The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh still say they plan to start sending thousands of Rohingya refugees back to their native Rakhine State in western Myanmar any day now, just months after Myanmar soldiers led a deadly crackdown against them.
Both governments claim they won't force Rohingya to return, but refugees aren't exactly lining up to participate, either—so what's the point?
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi first began speaking about repatriation back in September 2017.
At the time, plumes of smoke from bone-strewn ash heaps were still rising from whole Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State. The Myanmar Army was leading a genocidal campaign against Rohingya civilians, largely in response to Rohingya militant attacks that killed several police.
My colleagues and I documented Myanmar Army-led massacres of civilians in all three townships of northern Rakhine State in August and September 2017. Infants were thrown into fires. Soldiers systematically raped and gang raped Rohingya women and girls in homes, schools, fields, and forests across disparate locations and within the same time-frame. Men and boys were arbitrarily detained en masse.
Many disappeared. State security forces and armed mobs razed hundreds of Rohingya villages, forcing up to 688,000 into Bangladesh.
Conditions not ripe for return
On January 10, the Myanmar Army acknowledged some of its soldiers captured and summarily executed 10 Rohingya civilians and buried them in a mass grave, however, the police continue to detain Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were said to be investigating the incident and other atrocities against Rohingya.
To this day, not a single soldier or commander has been held accountable for the rapes, killings and arson attacks, and State Counselor Suu Kyi continues to stubbornly deny full access to United Nations fact finders, journalists, and human rights monitors.
The government of Myanmar still denies aid agencies unfettered access to Rakhine State, despite desperate needs on the ground. The World Food Program is now reporting emergency-level child malnutrition and food shortages.
These are not conditions ripe for return.
Meanwhile, the specter of more mass atrocities hangs over the Rohingya in Bangladesh like a dark and foreboding cloud. Unthinkable as it may be, the worst may have yet to come.
"You can throw us into the sea, but please don't send us back," a Rohingya refugee woman from Buthidaung Township told my colleagues and me in November. "We will not go back to Myanmar."
Their fear is understandable. On September 19, when Suu Kyi first floated the idea of repatriating the refugees during her first and only major speech on the situation, she declared that military "clearance operations" stopped on September 5. To be fair, Suu Kyi was likely told as much, but the claim wasn't remotely true, and Rohingya communities knew that better than anyone.
Bangladesh authorities knew as well. In November, I was with colleagues in an open-air, second-floor office at the district headquarters of the Border Guards Bangladesh in Teknaf, meeting with a senior military official.
We spoke for more than an hour before he handed us an internal intelligence report detailing daily Myanmar military activity near the shared border, including dates, times, and geographic coordinates of automatic weapon fire on the Myanmar side. This was a full two months after Suu Kyi claimed such operations had ceased.
"There were confirmed gunfire shots in the last two weeks," the official told us, confirming that the gunfire was from Myanmar state security forces. "Every night we were hearing the firing, seeing villages burning, and we were getting dead bodies also."
Apart from fears of lethal violence, many Rohingya understandably fear they'd be repatriated to internment camps.
The Government of Myanmar continues to confine more than 120,000 Rohingya to more than 35 squalid camps in eight townships of Rakhine State—all displaced during rounds of violence in 2012.
The Opinion was written by Matthew Smith published by CNN