The start of the brutal massacre of the Rohingya people in Myanmar marks its anniversary on 25 August. It’s been five years since thousands of men and children were piled up by the Myanmar military, many viciously slaughtered or burned to death.
Countless women were gang raped and molested by soldiers as the world watched an endless stream of traumatised and severely injured people flee to the Bangladesh border to escape the carnage behind them. As they walked, thick smoke filled the sky as their villages in northern Rakhine State turned to ash. .
Conservative estimates say at least 6,700 people were killed during the first month of the massacre. Of these, 730 were children under the age of five.
Some 400 villages were razed, and then more than 700,000 people became refugees in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, now the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee settlement.
As Rohingya survivors mark the fifth anniversary of that dark moment, what they call Genocide Day, their situation remains desperate.
The government of Bangladesh kept borders open to allow refugees an escape and safety from the Myanmar troops. . But the situation was nonetheless precarious.
Years later, Bangladesh still restricts access to proper education for Rohingya refugees. They’re also prohibited from taking up work, and lack freedom of movement.
The sprawling camps are fenced off with barbed wire and many refugees feel as if they are living in a kind of prison zone as they can’t leave.
In many cases, traffickers have abandoned Rohingya at sea or on land routes throughout the region. Prostitution and the selling of children and girls for marriage is also widespread.
Large fires have repeatedly devastated the overcrowded camps, and the refugees fear for their security as criminal gangs are operating freely.
In desperation, many refugees have been forced to make impossible decisions. Some have been pushed into criminal activities like drug smuggling and petty crime. Others have fallen into the hands of human traffickers.
‘Enough is enough’
Despite the challenges, Rohingya refugees are striving to improve the lives of their community members. Some are teachers who provide informal education to children and youth, a group that doesn’t receive adequate services from the humanitarian sector.
Rohingya volunteers have organised blood donations to healthcare centres and field hospitals around the camps, while others offer humanitarian aid to victims of fires or landslides.
These are creative people with a rich culture and deep history. Some have documented their lives using photography, film, poetry, paintings, and storytelling.
But since December 2021, the Government of Bangladesh has not only forbidden formal education, but also criminalised the private tutoring that refugees themselves have provided.
“Enough is enough! We don’t want to see a lost generation,” one young leader said. “For five years now we are denied education.”
The refugees are concerned for the future of their community. And they warn that this denial of basic rights will leave youth in despair, with no opportunities to support themselves in the future, a reality that could lead to increased criminality and radicalisation.
Another refugee said he is concerned about increased corruption in Bangladesh, the exploitation of vulnerable refugees and the tendency to collectively accuse refugees of misconduct.
But more than anything, Rohingya are calling for the international community to help them return to Myanmar and be granted citizenship rights.
“We want to go home!” refugees chanted at a peaceful protest on World Refugee Day on 20 June. “Peace and democracy for Myanmar!
Prospects for repatriation
Since the Myanmar coup in February 2021, the situation in Myanmar has deteriorated dramatically. In staging the coup, the military declared war against its entire population and people all over the country have been resisting with all available means.
The military is unable to control the country, particularly Rakhine state, the home of the Rohingya. This state is effectively governed by the Arakan Army, an armed group of the Rakhine Buddhist population who have long been fighting for autonomy for the area.
Repatriation of the Rohingya is therefore contingent on the goodwill of the Arakan Army, just as much as the military junta.
While the Myanmar military is facing legal charges in international courts for the 2017 massacre, the international political investments in the repatriation of the Rohingya have been disappointingly poor.
It’s partly due to other overshadowing international crises, like those in Ukraine and Afghanistan, and partly due to stalemates caused by the geopolitical power play between the United States and China.
An end to military rule in Myanmar is the only way forward. International pressure on the military is essential.
The military generals must be punished for their war crimes, and geopolitical disputes must be set aside as China and the United States have common interests in a stable Myanmar under civilian rule.
International actors must join forces with the people of Myanmar, including the Rohingya, to put an end to the misery caused by the Myanmar military.
For now, the Rohingya refugees in the Bangladesh camps are stuck between a rock hard place.
Without education and opportunities to make a living, the Rohingya will have no hopes for the future and instead become a burden to their host community.
Bangladeshi authorities need to engage in a dialogue with Rohingya leaders about how refugees can contribute to Bangladeshi society while they wait for repatriation.
Regrettably, a solution for Myanmar and for Rohingya repatriation is likely to be lengthy and complicated. It’s therefore pivotal that Bangladesh allow the refugees to live dignified lives while they wait.
Marte Nilsen is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. She has a specialist focus on political and violent conflicts in Myanmar and Thailand and civil society movements and societal transformation in peacebuilding and democratisation