohingya Crisis, Two Years After : Impasses and Deadlocks
By Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
Two years since 700 000 refugees fled from Rakhine State, Myanmar to Bangladesh, the various issues surrounding this issue are in a state of deadlock.
1) The third repatriation attempt is taking place, but once again the issues of citizenship and the recognition of Rohingya as a national race have not been resolved by the Myanmar authorities. It is likely that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future.
2) The Chinese and Russian are blocking action against Myanmar in the UN Security Council.
3) The Myanmar military maintains that its operations in Rakhine State in August 2017 were legitimate. Myanmar civilian officials have repeatedly denied that security forces committed abuses during the operations.
4) The Myanmar government has prioritized economic development in Rakhine State to resolve the many issues plaguing the region. Nevertheless, given the multiple domains of conflict in Rakhine State, achieving sustainable development and peace in Rakhine State will be an arduous feat.
25th August marks two years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, referred to as Bengali in Myanmar, fled from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The triggering incident was the attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a non-state armed group claiming to defend the rights of the Rohingya, on police and army posts in northwest Rakhine State. Consequently, the Myanmar military launched “clearance operations” to eliminate militants. In the process, it is estimated that thousands of Rohingya were killed, and entire villages were burnt down.1 In just three months, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in search of sanctuary.
This article provides a summary of what has happened in the two years since the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. It shows that for the issues of refugee camp conditions, repatriation, justice and resolution, the various actors are at an impasse. According to UNHCR figures provided on 15 August 2019, 743,016 people have arrived from Rakhine State, Myanmar, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in the last two years. This brings the total number of refugees in Cox’s Bazar to 912 852, the majority of whom identify as Rohingya.2 Of these, more than half are children (55 per cent of the population). Women and girls make up 52 per cent of the residents and there are 210 488 families in the 35 campsand sites.
Despite the Bangladeshi government having provided more land for refugee camps, overcrowding has been identified by the agencies working in Cox’s Bazar as the central challenge for providing services and for improving living conditions. First, the lack of space increases the risk of landslides and floods, which in turn cause displacement and deaths. This is particularly so during monsoons and cyclones. Second, agencies are finding it difficult to create access roads for the more remote parts of camps. This restricts their capacity to provide adequate services to residents. Third, there is a lack of open spaces and shade for recreation and community-based activities.
Fourth, it has been reported that incidents of violence and tension have been exacerbated by the congestion in the camps. Finally, the lack of space has also limited opportunities for education and training. Consequently, many children attend informal education for only two hours a day to allow for multiple shifts. The figures show that 16 per cent of children between 3-14 years old, and 81 per cent of young people between 15-24 have no access to education at all. Besides overcrowding, there is a shortfall in the total funding required. The 2018 Joint Response Plan for assisting camp residents was funded at 69 per cent. In July 2019, only a third of the US$920 million requested for the year has been received.
At present, the third attempt to repatriate the refugees is under way. A list of more than 3000 Rohingya refugees has been confirmed by the Myanmar government as eligible to return. However, several refugees have reported not having been consulted, informed or even willing to return to Rakhine State.7 This renewed repatriation endeavour comes after a Myanmar government delegation began repatriation talks with Rohingya leaders in one of the camps in late July. At these talks, the Rohingya reiterated that they would not return unless they were granted citizenship and recognized as Rohingya. The first repatriation attempt began in November 2017 with Myanmar and Bangladesh signing an agreement to repatriate the refugees as soon as possible. The first batch of Rohingya was slated to return at the end of January 2018 but this was postponed by the Bangladesh government amidst concerns about the procedures and the unwillingness of the refugees to return.
In June 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme, and the Myanmar government signed a memorandum of understanding on return which lacked guarantees of citizenship. This led to a second attempt at repatriation in mid- November 2018 which fell through because the Rohingya were unwilling to return without guarantees of citizenship and housing. The challenges surrounding repatriation are multi-factorial. First, the Rohingya are only willing to return to Myanmar if they are provided citizenship and are recognized as a national race of Myanmar. At this point, it is pertinent to point out that these are two separate issues.
It is commonly claimed that the law in Myanmar denies the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring nationality in Myanmar. In actual fact, they are not de jure but de facto stateless. Their statelessness has been created through the “gradual degradation” of their documented status and the inconsistent and erratic implementation of the 1982 Citizenship Law. With regards to the recognition of Rohingya as a national race in Myanmar, that is a much more difficult issue to overcome. Myanmar has a list of 135 national races that recognizes members of these races as natural citizens. However, there are several differing versions of this list and none is considered official in law. Besides citizenship, the concept of national races has implications for political representation and territorial claims.
The 2008 Constitution states that there is a constitutional threshold that gives a population minority representation in the state and regional parliaments. Thus, if the Rohingya were to obtain official recognition as a national race, they would have the possibility of gaining representation in the country’s political structure and the possibility of acquiring special autonomous status. Given the climate surrounding Muslim and Rohingya presence in sMyanmar, there would be great opposition to this becoming a reality.##