Editor’s Note: Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press). The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In the past month, over 400,000 people have fled from Myanmar over the border to Bangladesh. They are Rohingya, part of a mainly Muslim ethnic minority group of approximately 1 million people in the western Rakhine State of the majority Buddhist country.
At the current rate of outflow, which has slowed only because of monsoon rains, the majority of the Rohingya population could be removed from Myanmar with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous – the very definition of ethnic cleansing – before the end of 2017.
So, the international community is gearing up for military intervention, like they did in Bosnia and Kosovo on the 90s, right? Wrong. This is the age of Donald Trump and Brexit. The age of Bashar al-Assad, of Putin, of Rodrigo Duterte, of the European migrant crisis, the age of the great unraveling of the western world, and its values of universal human rights and common international responsibility.
As we speak, reports suggest the Myanmar army is continuing its military operations against “insurgent militants” in Rakhine State. Testimonials from refugees confirm that this involves burning down Rohingya villages, killing women and children – convincing those fleeing that it will never be safe to return to the country of their birth – and trying to leverage China against any objections from western political leaders.
The UN is going to do nothing. Various UN humanitarian agencies have been at the forefront of trying to help the Rohingya for the past few years as they have struggled with several successive waves of violence from their Buddhist neighbors and several of Myanmar’s federal security bodies. And the agencies, along with a significant number of leading NGOs, are at the forefront of trying to organize and maintain the overwhelmed refugee camps that await the Rohingya over the border in Bangladesh. But humanitarian bodies cannot fight national armies.
For that, the UN Security Council needs to agree on joint actions. All that they have agreed on so far is to express “concern.”
Senior UN officials I have spoken with echo this numb response: There is no appetite to do anything about this at the level of UN security bodies. Nor will Trump’s America, or the weakened and divided Europe, do anything about it of their own initiative. Though the US has pledged 32 million dollars to deal with the fallout many would interpret that as guilt money as they renege on their responsibility to tackle the actual cause.
This is a humanitarian disaster that could be stopped at the drop of a hat if any major power on the international stage had the moral courage to take charge of the issue and threaten Myanmar with penalties and sanctions if they continue down this road of engineering the worst refugee crisis for decades.
But that is not the world we live in anymore. This seems like a done deal. And every one of those who could make the choice to stop it seem content to just stare down the clock until the affair is finished.
Unwanted in Bangladesh
So, what is next for the Rohingya? It seems unlikely that they will ever be able to return to Myanmar. All their homes, their towns and villages, their markets and businesses, their places of worship have been burned to the ground in an organized and systemic campaign. Just in case there was any room for doubt, the Myanmar Army are alleged to have laid mines at the border with Bangladesh to ensure no one can cross that border back into Myanmar.
But at least conditions in Bangladesh will be much safer for the Rohingya, no? Well, nobody is actively trying to kill them in Bangladesh. At least not yet. Though the food shortages and healthcare deficits in the refugee camps will be doing some killing of their own.
But it does not look like in Bangladesh the Rohingya will have found a new home either. The government of Bangladesh is building new refugee camps designed to keep the Rohingya separate from their own population and seem to hope, against hope, that the Rohingya might one day be returned to Myanmar. This is also why the government of Bangladesh is resisting, as much as it possibly can, giving refugee status to the new arrivals.
The Rohingya thus find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to the one they fled in Myanmar: At the mercy of a government who is refusing to give them the legal status and recognition owed to them according to international law, marginalized from the wider population, and unwanted by all around them. To them, that will sound like the beginning of a familiar story.