ALTHOUGH Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya population has suffered persecution at the hands of the majority Buddhist community for years, the recent crackdown by security forces against the Rohingya was executed with such unprecedented brutality that it has been described as ethnic cleansing.

Over 600,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, carrying with them stories of rape, arbitrary arrest and mass arson and killings — all of them crimes against humanity. That is why when news came on Thursday of a repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar it was met with scorn rather than approbation by human rights groups. Though struggling to provide for refugees, Bangladesh must keep its border open and not coerce people to return.

For now, its humanitarian partners must step up assistance. Returning is unthinkable for those who have just escaped mass persecution. In its report, All of My Body was Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma, Human Rights Watch found that Myanmar’s military used rape as a “prominent and devastating feature” of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Survivors say they were left with rape, burn and bullet injuries.

As Amnesty International argues, “there can be no safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar while a system of apartheid remains in the country, and thousands are held there in conditions that amount to concentration camps”.

If and when the refugees return, their security must be guaranteed by international monitors — and all repatriations must be voluntary and assisted by international agencies. Meanwhile, with Myanmar’s military calling the shots, a policy shift to reverse decades of abuse against Rohingya populations is virtually impossible unless world pressure is applied through Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though her indifference to the plight of the Rohingya is well established, international leaders must continue to pressure her to preserve the beleaguered population’s rights. To end, ambiguity around the repatriation agreement sans a role for the UN’s refugee agency — whose inclusion in voluntary repatriation operations is standard practice — requires clarification.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2017

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