Restless Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh are protesting over ‘a denial of human rights’, with tightened security to prevent them leaving, worsening sanitation and poor food quality. Meanwhile, their country of origin, Myanmar, is suffering renewed clashes in the borderlands from Rakhine and Shan militias. Nicholas Nugent reports
The Rohingya, a people long persecuted in their homeland of Myanmar, now complain of conditions and their ‘lack of a say’ in the camps around Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, to where they were forced to flee. Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee encampment, and adjacent camps house close to a million Rohingya refugees. Some have been living there since 1991 and know no other home, while the majority – around 750,000 – arrived in August 2017 after a particularly vicious and bloody wave of persecution they blame on Myanmar’s army and police.
Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has never accepted Muslim Rohingyas as citizens of a country which is predominantly Buddhist. Yet Bangladesh refuses to grant the immigrants formal refugee status, fearing it would give them a right to remain permanently. Its government refers to the Rohingya as ‘forcibly deported migrants’. Eighteen months ago Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed a programme of repatriation but, fearing renewed persecution, no Rohingya volunteered to return.
Their statelessness in Bangladesh means the Rohingya may not marry or seek employment outside the camps, while children have been denied education beyond primary level. This latter restriction was recently relaxed to allow education up to age 13, but Rohingya parents complain there are no qualified teachers, so even for teenagers the level of education is very rudimentary. University education is completely off bounds. One bright student who managed to evade the restrictions and get a place at a Bangladesh university was expelled when the authorities discovered she was a Rohingya.
A generation of young Rohingya is therefore growing up with no chance of anything beyond basic work, let alone an opportunity to enjoy life outside the confines of an overcrowded and tightly regimented camp. There are no Rohingya doctors or nurses, only Bangladeshi and foreign health workers, and Rohingya teachers can pass on only very elementary learning. The Bangladesh government insists teaching should follow the Myanmar system. Mohammad, a refugee now in his twenties, says the education he received in the camp was ‘simply terrible, lacking in resources and not curriculum based’.
While the UN refugee agency and dozens of voluntary agencies ensure the refugees are fed and receive basic healthcare, they are powerless to push back on Bangladeshi rules about education and employment in the camps, which fall under the control of the Bangladesh army. Now the system of discipline under camp leaders who report to army officers is breaking down, with no enforcement against criminal activity, including trafficking of women and drugs and the forging of nationality documents. Some refugees believe the Bangladesh army may be conniving in these activities.
Recently there was what was described as a ‘hunger strike’, a protest against the adequacy and quality of food. Mohammad also complains about sanitation – he worries that an epidemic could break out – and says a new electric fence is limiting the refugees’ movement. ‘Firstly they abandoned our internet system to prevent us communicating internationally,’ he says.‘Secondly they fenced us in, adding strong security so that refugees cannot go outside the camp.’
Nonetheless, refugees are appreciative that Bangladesh has granted them shelter and security from the ever present threat of violence in their Rakhine State homeland. Metun, one of the 2017 arrivals, told Al Jazeera: ‘Compared to Myanmar, Bangladesh still feels like paradise,’ though he added, ‘But the conditions here are inhumane.’
Across the River Naf, which marks the frontier with Myanmar, the situation is no better. The depleted community of Rohingya citizens in Rakhine State, most of them farmers, continues to be treated with suspicion or worse by Myanmar’s army, which has seized the land vacated by those fleeing the country. In January the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in a preliminary ruling on a case brought against the Myanmar government on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), ordered Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to take urgent action to prevent genocide of the Rohingyas, saying they remain ‘extremely vulnerable’ and the country had already caused ‘irreparable damage’ to their rights.
While a final ruling on whether the government had committed genocide is awaited, the court’s provisional instruction says Myanmar must ensure its military does not commit, conspire or attempt to commit genocide. But the court has no means of enforcing its order. In December Aung San Suu Kyi told the ICJ they should leave it to the country’s judicial system to discipline any soldiers who had used disproportionate force. Recently the government re-imposed an internet ban, which makes it harder for the UN and journalists to monitor what is happening.
Myanmar’s government is also facing another problem in Rakhine State, which in pre-colonial days was the independent kingdom of Arakan. An ethnically-based militia known as the Arakan Army, who have long demanded greater autonomy in their state, have taken control of part of Myanmar’s border with China. Fighting in alliance with ethnic armies from the Shan State as the ‘Brotherhood Alliance’, they claim to have killed several members of the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, since an upsurge in fighting last year.
The government is concerned about lawlessness along its border with China, Myanmar’s main trading partner. Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Myanmar and China plan to create a trading corridor running from China through Rakhine State to the deep-water port of Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal, a quicker way for China to bring oil to its southern state of Yunnan, cutting out a long sea journey through the Malacca Straits and South China Sea. Myanmar sees the corridor as a way of developing its peripheral regions, which have never been fully under central government control, and of boosting trade with China.
For the corridor to proceed, the Tatmadaw would have to defeat the Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies – or else reach agreement with them. Myanmar’s leadership regards the issue of Rohingya persecution as of more concern to foreigners than to Myanmar citizens. However, the strength of its economy depends on maintaining control of its border with China.