The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Rohingya crisis can’t stay Bangladesh’s burden, prime minister says

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NEW YORK — About two years ago, Bangladesh let in some 750,000 Rohingya people fleeing a military-led campaign of ethnic cleansing on the other side of the border. Authorities in Myanmar view the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority, as interlopers and noncitizens — a position largely rejected by the international community. Marooned in squalid camps, the Rohingya in Bangladesh face a hopeless situation. Do they contemplate returning home to a country where their political rights will not be guaranteed and threats of violence remain? Or do they remain in limbo in the camps, eking out a bleak existence in a country that is straining under their presence?

In her speech last week from the dais of the U.N. General Assembly, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the international community must “understand the untenability” of the status quo. Her nation, she added, is dealing with “a crisis which is Myanmar’s own making.”

Hasina is sympathetic to the Rohingya plight. “It’s a big burden for Bangladesh, no doubt about it. But what they faced was almost some kind of genocide,” she told Today’s WorldView at a midtown hotel in Manhattan on Friday, referring to the violence meted out on Rohingya communities in 2017. “Killing, torturing, arson, rape, so many things happened. They were bound to run away from their country for their safety and security.”

Although there have been agreements with Myanmar, also known as Burma, to repatriate small numbers of refugees, the overwhelming majority are too afraid to return. Rohingya rights advocates say the refugees fear returning to a precarious state in Myanmar, where they could be vulnerable to attacks from the sort of pro-government vigilante mobs and military forces who razed their villages and murdered and raped their loved ones.

They demand a guarantee of citizenship from state authorities, something the government of Myanmar is hardly willing to oblige. A citizenship law enacted in 1982 stripped the Rohingya of the same privileges and citizenship rights of other ethnic minority groups in the country. Officials in Myanmar cast the Rohingya as a “Bengali” population and describe the violent campaign in 2017 as a counterterrorism operation against dangerous insurgents in Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.

Others are not so convinced. “The Myanmar government are unaffected and maintain that these were efforts to fight terrorists,” lamented Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the United Nations last week. “This is what we are disappointed with, because we know that what is truly happening is a genocide.”

That’s not exactly hyperbole. A recent U.N.-commissioned report warned that the same violent conditions that provoked the 2017 exodus persist in Rakhine state. “There is a strong inference of genocidal intent on the part of [Myanmar’s government], there is a serious risk that genocidal actions may recur, and Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide,” the report concluded.

On the sidelines of U.N. meetings last week, the top U.S. official for foreign aid, Mark Green, spoke to ABC News about what he saw on a fact-finding trip to western Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh: “I’ll never forget this: A young Rohingya father looked me in the eyes and said, ‘There are no teachers; my kids can’t go to school. We don’t have a mosque, so we can’t worship. I’m not allowed to leave without written permission, which I never get. And the only food I’ve got is what you give me. What do I tell my kids?’ ”

“Myanmar has done nothing to dismantle the system of violence and persecution and the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine live in the same dire circumstances that they did prior to the events of August 2017,” Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, told reporters earlier this month.

The situation in Bangladesh is also grim. Hasina said that what is now her country’s burden could turn into a regional crisis. An increasingly disaffected, jobless refugee population is ripe for radicalization and extremism, she said. “If they stay longer, very easily they can be converted or join” militant groups, Hasina said.

Her government confirmed new measures last week to build barbed-wire fences around Rohingya camps and to patrol their perimeters. Bangladeshi authorities already have cut Internet and cellphone access to the Rohingya and, in some instances, confiscated smartphones and SIM cards from refugees. It also plans to relocate possibly tens of thousands of refugees to large facilities erected on a low-lying silt island off the Bangladeshi coast known as Bhashan Char, which critics fear could be subject to flooding and other natural disasters.

A statement this month from Human Rights Watch warned that such moves “made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement.” The organization earlier this year cited a local journalist who described the operation at Bhashan Char as potentially a kind of “prison.”

Hasina balked at the “talk” from nongovernmental organizations and international agencies and said her government is acting in the interests of the refugees’ “safety and security.” She pointed to reports of girls and young women falling prey to illicit human-trafficking networks that have reached into the ramshackle camps, home to more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.

“Through these mobile phones, they are doing drugs business, arms business, even women and child trafficking,” Hasina said.

The Bangladeshi prime minister says the Rohingya are welcome to stay for now. “They are in my soil,” she said. “What else can we do?”

She said she hopes the international community can apply more pressure on her neighbor. “The problem with Myanmar is that they don’t listen to anybody,” she said. When asked what more can be done to squeeze Myanmar — including a possible arms embargo and tougher sanctions than those already imposed by the United States on the country’s top brass — she demurred.

“I don’t want to fight with anybody. I want a peaceful solution, because they are my next door neighbor,” Hasina told Today’s WorldView. “But if the international community thinks that those kind of sanctions work, then fine, well and good. But I can’t suggest that.”

Hasina indicated that she has discussed the matter with Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader who has presided over the country’s now-stalled democratic transition.

“She blamed the military. She told me that the military doesn’t listen to her that much,” Hasina said, referring to a 2016 conversation at a regional summit hosted in India. Suu Kyi has since followed in lockstep with the country’s military and refuses to even use the word “Rohingya” to describe the ethnic group long persecuted by the central state in Rakhine.

“Now I can see she has changed her position,” Hasina added.

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