Rohingya must be given rights of citizens

UN secretary general's arrival in Bangladesh should renew pressure on Myanmar for a safe return home

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (C) arrives at the Kutupalong refugee camp for the Rohingya community in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar on July 2, 2018. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he heard "unimaginable" accounts of atrocities during a visit July 2 to vast camps in Bangladesh that are home to a million Rohingya refugees who fled violence in Myanmar.
 / AFP / Suzauddin RUBEL

"We couldn't sleep in Myanmar. We were so afraid. We can sleep in Bangladesh." This is what a Rohingya woman in the refugee camps of Bangladesh told Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, who, accompanied by World Bank president Jim Yong-kim, arrived in Bangladesh on Monday to assess firsthand the needs of more than 700,000 of the "most discriminated against and vulnerable communities on Earth".

Myanmar announced in January that it was ready for the Rohingya to be repatriated. Nearly six months later, Rakhine – the province on the western coast that has been home to the Rohingya for centuries – remains a deathtrap. To a people haunted by the trauma of being driven out en masse from their lands – of witnessing gruesome spectacles of entire families being butchered or torched alive – at the hands of the murderous military of Myanmar, the lack of remorse on the part of the government in Naypyidaw can scarcely inspire trust.

Earlier this month, Maung Maung Soe, an elite commander who led the operations in Myanmar, was fired – not for the commission of crimes but for displaying "weakness". Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country, refuses to acknowledge what was clearly a campaign of ethnic cleansing or even to use the word Rohingya. To her, they are either "terrorists" or "Bengalis" – outsiders whose presence contaminates the purity of the nation's Buddhist majority, elements of which have effectively been sanctioned by the government to stage their own atrocities against the Rohingya. She has, in turns, shown indifference, a dearth of repentance and outright prejudice towards the Rohingya.

Bangladesh has performed an heroic service by throwing open its doors to refugees – an exception in our age of intense hostility to people fleeing persecution. But Dhaka's resources are finite and the expenditure required to maintain the refugee camps is escalating. The presence of Mr Kim suggests that an effort is being made to study the situation closely and help relieve the pressure on Bangladesh's resources. But any aid that materialises should not lead to the normalisation of this situation. The displacement of the Rohingya cannot be allowed to become a permanent phenomenon. Myanmar is their home, despite Ms Suu Kyi's refusal to acknowledge as much, and the international community must ensure that the government of Myanmar accords them dignity.

For that to happen, the laws of the state cannot remain exclusionary. The Rohingya must be recognised as a constituent people of Myanmar with citizenship rights and privileges and Rakhine opened to international observers to enable their safe return and ensure their protection. The most urgent danger is that the Rohingya will become a forgotten people, their plight obscured in bureacracy and inaction. Mr Guterres's visit to Bangladesh will renew the world's attention. It must be followed by concrete action.