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Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently stated that the Rohingya Muslims who have fled the country would be allowed to return. Recent reports obtained by Reuters indicate problems surrounding land dispute in which returning Rohingya are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land and their harvest, which may have fallen into the hands of the state. This adds a further layer of complication to the conflict and begs the question: how can the Rohingya rebuild their lives in Myanmar with the existing structures that prevent cohesion in the country?
The Reuters report states, “Northern Rakhine has left some 71,500 acres of planted rice paddy abandoned and in need of harvesting by January”. According to the Rakhine State secretary, Tin Maung Swe, government intervention will ensure that the crops left behind by the fleeing Rohingya will be harvested and sold or “donated to those displaced by the conflict”. With no binding reassurances that these crops will go towards humanitarian efforts, the Myanmar State has the potential to profit millions from the conflict. While this is problematic in the sense that livelihoods and many of the Rohingya’s main source of income are being destroyed, there are further logistical problems that prevent the return of the refugees. Myanmar doesn’t recognise the Rohingya as Burmese citizens and they are excluded from the 135 recorded ethnic groups in the country. In order to return to the country the refugees must have the relevant identification papers but few have any documents to prove citizenship.
The latest wave of violence in the Rakhine state has forced more than 600 thousand Rohingya refugees across the Myanmar border. The military-led offensive, which was reignited on August 25, has caused international outcry and has been labeled by the UN as ‘ a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. Human Rights Watch record that “at least 288 villages were partially or totally destroyed by fire in Northern Rakhine State since August 25”. Contrary to Suu Kyi’s claims, at least another 66 villages have been burned since military operations were supposedly halted in the area. This demonstrates on-going violence and insecurity in the region.
With decades of persecution against the Rohingya, the conflict in Myanmar will not be a short-term problem. Temporary refugee camps have been constructed in Bangladesh and immediate attention will need to focus on providing the appropriate aid and facilities for those who have crossed the border and those that may still be in the Rakhine region. It is also imperative that births are registered in Bangladesh, as being stateless in both regions has other detrimental societal implications with the inability to assimilate in any country.
Skye Wheeler, emergencies researcher for the Women’s Rights Division, has stated that the conflict is not solely about displacement but “rape and other forms of sexual violence has been widespread and systematic as well as brutal, humiliating, and traumatic.” The international community needs to continue to put pressure and condemn the actions of the State and expose the crimes committed by the Burmese military. Stability and the guaranteed safety and protection of the Rohingya Muslims must be attained before there can be consideration of future return.