Now is not the time to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar

Now is not the time to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar

Recent days have brought a new flurry of international diplomatic activity intended to help ease the plight of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are a deeply impoverished and marginalized Muslim community that has suffered horrifying acts of repression and violence in Myanmar. In recent months, several hundred thousand of them have taken refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, where many others were already based.

Over the final days of April, senior UN diplomats traveled to both Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss how to ensure the safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees to the latter. Though Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal several months ago to repatriate 750,000 of them, none have yet returned. For the officials trying to orchestrate this delicate operation, time is of the essence because of the coming monsoon season, which could complicate relocations.

In reality, monsoon or no monsoon, sending the Rohingya back anytime soon would be a terrible idea. They certainly don’t have it easy in Bangladesh, where most of them are toiling away in overcrowded refugee camps. Still, they are much better off there than they would be in Myanmar. Simply put, there is little reason to believe the Myanmar armed forces will rein in their repressive behavior toward the Rohingya.

In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment runs deep, with sizable pockets of society harboring nasty views toward Islam. For some casual observers, the notion of Buddhist extremism may seem far-fetched — but it’s very real. For example, several key religious figures in the country espouse sickeningly bigoted views toward Muslims. Take Ashin Wirathu, a prominent monk who has been described as a “Buddhist Bin Laden.” He once said he wants his fellow monks “to feel gross” about Muslims, “like they feel gross about human excrement.”

Given this societal backdrop, it’s easy to understand why Myanmar’s military has continued to crack down, harshly and relentlessly, against the country’s most vulnerable community.

The international community must give the Rohingya the dignity they deserve — wherever they may be.

Michael Kugelman

The Rohingya, like many marginalized groups, are frequently scapegoated. The Myanmar military justifies its crackdown with the need to combat a small Rohingya-led militant group, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which in recent months has launched a series of attacks on local military and police facilities in Rakhine State to avenge the Myanmar security forces’ repressive acts. Most Rohingya have little to do with this group. However, the military, undaunted and perhaps galvanized by occasional media reports in Asia suggesting that Islamist terror groups are trying to recruit from the Rohingya community, pushes on with its scorched-earth tactics.

Additionally, even though she recently hosted senior UN diplomats for talks about the Rohingya, there is little reason to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who now serves in the powerful role of State Counsellor, will do much to help the Rohingya. To this point, she has largely refused to champion their cause. In some ways, her seemingly callous position, which has tarnished her global image, isn’t surprising. Suu Kyi is a democracy activist, not a crusader for the underclass. She made her name by taking on authoritarianism, not by taking up the cause of those living on society’s margins. Furthermore, she is unlikely to go out of her way to assist a deeply disenfranchised constituency that in Myanmar generates more scorn than sympathy. The sad and sobering reality is that Suu Kyi’s failure to embrace the Rohingya is a prudent political move in Myanmar.

However, even if Suu Kyi, motivated by a desire to repair her shattered global image, were to change her position and come to the Rohingya’s side, she would likely have limited success in making their lives less miserable. In Myanmar, the military, not civilians, have the final say on policy matters. Ultimately, Suu Kyi’s hands are tied.

The fact that the Rohingya — long overlooked and ignored by the international community — are garnering so much global attention and sympathy is a good thing. To that end, the active involvement of the UN to help improve their plight is a welcome development.

However, it’s important that the international community gets its priorities straight when it comes to the Rohingya. Trying to facilitate repatriations amounts to a fool’s errand. This isn’t the time to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar. Instead, the focus should be on providing more support to Rohingya refugees wherever they are now — whether in Bangladesh or in the many other countries where this nomadic-by-necessity community has sought refuge, from India to Indonesia and many places in between.

We live in an era of donor fatigue, with humanitarian appeals often falling on deaf ears; and yet the world is clearly captivated and moved by the perilous plight of the Rohingya. Now is the time to redouble efforts to ensure that they receive the food, shelter and, above all, the dignity that they deserve — wherever they may be.


  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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