International efforts have done nothing to ease the suffering of refugees two years after a vicious military campaign
Though quiet diplomacy by the international community including Asean and the United Nations is ongoing, there remain no signs of peace and reconciliation in strife-torn Rakhine state.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees began his five-day visit to Myanmar on Monday, the first trip to the country by a UNHCR chief since August 2017. Filippo Grandi will spend his first two days in Rakhine, visiting communities in the capital Sittwe and other northern townships and meeting with state and district officials there. Later in the week, Grandi is scheduled to meet senior government officials in the national capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
Early this month, US State Department Under Secretary of Political Affairs, David Hale, visited Myanmar to discuss the Rakhine crisis with the leadership Nay Pyi Taw. Hale told journalists in Bangkok before leaving for Myanmar that he would press for full access to Rakhine for the international community, including media.
Earlier this year Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Thailand, as the current chair of Asean, was working quietly to solve the problem. His shuttle diplomacy between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the past months was aimed to ensure the safe return of refugees and to improve the situation in Rakhine, he said.
More than 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees currently live in crowded settlements in Cox’s Bazar, of whom an estimated 741,000 fled when the military launched operations in mid-2017.
However, the roots of conflict in Rakhine go far deeper than the exodus of recent years. History, ethnic and religious differences, and the attitudes of Myanmar’s rulers have contributed to the problem while also preventing permanent solutions.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan seemed to have made a breakthrough when his fact-finding mission offered up a raft of proposals to tackle the crisis at its roots. But his promising remedy was immediately – and perhaps deliberately – shot down by violence that erupted in August 2017. The so-called “clearance operation” conducted by the Myanmar military was marked by atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya, who fled over the border to Bangladesh camps in their hundreds of thousands. The military operation prevented de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi from implementing Annan’s recommendations. She appointed Surakiart Sathirathai to head a committee to advise on the implementation, but the former Thai foreign minister achieved nothing but to hand another pile of paper to Suu Kyi, triggering accusations of a whitewash.
With the global community led by the UN demanding that Myanmar’s military leadership face international justice for ethnic cleansing and suspected genocide, Suu Kyi set up another committee, headed by Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo, to investigate the atrocities. As yet, no findings have been delivered.
As the root causes of the crisis go unaddressed, Bangladesh is calling for repatriation of nearly one million refugees on its soil to an uncertain fate in their homeland. Dhaka reached a deal with Nay Pyi Taw last year to send back the first batch of several thousand Rohingya in November.
Asean, of which Myanmar is also a member, has lent a helping hand to the repatriation effort. A primary assessment team has been sent to Rakhine, with Asean chair Don reporting positive signs in both Myanmar and Bangladesh for the early return of refugees.
Those hopes suffered a setback, though, when fighting broke out earlier this year between the separatist Arakan Army and the military.
The safe repatriation of Rohingya looks no closer, while there are even fewer signs of lasting peace and reconciliation in Rakhine. Facing an election next year, Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy are now likely to turn attention away from Rakhine, so as to appease the anti-Rohingya sentiment that still prevails among the Myanmar elite and a predominantly Buddhist society.