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The Rohingya Crisis: Finding a Way Forward

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Eighteen months have passed since sectarian violence pushed some 140,000 stateless Rohingyas into a series of camps around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar. And yet the scars of the violence they suffered remain all too evident.

My colleague and I saw and heard the anguish as we met with displaced families during our recent mission. I especially remember the mask of fear worn by one woman, Noor, as she received us in her modest shelter.

"When we left, Rakhines burnt down our houses," she said. "Some from our village were killed by Rakhines when they were in boats trying to get here." Noor worries about how her family will get by, but she also despairs that the violence against her community could recur with scarcely any warning. "I am afraid of another Rakhine attack, as they attacked us before," she added. "It could happen again."

Noor's fears are not unfounded. While some things have improved in Rakhine State since Refugees International's last visit in May 2013, the root causes of displacement here have not been addressed.

To be sure, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations have done a good job raising the Rohingyas' living standards in the camps, which were appalling just a year ago. Long houses have been built, replacing the improvised shacks which were then the norm. Food distributions are quite regular, and water and sanitation services have markedly improved. There are even "temporary schools" in which children can spend their time, even if they are not following a normal curriculum.

These improvements should not be taken lightly. Indeed, they were achieved against great odds. The longstanding opposition of local Rakhine Buddhists to aiding the Rohingyas has been exacerbated by ultra-nationalist political parties. They regularly stage protests and threaten the work of agencies, rendering humanitarian access irregular and often unsecure.

But these modest changes in daily life do not make for acceptable treatment. The Myanmar government still imposes an absolute ban on Rohingyas' freedom of movement, slowly converting their camps into de facto ghettos. This ban is also causing new displacement: Rohingyas who were not expelled from their homes by violence, but are subject to the same movement restrictions, have no way to support their families, so many are dismantling their houses to sell the wood. They either move into the camps in order to receive assistance, or try to reach Thailand and Malaysia using unsafe boats controlled by abusive people smugglers. An estimated 80,000 have left Myanmar by sea just in the past year, and dozens have died in the process.

The Rohingyas are increasingly left without any sense of what the future holds for them, and the government's current policies are rapidly pushing them from poverty into absolute misery. Furthermore, many humanitarians are tormented by the fact that their work is practically underwriting segregation and playing into the hands of the authorities.

The international community has expressed concern about the Rohingyas, but it has been careful not to let this crisis poison their broader relationship with Myanmar at a time of major reforms. Western countries are rightly concerned that hard-won changes (including economic liberalization, the release of some political prisoners, and the acceptance of political opposition) could be challenged in the years to come. The elections planned for 2015 could be difficult, and the ongoing review of Myanmar's constitution will pitch political groups against each other in an atmosphere of growing civil society pressure, demands for federalism from the ethnic states, and defensive posturing by the powerful military and its allies.

In this context, it is hard to imagine that the government will fully address the roots of the Rohingya crisis - namely, the Rohingyas' legal status and their acceptance within society - during the next few years. But refusing to propose any initiatives or ducking the problem entirely (as the government did recently after a massacre of Rohingyas in northern Rakhine State) is not an option and cannot be tolerated by Myanmar's international partners. The world should therefore seek concrete, step-by-step improvements in the Rohingyas' situation, in the hope that they will lead to bigger changes over the long term.

First and most important, the ban on freedom of movement for Rohingyas must end. If the ban cannot be lifted immediately in all areas, then it should be removed now in the less tense parts of Rakhine State, with the Rohingyas in those areas given clear security guarantees.

Second, Myanmar should start prioritizing and pushing reconciliation between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. So far this has been an arduous process because there are no clear and authoritative voices advocating for rapprochement. That is why the government should make its position clear and offer practical initiatives to move things forward.

Third, the government must hold accountable all perpetrators of violence against Rohingyas. So long as these abuses are tolerated, the government will rightly be seen as an accomplice. And as long as hate speech goes unanswered, the government will be seen as complicit.

Fourth and finally, the government should set out a clear pathway to citizenship for Rohingyas. A plan for reforming Myanmar's citizenship laws should be approved, and the work of identifying eligible persons should begin. Here too, the work can begin immediately through pilot projects in less restive areas. As the donor community sets the conditions for its support to Myanmar, it must include clear benchmarks in these four areas.

Myanmar cannot break from its brutal history while Rohingyas are being forced into ghettos or fleeing the country out of desperation. The Myanmar government and its international partners have to recognize this, and they must strive for improvements in the lives of Rohingyas at the same time as they pursue political and economic liberalization.