By The NYT Editorial Board
Nov. 22, 2018
Under international law — and the precepts of basic human decency — the nearly one million Rohingya people driven out of their homeland in Myanmar and crammed into refugee camps in Bangladesh ought to be able to return home. But simply pushing them back across the border, as Bangladesh and Myanmar tried to start doing last week under pressure from China, was wisely suspended.
The United Nations and dozens of rights groups dealing with the long-suffering Rohingya objected to the plan because it lacked any assurances that the returnees, members of a Muslim minority in Myanmar who had been the targets of a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing, would be treated any better than before they fled. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that sending the refugees to Myanmar at this point “effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades.”
Nobody asked the Rohingya about the repatriation plan, and they understandably panicked when Bangladesh troops entered their camp and told the first group of 2,200 to get ready to move. With one voice, young and old alike shouted, “We won’t go!” Mercifully, Bangladesh — which has been lauded for providing refuge to the Rohingya — relented.
Over 15 months, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled a systematic campaign of killings, rapes and torched villages that the United Nations said “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” Crowding into refugee camps in Bangladesh, they joined more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled earlier waves of violence.
The hurried repatriation was agreed to by Bangladesh and Myanmar under pressure from China, which has economic ties to both and ambitious plans for the region. But according to Human Rights Watch, the military-dominated government of Myanmar, which has denied the ethnic cleansing all along, has done nothing “to create conditions for safe and dignified returns, or to address the root causes of the crisis.”
The organization said refugees feared that if they returned without any assurances, they would be put in detention camps like those to which 124,000 other Rohingya have been confined in Myanmar since they were displaced by violence in 2012. The “reception centers” and “transit camps” Myanmar has set up, some on the site of razed Rohingya villages, are surrounded by barbed wire and security outposts.
The plight of the Rohingya ranks among the worst injustices in the world today. The Myanmar government, including the once-respected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied any culpability, invoking ancient grievances and skewed history to justify treating the Rohingya as Muslim interlopers in a predominantly Buddhist land.
When Vice President Mike Pence told Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Nov. 14 at a regional meeting in Singapore that the persecution of the Rohingya was “without excuse,” she replied, “We understand our country better than any other country does,” and so are “in a better position to explain to you what is happening.”
No, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the world does not need your “explanations,” nor repatriation schemes that fail to address the mistreatment of the Rohingya and give them assurances that they can rebuild their burned-out homes and live in security and dignity. The imprisonment in September of two Reuters reporters who were reporting on a massacre of Rohingya is further evidence that the rulers of Myanmar have no interest in anything but justifying and covering up their brutality.
It’s long been clear that the only way to get proper action from Myanmar’s generals and their civilian enablers is to compel it, through prosecutions of the offenders by the International Criminal Court, through sanctions, travel bans or a freeze on assets. China can play a more helpful role than it has to date by exerting its influence on Myanmar and Bangladesh to come up with something more than a superficial fix.