By J Nastranis
NEW YORK (IDN) – A humanitarian crisis continues to unfold on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, with almost 1 million Rohingya people now living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
While Myanmar and Bangladesh trade blame over the crisis, the United Nations is concerned about persistent military and civil tensions in Myanmar ahead of general elections in 2020, which it fears is impacting efforts towards the “dignified” and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
In Cox’s Bazar, refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine State live in extremely challenging conditions and with little signs of hope, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, has told the Security Council.
“While Bangladesh and host communities have been very generous, we cannot expect this to continue indefinitely,” she said in a briefing to the Security Council on February 28.
The Joint Response Plan (JRP), which the United Nations aid agencies and NGO partners launched on February 15, 2019, needs urgent funding, she added. The appeal seeks to raise US$920 million to meet the massive needs of more than 900,000 refugees from Myanmar and over 330,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in host communities.
More than 745,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh since August 2017, escaping violence in Myanmar and joining roughly 200,000 others already displaced in the Cox’s Bazar area by previous cycles of violence.
Critical aid and services such as food, water, sanitation and shelter represent more than half of the funding needs this year. Other key sectors of the appeal include health, site management, protection activities including child protection and addressing sexual and gender-based violence, education and nutrition, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
Burgener expressed concern that heavy fighting with the Arakan Army – a Rakhine insurgent group in Myanmar – will further impact “efforts towards the dignified, voluntary return of refugees”, and appealed to both sides to ensure the protection of civilians and uphold their obligations under international law.
It is vital that current efforts by Myanmar to draft a national strategy on the closure of internally displaced persons camps address the underlying violence in Rakhine, including the question of citizenship and restoring freedom of movement, she said, and called for bilateral efforts by Myanmar and Bangladesh, supported by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“Accountability is essential for combating impunity and genuine reconciliation,” she stressed, noting that Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has responded positively to her recommendation that it engage with United Nations human rights entities. National responsibility and ownership of accountability are also important, she added.
Referring to recent setbacks in the peace process in areas beyond Rakhine – including Kachin and Shan States – she called on all parties to exercise restraint and avoid actions that can reverse the important gains resulting from the peace process’.
Noting that the elections planned for 2020 could add to such domestic complexities, she said State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is evidently moving ahead carefully on democratic reform, which must address institutionalized discrimination as a matter of priority. “We must collectively continue to build trust and work in partnership with the Government of Myanmar,” she said.
Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Hau Do Suan said that, soon after taking over State responsibility, the National League for Democracy Government had set as a top priority the need to bring sustainable peace, stability and development to Rakhine.
It has been implementing most of the recommendations in the Rakhine Advisory Commission report, having identified five priority areas covering issues of citizenship, freedom of movement, closure of camps for internally displaced persons, education and health.
The most urgent task is to begin the repatriation process as soon as possible, he said, recalling that the Government recently proposed to Bangladesh to resume a Joint Working Group meeting in April. “We are confident that we can make the repatriation plan a success if we both act strictly in compliance with the agreements,” he said.
Outlining work already under way with UNDP and UNHCR, as well as with ASEAN, he reiterated his country’s rejection of the Independent Investigative Mechanism – established by the Human Rights Council outside the Security Council’s mandate – as well as the UN fact-finding mission and its “biased and one-sided” narrative-based report.
Expressing concern that the investigation targeted only Myanmar security forces, Hau Do Suan said its conclusions were politically motivated with the aim of inflicting maximum damage to his country’s image and leadership. To underline that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is alive and active, he cited several recent attacks, and stressed that his Government will not condone any human rights violations and will take action against perpetrators.
In that context, he pointed out that Myanmar established an Independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate all allegations of human rights violations following ARSA terrorist attacks in August 2017 in Rakhine State.
Such actions, he said, demonstrate Myanmar Government’s willingness and ability to address the accountability issue. He strongly rejected any attempt to move the matter into the international judicial system, and accentuated that challenges in Rakhine are not issues of religious persecution, as portrayed by the massive media campaign launched against his country.
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. The issue, he said, is, in fact, a political and economic one involving prolonged cross-border illegal immigration, poverty, lack of rule of law and national security.
Hahidul Haque, Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, said that, while his country appreciates the Council’s willingness to resolve this protracted humanitarian and human rights crisis, it is frustrating that nothing concrete has yet happened to ensure safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar.
The problem originates from Myanmar and is the result of decades-long State practices of deprivation, disenfranchisement and atrocities, he said. Hence, its solution must be found in Myanmar by Myanmar. It is unfortunate Myanmar is trying to shift the blame, accusing Bangladesh of harbouring terrorists when, in reality, his Government has a zero-tolerance policy in this regard, he said.
Turning to humanitarian concerns, Haque said Rohingya and those in their host communities are suffering, with their prolonged presence posing formidable challenges and adversely affecting the country’s economy, environment, social fabric and security.
The idea of long-term hosting by Bangladesh is not at all a viable proposition, he declared. Even if repatriation began today, it would take another 12 years based on an estimated 300 Rohingyas returning every day. Despite his Government’s efforts, “not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of a conducive environment there”, he said, adding that as far as repatriation is concerned, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with the Myanmar military having engaged in heavy fighting since November 2018.
He regretted to inform the Council that Bangladesh will no longer be in a position to accommodate more people from Myanmar. Going forward, he said the priority is to ensure the safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified return of the Rohingyas, which requires building confidence among them.
In the short-term Myanmar can take several steps in this regard, including addressing accountability issues and ensuring the full implementation of the memorandum of understanding among Myanmar, UNDP, UNHCR and of recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. Besides, Myanmar can dismantle existing internally displaced persons camps, where more than 130,000 Muslim inmates have been detained for more than six years.
However, pronouncements from the Security Council have not had any impact on improving the situation on the ground, he said. Concrete action is needed to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. The Council could, for example, negotiate the draft resolution to set out a reporting cycle as an oversight mechanism, visit the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine State, and create safe zones in conflict‑affected areas.
“We should not allow Myanmar to turn the clock backward on any ground and, therefore, we urge the Council to act in a decisive manner,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary said. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 March 2019]
Photo: Rohingya refugees walk towards a refugee camp after crossing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Credit: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews