5 Years On: 5 Priorities to Address the Rohingya Crisis and Forge a Better Future for the People of Myanmar

August 25, 2022, marks five years since the Myanmar military unleashed genocidal attacks on the country’s Rohingya people. Five years on, some 1 million Rohingya who fled the violence continue to live in dire conditions in the largest refugee settlement in the world in Bangladesh, while another 600,000 still living in Myanmar face ongoing persecution and the threat of further violence.  

Emboldened by impunity, the same military responsible for leading the genocide against the Rohingya launched a coup in February 2021 and continues to commit serious human rights abuses against people throughout the country today. More than 1 million people are now displaced within Myanmar, and a third of the population needs humanitarian assistance—even as the military junta restricts or outright blocks the delivery of aid to several parts of the country. The protracted displacement of the Rohingya and the attacks since the coup both stem from a history of military abuses. Solutions to both are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

Five priority actions can help create a path out of genocide and toward a peaceful, inclusive future for the Rohingya and all people of Myanmar.

1.     Address the root causes of the genocide and coup.

For years, Rohingya groups have told Refugees International that they want to someday return to their homeland when it is safe to do so and when they can enjoy equal rights as citizens. But such conditions will only be achieved once the military has given up its ill-fated push for power and opened the way for a civilian-led government that respects the rights of all of its citizens, including the Rohingya. The international community must coordinate and expand pressure on the military junta to do so.

Millions of Myanmar citizens are already engaged in resisting the coup. The United States and several other countries have taken important actions to sanction military officials and their businesses. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a stop to the flow of arms to Myanmar. Myanmar’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc have left the junta leadership out of key meetings. But ASEAN countries have fallen short of outright condemnation or biting sanctions, and countries like China and Russia continue to provide arms and diplomatic cover to the junta. Much more can and must be done to bring concerted pressure to bear on the junta.

The United States must work with allies, including likeminded members of ASEAN, to expand sanctions, including on the oil and gas sector, to actualize a global arms embargo, and to support accountability measures. All of these steps are included in the BURMA Act of 2021-22, which has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting passage in the Senate. This is one step that should be taken immediately.

2.     Increase humanitarian support for Rohingya in Bangladesh and those in need in Myanmar.

As the Rohingya refugee crisis enters its fifth year, it has now become what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines as a protracted crisis. As time goes on and other humanitarian crises arise throughout the world, there is a real risk of international donors cutting back on support. Signs of this donor fatigue are already showing—the Joint Response Plan for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was only 24 percent funded as of August 2022.

In Myanmar, humanitarian needs have skyrocketed from 1 million people in need of assistance before the coup, to more than 14 million in need following the coup. That number includes the 600,000 Rohingya estimated to remain in Myanmar today. The United States has been the leading global donor to the Rohingya humanitarian response. It must work with other donors to get aid to all those in need in Myanmar, including through cross-border aid from Thailand and other border countries. Donors must also continue to support Bangladesh and other countries hosting Rohingya refugees.

3.     Uphold the rights of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and improve conditions in the camps. 

After fleeing the genocide, the majority of the Rohingya population now lives in the largest refugee settlement in the world in Bangladesh. Bangladesh deserves great credit for providing refuge for some 1 million Rohingya refugees over the past five years and for working with global donors to support accountability and provide COVID vaccinations in the camps. As conditions in Myanmar deteriorate, Bangladesh will need the support of the international community to continue doing so. However, Bangladesh has also pursued policies that have unnecessarily restricted the rights and well-being of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh authorities have restricted freedom of movement of Rohingya refugees, building barbed wire around the camps that has hindered the ability to escape fires. They have limited Rohingya access to education and livelihood opportunities. And the Bangladesh government has moved some 30,000 Rohingya to an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, despite serious questions about the viability and voluntariness of such moves.

As the international community continues to support Bangladesh as it hosts Rohingya refugees, they must also urge the Bangladeshi government to change its restrictive policies and pursue those that respect the rights of Rohingya refugees and build toward sustainable returns in the future. A good start would be to continue expanding access to education, to provide skills-building activities and livelihood opportunities, and to halt any further movements to Bhasan Char. For their part, the United States and other donor countries should work with Bangladesh to offer not only sustained humanitarian support, but also resettlement and alternative solutions such as education opportunities in other countries.

4.     Include Rohingya in future plans for Myanmar and recognize them as citizens of Myanmar.

The denial of Rohingya identity, let alone citizenship, by the Myanmar military and by the quasi-civilian government formed prior to the coup, has been a key factor behind the history of persecution and denial of rights to the Rohingya. General attitudes toward the Rohingya have shifted dramatically since the coup as people throughout the country have seen firsthand the brutality of the Myanmar military. Several non-Rohingya activists have expressed regret for not believing the abuses committed by the military against the Rohingya.

These shifts provide an opportunity for setting the basis for a more inclusive future for Myanmar. The National Unity Government (NUG) – the opposition group formed by previously elected officials and representatives of various ethnic groups following the coup – has expressed solidarity with the Rohingya and released an official policy recognizing them as a group that should have access to citizenship. But Rohingya remain underrepresented in the opposition body, and Rohingya worry that future recognition of citizenship and full rights are far from guaranteed.

The United States and other countries should engage and support the NUG, the National Unity Consultive Council, and others representing the opposition to the coup toward a future democratic government of Myanmar. A key part of this engagement must be efforts to further solidify commitments to include the Rohingya and recognize their citizenship rights.

5. Hold the Myanmar military accountable for genocide and other atrocity crimes.

One area in which there has been consistent, if gradual, progress toward addressing the Rohingya crisis has been in accountability efforts. While slow, this is significant, particularly to the Rohingya people who have consistently identified accountability as a priority. Over the past five years, a UN Fact-finding mission presented evidence of genocide, an Independent Investigative Mission for Myanmar (IIMM) has continued collecting further evidence of crimes committed against the Rohingya and all people of Myanmar, and a genocide case has proceeded in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The International Criminal Court also launched an investigation based on the crime of deportation, which extended into Myanmar and Rohingya survivors have pursued a universal jurisdiction case in Argentina. The United States also conducted its own broad survey of Rohingya and in March 2022 – following concerted pressure from Rohingya groups, NGOs, and Members of Congress – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially reached a determination that the Myanmar military had committed crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.

Following the determination, the United States announced nearly one million dollars in support for the IIMM to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes in Myanmar. The U.S. government has indicated that it has shared information to support the ICJ case and it will likely provide further support to the IIMM. Such efforts are a good start but will need sustained support and attention. Immediate steps that could be taken include the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries joining the ICJ case against Myanmar, pursuing a UN Security Council resolution to refer the case to the ICC, and announcement of further funding to support the IIMM. Support for accountability must include not only abuses committed against the Rohingya, but also those that have been and continue to be committed by the military against all people of Myanmar. A path out of genocide and toward a future peaceful and inclusive Myanmar begins with an end to the military’s cycle of impunity.

Looking Forward

A solution to the Rohingya crisis and the key to a future peaceful and inclusive Myanmar is possible, but it will require bold efforts to meet immediate needs while addressing the root causes of the crisis. Taking the five priority actions identified above are vital steps toward ensuring a more promising outlook for the Rohingya and all people of Myanmar, five years from now and beyond.

Banner Photo Caption: Rohingya refugees stand in front of their make shift tent at Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhiya. Photo by K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images.