Updated at 11:40 a.m. ET on 2020-08-26
Rohingya Muslim refugees on Tuesday quietly marked the third anniversary of a military crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of them from Myanmar into Bangladesh, with no prospects of repatriation or accountability on the horizon.
A Rohingya leader at the largest refugee settlement in the world, Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh, said coronavirus contagion fears had prevented the community from gathering to mark the date.
“This year we silently observed Aug. 25 [as] Rohingya genocide day. We have not held any meeting or rally due to the coronavirus. But we are adamant about realizing our demand – restoration of our civil rights, freedom and the trial of the people who killed us and tortured us,” Kutupalong camp leader Mohammad Nur told BenarNews.
“Bangladesh is not our country. Myanmar is our country. We faced huge torture in our country. Despite the risk of being tortured, we want to go back to our country. But we will go with our rights as citizens,” he said.
More than 740,000 members of the minority group sought shelter across the border in southeastern Bangladesh as they fled from the crackdown that began in late August 2017. Myanmar’s military launched its brutal offensive in the wake of deadly attacks carried out on police and army posts by Rohingya insurgents.
On Tuesday, a senior Bangladesh official urged the international community to remain invested in solving the crisis, saying the South Asian country could not definitely bear the burden of hosting the hundreds of thousands of refugees.
“This crisis has been negatively affecting our environment, ecology, tourism and economy,” Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of the ruling Awami League party, told journalists in Dhaka.
“How can Bangladesh bear the burden of an additional 1.1 million people? I urge the attention of the U.N. and the international community in this regard,” he said.
Rakhine state repatriation efforts
In 2019, some 200,000 Rohingya gathered at the Kutupalong camp for a special prayer seeking peace in Rakhine state so they could return. One year later, repatriation efforts remain stalled. More than 1 million Rohingya live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and neighboring Bandarban district.
Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said Bangladesh officials were willing to help the Rohingya leave the overcrowded Bangladesh camps, but their counterparts in Myanmar needed to step up.
“We tried twice to start the repatriation, but the Rohingya did not agree to leave because they did not think the situation in Rakhine was favorable for their return. So Myanmar must create an enabling atmosphere in Rakhine where they can feel secure,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Momen said 2020 had brought new delays.
“The discussion on Rohingya repatriation was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Momen said. “Now they (Myanmar officials) want to delay the negotiation until after their upcoming general elections in November.”
A Myanmar official agreed that the pandemic has slowed the process.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have some limitations in our efforts, but the relevant government departments keep working on what they have to do,” said Thurein Tun, deputy director general of the Relief and Resettlement Department.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government has repeatedly voiced its intent to move about 100,000 refugees to a flood-prone island hours from the mainland, to reduce crowding in the camps, but the controversial plan has never been carried out.
In May, authorities towed a boat carrying about 300 Rohingya to the island, known as Bhashan Char. The boat was adrift after being denied entry to Malaysia. To date, those Rohingya are the only residents of the island; some rights groups say they are essentially prisoners there.
Global support for Rohingya
The anniversary this year drew words of support for the refugees in Bangladesh and around the world.
“We have been giving the Rohingya support to allow them to stay here peacefully, but our ultimate goal is their sustainable return,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) blamed the Myanmar government for its failure to ensure the Rohingya’s safe return while noting that Bangladesh authorities had tightened restrictions against the refugees.
“Myanmar’s government should recognize that the terrible suffering it has caused the Rohingya won’t disappear even amid a global pandemic,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “Myanmar needs to accept an international solution that provides for the safe, voluntary return of Rohingya refugees, while an understandably stretched Bangladesh should not make conditions inhospitable for refugees who have nowhere to go.”
In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators called on the Trump administration to support the Rohingya as well as declare the crimes committed against them “genocide.”
“We urge you and President Trump to speak out forcefully and publicly about these atrocities, acknowledging the gravity of the crimes with a determination of crimes against humanity and genocide,” Sens. Jeff Merkley, Marco Rubio, Edward J. Markey, Todd Young, Dick Durbin, Susan Collins, Elizabeth Warren, Ben Cardin and Ron Wyden said in a Tuesday letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
“A genocide determination would properly recognize the scale and severity of atrocities committed against the Rohingya, open the door to additional actions to hold Burmese leadership responsible for their inexcusable behavior, help to prevent further atrocities in an environment of ongoing high risk, and galvanize international aid and attention at a time of donor fatigue,” their joint statement said.
Speaking at a webinar in Dhaka on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Earl M. Miller, pointed out that the U.S. was the world’s leading contributor to humanitarian aid for the Rohingya, providing more than $951 million over the last three years.
“When you visit the Rohingya camps, one can be heartbroken by the inhumanity in Burma that caused this crisis. But one can also be inspired by Bangladesh’s response and the nations that support you,” Miller said, referring to Myanmar by its old name.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, called on Myanmar to address the barriers keeping the Rohingya from their homes, and praised Bangladesh for its commitment to the refugees.
“Three years on from the latest exodus of Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar and sought sanctuary in Bangladesh from August 2017 onward, challenges persist and continue to evolve,” the UNHCR said in a statement on Aug. 21.
Favorable court actions
Earlier this year, two international courts took action in favor of the Rohingya and against the Myanmar government.
In February, the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s office, based at The Hague, announced it was gathering evidence against people suspected of committing crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar.
“Yes, it is three years since the crimes were committed, but justice will be done. It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years,” senior prosecutor Phakiso Mochochoko told reporters in Dhaka in February. “The beauty of our international criminal court is it is a permanent international institution.”
The announcement came just weeks after the U.N.’s International Court of Justice in January issued a binding order that Myanmar must prevent the killing or serious injury of Rohingya; ensure that the military does not harm them or conspire to commit genocide; preserve evidence related to allegations; and report on its compliance with the measures until the ICJ issues a final decision on the case.
Addressing the court in December, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the genocide case against her country was based on an incomplete and misleading grasp of the situation and should be rejected.
“Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers that are accused of wrongdoing?” she said, referring to two cases in which Myanmar investigated atrocities by soldiers.
Another U.N. body – the United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar – issued a statement on Tuesday to offer its support for Rohingya as they seek justice.
“We are aware that for each day that passes without justice or accountability, the suffering continues for those displaced from their homes and for those who lost loved ones or were themselves victimized,” said Nicholas Koumjian, who leads the Myanmar Mechanism. “Justice for international crimes is a complex and often slow process and we do not want to raise expectations that it will be easily or quickly achieved.”
Koumjian said his organization was working to save evidence against those responsible for crimes so they will be held accountable.
“We have heard the voices of many victims and survivors expressing how important justice is to them and we are aware that for most, any real justice would include the ability to return to and live safely and peacefully in their homes.”
This updated version adds information and comment from the Myanmar government.