Wednesday marks the two-month anniversary of attacks in Burma, carried out by a small band of Rohingya militants, that triggered a massive and indiscriminate retaliation from the Burmese military and the exodus of most of the Muslim minority ethnic group from the country.
Some 604,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, where they have joined more than 300,000 who fled in earlier waves of ethnic violence over the past three decades. With thousands still crossing the border each day, the total number of Rohingya refugees is expected to cross the 1 million mark in the coming days or weeks.
Roughly half a million Rohingya are thought to still be in Burma, where many live in camps for displaced people. Human rights organizations have documented the wholesale incineration of Rohingya villages across three townships (akin to counties) of Burma's Rakhine State, where the majority of Rohingya once lived. In interviews in Bangladesh refugee camps and over the phone while still in Burma, Rohingya have offered searing testimony of extensive crimes against humanity carried out by the Burmese military.
Journalists and aid agencies have been largely prevented from accessing areas where Rohingya once predominated in Rakhine. On Wednesday, Reuters reported a new version of a story that has been repeated numerous times over the past two months: Aid workers were hounded away from a camp for displaced Rohingya by people from the local Buddhist majority.
“The simple fact here is that lifesaving aid is being blocked from reaching vulnerable people who desperately need it, including children and the elderly,” Pierre Peron, spokesman for the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Burma, told Reuters.
While the Burmese military campaign has subsided, food shortages and widespread hostility are prompting remaining Rohingya to leave for Bangladesh.
Buddhists in Rakhine are suspicious of foreigners and accuse them of aiding and abetting a Rohingya insurgency. The United Nations has called the Burmese military's campaign in Rakhine a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and numerous world leaders, including U.S. senators, have termed it genocide.
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department announced that it was weighing targeted sanctions and that it was rescinding military-to-military engagements between the United States and Burma, also known as Myanmar.
“The government of Burma, including its armed forces, must take immediate action to ensure peace and security; implement commitments to ensure humanitarian access to communities in desperate need; facilitate the safe and voluntary return of those who have fled or been displaced in Rakhine State; and address the root causes of systematic discrimination against the Rohingya,” the State Department said in a statement issued Monday night. The Trump administration has stopped short of concurring with the United Nations in calling the crisis an ethnic cleansing.
On Tuesday, Bangladesh and Burma reached an agreement to “form a working committee” that would seek ways to facilitate the return of some Rohingya to Burma. The Burmese government has warned in the past that it will only allow those Rohingya with proof of land ownership in Burma to return — documents that most Rohingya do not have, or lost in the chaos of the crackdown.
With hundreds of Rohingya villages reduced to ashes, the question of where Rohingya would live once they returned looms large. With aid being blocked to camps in Burma, and Buddhists across Burma unified in their antipathy toward the Rohingya, the sprawling tent cities in Bangladesh may seem to many the better option. In the 1990s, the Bangladeshi government resorted to forced repatriation for Rohingya refugees, but there are no indications they would do that again.
Reports in Burmese state media seem to indicate that the Burmese government plans on appropriating land vacated by the Rohingya and may even harvest unattended crops.
Most of the 604,000 new arrivals in Bangladesh are children, thousands of whom are unaccompanied. Many are acutely malnourished.
On Monday, at an international conference in Geneva, international donors pledged around $340 million to the United Nations-led response. The U.N. had asked for about $100 million more than that. Doctors Without Borders has called the camps in Bangladesh a “time bomb ticking toward a full-blown health crisis” as sanitation and medical services and distribution of clean water have struggled to keep up with refugee arrivals.
Bangladesh is already the world's most densely populated large country. It is also one of the poorest. The government and civil society have nevertheless provided a massive amount of aid. The long-term viability of the camps in Bangladesh relies on continued international support, however, and the presence of nearly 1 million penniless refugees in southeastern Bangladesh is straining what was already very underdeveloped public services such as roads and hospitals.