The Rohingya Crisis: What to Watch for in 2019

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The Rohingya Crisis

The year 2018 was a dire and desperate year for the Rohingya minority from western Myanmar. Two-thirds of the population that had been living in western Rakhine State before the end of 2017 remain displaced in crowded camps in Bangladesh. The several hundred thousand who remain in Myanmar face serious restrictions, and what the chair of an independent, international fact-finding mission describes as an “ongoing genocide.”

What will the year 2019 have in store for the Rohingya? Here are key developments to keep an eye on and some thoughts on what must be done to improve the outlook.

Rohingya Returning Home?

Repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar is both the most necessary solution to the Rohingya crisis and the most controversial. It is not a question of whether Rohingya should be able to return to their homes; it is a question of when and under what conditions. To be clear, those conditions do not currently exist. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Rohingya in Myanmar continue to face restrictions and abuse. And there is little sign of accountability or a path to citizenship as demanded by Rohingya who have been forced to flee. In fact, more than 15,000 Rohingya have continued to flee conditions in Myanmar for Bangladesh in 2018.

More than 40 humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Bangladesh have warned that returning the Rohingya to their homes now would be dangerous and premature. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been clear that current conditions in Myanmar are not conducive “to the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees.”

Still, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have pushed for returns to move forward. A bilateral deal to start returns by November 15, 2018, fell apart only because Bangladesh was unable to find Rohingya willing to return voluntarily. Pressure for returns will continue through 2019, but the reality is that, more than likely, most Rohingya will not and should not return by the end of 2019. Whether returns can take place in line with international standards — that is safe, voluntary and dignified — will depend mostly on what the government of Myanmar does or does not do.

Reforms in Myanmar?

The government of Myanmar has it within its power to create the conditions conducive to safe returns of Rohingya to Myanmar. It also has a blueprint for how to do so. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, released a final report in August 2017 that was endorsed by the government of Myanmar. The report included recommendations for freedom of movement, recognition of basic rights and a path to citizenship for Rohingya in Myanmar.

By taking these steps, opening access to humanitarians and independent media and human rights monitors, and working with UNHCR, it may be possible to begin thinking about returns in 2019. But the window for doing so is quickly closing as the next election in Myanmar draws near in 2020. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, already reluctant to reform and address the Rohingya crisis, will be even more so as the military’s party seeks to capitalize on anti-Rohingya sentiment. As this dynamic plays out, it will be even more important that pressure for change comes from outside — the sooner the better.

Accountability for Genocide?

The push for accountability for the crimes committed by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya gained momentum in the last month of 2018. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the law firm that carried out a US State Department survey of the Rohingya independently concluded that there was strong evidence that crimes against humanity and genocide were committed. The State Department has not yet made a determination, but the US House of Representatives voted 394 to 1 to declare the crimes as genocide.

In August 2018, an international fact-finding mission, authorized by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), concluded that Myanmar’s top military generals, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The UNHRC then mandated the creation of an independent mechanism to collect evidence of abuses for future prosecution. Now it is vital that this mechanism receive the funding necessary to carry out its mandate.