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Myanmar Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attended the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, on 12 January 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Briefing 149 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue

After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.

Also available in: Burmese [PDF]

I. Overview

The current government term may be the best chance for a negotiated political settlement to almost 70 years of armed conflict that has devastated the lives of minority communities and held back Myanmar as a whole. Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration have made the peace process a top priority. While the previous government did the same, she has a number of advantages, such as her domestic political stature, huge election mandate and strong international backing, including qualified support on the issue from China. These contributed to participation by nearly all armed groups – something the former government had been unable to achieve – in the Panglong-21 peace conference that commenced on 31 August. But if real progress is to be made, both the government and armed groups need to adjust their approach so they can start a substantive political dialogue as soon as possible.

Pangalong-21 was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, not for its content, and the challenges going forward should not be underestimated. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative. Many felt that they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organised. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day. An escalation of fighting in recent months, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust.

Such issues are not unexpected; what matters is the resilience of the process to deal with them. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next for February 2017) imposes an artificially rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles. Weak capacity in the government’s peace secretariat, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), is another challenge. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a sine qua non for participation in the upcoming political dialogue process – future Panglong-21 conferences and the discussions feeding into them – that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. This will be even harder if the military continues its forceful posture on the ground.

Eight groups signed the NCA in October 2015, but at least ten other armed groups have reservations. Some, like the UWSP, have better de facto self-governance arrange­ments already and worry their status would be undermined by signing. Others are concerned that the new government has a more unilateral approach to the peace process and that if they sign, political solutions are more likely to be imposed than negotiated. Three groups without bilateral ceasefires are resisting government demands to issue statements renouncing armed struggle in principle.

The government should consider adopting a more flexible timeframe for the peace conferences and reassure armed groups by demonstrating a less unilateral approach to the process in general. It needs to ensure that civil society, women and youth have a stronger voice in the process. It should also take steps to ensure that it has the necessary support capacity in place at the NRPC.

Armed groups need to recognise that though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they are unlikely to get a better chance to achieve a negotiated political settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

The alternative is not attractive. Time is not on the side of the armed groups. Unless both sides grasp the current opportunity, the prospect of a negotiated solution will recede, likely to be replaced by a messy, drawn-out endgame that fails to address the underlying grievances of the minority communities, including their demands for a federal system and greater equality. This would be to the detriment of peace and stability in the borderlands and to Myanmar’s future as a prosperous, tolerant and democratic country.

II. Peace Legacy from the Previous Government

A. Peace Process with Armed Groups

The administration that took power on 30 March 2016 inherited a peace process that had been in stasis during the lame-duck period leading up to the November 2015 elections and the lengthy handover period afterwards.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266 Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and, for more detailed historical background on the armed conflict, 214, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, 30 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The previous government had had considerable early success, agreeing bilateral ceasefires with fifteen armed groups between 2011 and 2013 (see Appendix B and the acronyms in Appendix C). There was much optimism on 31 March 2015, when the government and armed group negotiating teams initialled the NCA. However, concerns over the lack of inclusivity (the government did not allow the three groups without bilateral ceasefires – AA, TNLA and MNDAA – to sign) as well as about giving the government of then-President Thein Sein a major victory just ahead of elections, stalled the process. Eventually, eight armed groups signed the NCA at a ceremony on 15 October 2015; the remaining ten involved in the formal peace process did not. This led to some tensions between signatory and non-signatory groups.[fn]For all armed group acronyms, see Appendix B.Hide Footnote

The NCA contains basic principles recognising the territorial integrity of the state (making clear that separatism or irredentism is unacceptable), committing to “principles of democracy and federalism” and embracing the diversity of the peoples and cultures in “a secular state”. A military code of conduct prohibits certain conduct by all parties in ceasefire areas (attacks, reinforcement, recruitment, new bases, laying landmines, etc.) and sets out troop deployment provisions to avoid clashes. There is provision for a joint ceasefire monitoring body, and “interim arrangements” endorse armed groups’ de facto authority in their areas of control for a transitional period. The NCA is to be followed by a “political dialogue”, consisting of a Union Peace Conference to reach a comprehensive peace agreement that would be “the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the constitution and laws, in line with agreed procedures” – that is, through the legislature – along with armed group disarmament and security sector reform.[fn]For a detailed summary of the NCA, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote

Finalisation of the NCA was thus only the first step in a long, difficult process needed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Many of the most challenging issues, including a possible form of federalism, how revenue would be shared, future status of the armed groups and their possible integration into the military, were deferred to the political dialogue, as were some technical military issues on ceasefire monitoring and code of conduct. It is thus neither a classic ceasefire agreement – many military issues, such as force separation, demarcation and verification, are vague, not included or need further agreement to come into force – nor a full political agreement, as it references many political issues but defers detailed discussion. This hybrid status reflects its genesis, the diverse actors and priorities around the table and political constraints.

Following the partial signing, the previous government took formal steps to implement the NCA, specifically:

  • A first session of the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting, the body mandated to oversee NCA implementation, was held 15-17 October 2015. It established the committees set out in the NCA to take the process forward: the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) for military and ceasefire matters and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) for political dialogue. The JMC contains ten representatives of NCA-signatory armed groups, ten of government (including military), and four independent civilians; there are also subnational committees. The UPDJC initially had sixteen representatives each of NCA-signatory armed groups, government (including military and legislature) and political parties and was chaired by then-Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham.
  • A joint legislative session ratified the NCA on 8 December, giving it legal status.
  • A Framework for Political Dialogue was agreed on 15 December, including the mandate, agenda, working methods and proportions of representatives to be included in the dialogue.
  • The first Union Peace Conference was held 12 to 16 January 2016, with opening addresses by the president, commander-in-chief, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mutu Say Poe, the head of the Karen National Union armed group. The conference had 700 participants but, occurring in the lame-duck period after the elections, was largely symbolic, intended only to launch the process and keep to the NCA’s ambitious political roadmap. Armed groups that did not sign the NCA were invited to observe, but nearly all declined.[fn]In accordance with the Framework for Political Dialogue, the 700 seats were divided 75 each for government and legislature, 150 for military, 150 each for ethnic armed groups and registered political parties, 50 each for ethnic representatives and other relevant persons. The roadmap required the Framework for Political Dialogue to be agreed within 60 days of the NCA signing and the dialogue to commence within 90 days. One non-signatory group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang, did accept the invitation. Three non-signatory armed groups without bilateral ceasefires (Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) were not invited.Hide Footnote

B. Armed Conflict

Notwithstanding these important procedural developments, the peace process essentially was in stasis between the NCA signing and the new government taking up the issue in April 2016. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remained volatile, with fighting continuing to break out sporadically, and often unexpectedly, in many different parts of the country.

Most groups that signed the NCA are based near the Thai border in southern Shan State and the south-east. Their signing consolidated a fragile local peace, or at least absence of war, that had prevailed for some time. Groups based near the Chinese border did not sign, and the situation in many of those areas continued to be unstable, with regular, sometimes intense fighting, including between ethnic armed groups. The geographic split reflects very different political-economic realities between the areas, including access to funding and weapons and the distinct policies and approaches of China and Thailand.

Serious bouts of conflict since early 2015 include:

  • in Shan State, resumed major fighting between Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) troops and government forces in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone since February 2015, which was particularly intense from February to June that year and again in October 2015. Elsewhere in Shan State, there have been sporadic clashes between government forces and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and between that group and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). There have also been clashes between government forces and the SSA-North, of particular intensity from October to November 2015 and in August 2016;
  • in Kachin State, between government forces and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) throughout the period, and in particular from July to November 2015, and again from April to August 2016;
  • in Rakhine State and southern Chin State, occasional, sometimes heavy clashes between government forces and the Arakan Army, in particular in April 2015, January 2016 and from April to June 2016; and
  • in Kayin State, clashes in July 2015 and again from August to September 2016 between a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government troops together with Border Guard Force soldiers.

Such conflicts are usually accompanied by grave violations of human rights by all belligerents.[fn]See, for example, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN OHCHR A/HRC/31/71, 18 March 2016.Hide Footnote  They undermine stability and trust in the peace process and severely impact lives and livelihoods – particularly of those most at risk, including women and children – often causing internal displacements.[fn]For a detailed risk analysis, see “Kachin and northern Shan protection concerns and risk analysis”, Protection Sector, October 2015.Hide Footnote  Some 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states as a result of fighting following the 2011 breakdown of the KIO ceasefire. Fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone displaced around 80,000 in February 2015, the majority to China, though most have now returned. At least 12,000 were displaced in northern Shan State in the first half of 2016 in the complex conflicts that included government forces, the TNLA and the SSA-South; most have returned home, but some 3,000 remain displaced. The fighting in Rakhine State in March-April 2016 displaced approximately 1,900, who have yet to return home. Most recently, fighting in Kayin State displaced some 4,000 in September 2016.[fn]Figures from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, except Kayin State displacements, from “Tatmadaw launch operations against KKO splinter group in Wah Boh Taung-Kyonhtaw, Methawaw regions”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The New Government’s Approach

A. First Steps

During the previous government’s tenure, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was invited, with other political parties, to participate in the peace process. Though it sent representatives, their engagement was limited. Aung San Suu Kyi kept her distance and was at times critical of the process. Her speech to the inaugural Union Peace Conference in January 2016 (above) was thus significant.

Suu Kyi had indicated that achieving peace would be a top priority for her government, and the NLD’s election manifesto addressed this as its first item, promising to “hold political dialogue based on the Panglong spirit in order to address the roots of internal armed conflict” – referring to the pre-independence Panglong Conference, convened by her father in 1947.[fn]“2015 Election Manifesto”, NLD, official translation, p. 5. For details on the 1947 Panglong Conference, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section I. The 1947 Panglong Agreement was not a peace deal – there was then no insurgency – but an agreement by some ethnic areas (Shan, Kachin and Chin) to join an independent Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in national wealth.Hide Footnote  In her first major speech after the transfer of power, a Myanmar New Year’s message to the nation on 18 April, Suu Kyi stated that the government would aim to bring remaining organisations into the NCA, and “through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union”.[fn]“State Counsellor offers New Year message”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April 2016.Hide Footnote  She indicated that she would personally lead the process.

She gave the first concrete indication of her plans at a 27 April JMC meeting, announcing that a new 21st Century Panglong (Panglong-21) peace conference would be held within two months. This caused consternation among ethnic leaders due to both form and substance. There had been no prior consultation with ethnic armed groups or political leaders; and no details were provided on the initiative, which was seen as potentially signalling a unilateral shift in approach in a process with a legally-binding framework that had required months of detailed negotiation. The venue for the announcement compounded these concerns, as the JMC is tasked with military or ceasefire matters, not the political dialogue, for which the UPDJC is the mandated body.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic party and armed group leaders, Yangon, May-July 2016. For example, a month later the leader of the Shan State Army-South, a major armed group that signed the NCA, expressed concern on both aspects. “Lt-Gen Yawd Serk: If this conference is wrong, it will affect the future of the union”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 26 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In a 26-28 May meeting of the UPDJC, which she chairs, Suu Kyi sought to allay some concerns. She confirmed she would continue to follow the NCA framework, and Panglong-21 was only a different name for the Union Peace Conferences that framework envisaged. While this reassured ethnic leaders, other comments raised new concerns, notably her stated intention to narrow the scope of discussions in the political dialogue from the five thematic areas agreed in the UPDJC to federalism and security.[fn]Ibid. “NCA to guide 21st Century Panglong Conference”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 28 May 2016. The previously-agreed five areas are set out in the Framework for Political Dialogue, which is being amended. The three thematic areas proposed to be dropped were: social issues (including culture, language, gender, resettlement, human rights, drugs), economic issues (including foreign investment, tax and revenue distribution and regional development) and issues around land and natural resources (including resource management and revenue sharing).Hide Footnote  This would leave out some key areas of concern and missed an opportunity to build confidence by addressing easier issues, such as language policy. With armed group leaders strongly opposed, the matter was not settled before the Panglong-21 conference, and discussions are ongoing. It is likely armed group concerns will be accommodated, and the dialogue’s scope will remain unchanged, though with some effort to focus on priority issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of UPDJC, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  There has to date been little outreach to civil society, and few efforts to engage a wider range of voices in the peace process, particularly women and youth.

The government also announced a new peace architecture on 31 May, with three sets of structures:

  • the NCA-mandated JMC and UPDJC, the latter now chaired by Suu Kyi and with party membership limited to those that won seats in the last elections;
  • a committee to transform the previous government’s Myanmar Peace Centre into a National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC). This new centre, launched on 11 July, is headed by Suu Kyi. Under it is a new Peace Commission, chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win, her personal physician and newly-designated chief peace negotiator.[fn]Established by President Office Orders 50/2016 and 51/2016, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Unlike its predecessor, a semi-government body staffed mainly by non-government experts, it is a government institution under Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor Office, staffed by civil servants and governed by civil service laws and financial rules; and
  • a Panglong-21 preparatory committee also chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win and sub-committees to liaise respectively with NCA-signatories and non-signatories.

B. Peace Conference Preparations

Though the date for Panglong-21 slipped from her initial late-June proposal, Suu Kyi appeared determined to avoid major delays. This seems to stem from two considerations: not wanting to repeat the experience of the previous government, when negotiations bogged down over process, particularly which armed groups would be included; and a sense that her leverage would be at its greatest early in her term, due to the election landslide. Some observers also believed she wanted the conference before her September meetings with President Obama in Washington DC and at the UN General Assembly. Thus, at her urging, there was agreement with the NCA signatories for Panglong-21 to begin no later than 31 August, a very ambitious timeframe both logistically and for obtaining buy-in of non-signatory armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders and international peace-process adviser, Yangon, July-August 2016. “Gov’t, NCA signatories agree to hold UPC no later than 31 August”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The intention to make Panglong-21 inclusive of all armed groups, stated from the outset, was positively received. This has long been a demand of the non-signatories. On 3 June, as a first step to secure their participation, Dr Tin Myo Win met the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the main umbrella organisation of non-signatories. He then met separately on 17-19 June with the UWSP and NDAA, non-signatories that are not UNFC members. Under the previous government, non-signatories were only invited as observers; the new government got around this by indicating that since the first Panglong-21 conference would be symbolic, with presentations but no negotiations or decisions, all armed groups would be “attendees” (tet-yauk-thu). The government position remained, however, that only signatories could participate in the future political dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote

There were also negotiations with the three previously-excluded groups: AA, TNLA and MNDAA. Since these lack bilateral ceasefires, they are not eligible to sign the NCA, and the military previously insisted they must disarm, something the groups equated with surrender. The commander-in-chief subsequently proposed that it would be sufficient to put their arms beyond use in some verifiable way, along the lines of formulas used in Aceh, Nepal and Northern Ireland, but this was rejected.[fn]Ibid. Also, commander-in-chief meeting with press, 13 May 2016, reported in “Tatmadaw sets out peace conference conditions”, Myanmar Times, 16 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Negotiations then focused on a statement committing the groups to renounce armed struggle in principle. Considerable progress was made, with the only sticking point being the Burmese-language term for “armed struggle” versus “violence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote  However, no agreement was reached, the three issued no statement, and they were not invited to Panglong-21. Crucially, however, that did not lead to the UNFC and other non-signatories boycotting, though lack of inclusion had been a key reason cited by groups for not signing the NCA.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process op. cit., Section III.B.Hide Footnote  

In the lead-up to Panglong-21, representatives of seventeen armed groups held a major strategy meeting in the KIO-controlled town of Maijayang, 26-30 July, to coordinate positions on key issues; the UN and China attended as international observers. Four armed groups did not attend (UWSP, MNDAA, TNLA and NSCN-Khaplang). The UWSP, together with its NDAA ally, went to Naypyitaw to meet on 29 July with Suu Kyi and then the commander-in-chief.[fn]The NDAA participated in both the Maijayang meeting and the Naypyitaw visit.Hide Footnote

C. The Panglong-21 Conference

The conference, officially the “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong”, was held in Naypyitaw from 31 August to 3 September. Suu Kyi’s opening address was followed by plenary speeches from the lower and upper house speakers, the commander-in-chief, the KNU chairman, NLD patron Tin Oo (an ex-commander-in-chief), the KIO vice chairman and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.[fn]The KIO vice chairman’s talk was a last-minute concession; there was initially no speaking slot for the non-signatory groups (Major-General N’Ban La also chairs the UNFC).Hide Footnote

Representatives of nearly all armed groups attended, except the AA, TNLA, MNDAA and NSCN-Khaplang.[fn]The first three were not invited; the NSCN-Khaplang, though invited, had long made clear it would not attend, as it is committed to the creation of an independent Naga homeland out of parts of Myanmar and India, which is politically inconsistent with the NCA and the peace process.Hide Footnote  Some 850 attendees participated over the four days. In a move armed group representatives welcomed for its transparency, the 72 ten-minute speeches were carried live on national television, “the first time in more than 50 years that they [were] able to express their desires and pent up aspirations to a national audience without fear of being arrested and put in prison”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives, Yangon, September 2016. Quote from “Political Monitor No. 20”, Euro-Burma Office, 20 August-2 September 2016.Hide Footnote

The attendance of most non-signatories was an important step forward. However, it does not necessarily indicate significantly greater trust in the new government on the part of armed group leaders. It more reflects the very different political landscape – in particular, the domestic and international legitimacy of Suu Kyi. Many armed group leaders felt they had little alternative but to participate, despite reservations or concerns; some came under pressure from China to attend (see below).[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  A prominent ethnic politician, Khun Tun Oo, who chairs the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, did boycott on the basis that the conference was not fully inclusive of armed groups (though the decision was undoubtedly influenced by political tensions between his party and the NLD).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives and analysts, Yangon, September 2016. “Khun Tun Oo absent from peace talks”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 31 August 2016. For details on the tensions, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government, op. cit., Section III.C.Hide Footnote

Several groups felt the conference had been hastily convened, and there was considerable unhappiness at flawed arrangements. Armed group delegations were not met at the Naypyitaw airport and had to find their own way to their accommodation; delegations, including some senior leaders, were housed dormitory-style by the government; written documents and nameplates did not give military ranks of armed group representatives or other honorifics (failure to use the equivalent of “Mr” or “Ms” before a name is culturally very impolite in Myanmar). A major group, the UWSP, walked out after the first day, saying it felt discriminated against, though this was at least as much a reflection of its ambivalence about the NCA as it was over a specific issue; it had sent only a low-level delegation.[fn]The UWSP delegation had booked itself into a prominent hotel, rather than stay at the government-assigned accommodation. Since groups were not met at the airport, the delegation did not collect its conference passes, and on the opening day a government organiser arranged temporary “observer” badges so the delegation could attend the plenary. Since these were not valid for the following day session, when the UWSP was to give its presentation, security barred the delegation, which then walked out in protest before organisers could remedy the problem. Crisis Group interview, organising committee member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Some of these issues arose from the tight timeframe for convening the conference, but others appear to have been the deliberate result of the government’s approach to organising it.

IV. Huge Challenges Remain

The government has indicated that it plans to hold such Panglong-21 peace conferences every six months.[fn]“Union Peace Conference to be held every six months”, State Counsellor Office statement, 15 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This would impose an artificially rigid set of deadlines on a process that must achieve the buy-in of diverse stakeholders on very contentious issues. Challenges lie in the preliminary matters that must be settled before the next session, the content of future political discussions and the political and security context.

A. Preparations for the Next Conference

Achieving broad participation by armed groups at the recent conference hinged on three things:

  • Suu Kyi, who won an electoral landslide, including in many ethnic areas, and enjoys strong international support as well, has great political capital and legitimacy. Most armed group leaders accordingly felt politically compelled to attend, unlike in the past. This was reinforced by the military’s support for the conference and the clear convergence of views between the soldiers and government on the peace process. China’s backing was also critical. The combination gave Suu Kyi a large advantage over the previous government, which had military support but far less legitimacy and no backing – indeed, sometimes obstruction – from China. (It also amplified the power asymmetry between the government/military and the armed groups, making the latter nervous.)
  • Decisions on difficult issues were postponed until after the conference. In particular, discussions on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue continue, and there is not yet agreement on topics to be included and how a series of “national dialogues” to feed into the next Panglong-21 will be conducted. Non-signatory groups declined to attend a September framework review meeting.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UPDJC member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote
  • Perhaps most importantly, the requirement that armed groups must sign the NCA to participate was not enforced. This was possible because the conference was billed as a symbolic launch, without discussions or decisions. But it remains firm government policy and a red line for the military that armed groups wishing to participate in the political dialogue must first sign the NCA. This message was reinforced by Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who made the NCA a key focus of their opening speeches.[fn]Reproduced in Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 and 2 September 2016, respectively.Hide Footnote

The timeframe is extremely tight. The next conference is due in February and may be timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary on 12 February of the 1947 Panglong agreement, celebrated annually as Union Day. Before this, there is need for negotiations to secure signing of the NCA by non-signatories and agreement on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue (targeted for end of October), followed by national dialogues in each state and region. All these steps are difficult, time-consuming or both, particularly getting more groups to sign the NCA. The largest armed group, the UWSP, is very reluctant to sign, because it is a de facto mini-state with far more autonomy than anything the NCA offers. The closely-allied NDAA is likely to follow its lead.

The seven UNFC groups (see Appendix B), particularly the larger ones, desire to reach a political settlement on the grievances driving decades of conflict – fundamentally, lack of autonomy and equality. They recognise the current moment may be the best opportunity they will ever get, but exclusion of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA makes the NCA politically problematic for them and a ceasefire militarily unfeasible. They also have not yet been offered any concessions – not even of the face-saving kind – for signing,[fn]In particular, the UNFC has put forward an eight-point proposal for amending/supplementing the NCA. It will be very difficult for the government to accept any changes now that it is signed by the former president, commander-in-chief and legislative speakers, as well as eight armed groups, and been ratified by the legislature. Some of the specific proposals are also quite difficult, but a compromise must be found. See also, Sai Wansai, “Framework for Political Dialogue: UNFC’s boycott leads to peace process deterioration”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 21 September 2016.Hide Footnote  and will be reluctant to do so if the only reason is to gain access to a process they view as driven unilaterally by the government and insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. They worry that conforming to an artificial, government-imposed timeframe would set a precedent for unilateral imposition of any subsequent political solutions.

Some UNFC members may also want to delay major decisions until the KNU holds its congress in November.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior armed group representative, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  If a more hardline leadership results, they believe it could pave the way for this influential armed group to rejoin the alliance, enhancing its power and bargaining position. However, if the UNFC tries to prolong the process too much, it risks being marginalised, for example not being eligible to participate in the national dialogues, thereby giving government and political parties a stronger role in defining the peace process agenda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders, members of government peace bodies and analysts, Yangon, July-October 2016.Hide Footnote

The issue of the three groups, AA, TNLA and MNDAA, without bilateral ceasefires is even more difficult. Including them in the next conference requires, at a minimum, agreement on a statement renouncing violence in principle; even then, they could likely attend only as observers. Having declined that for the last conference, it is far from clear whether they will do so ahead of the next; the TNLA sent an open letter to Panglong-21 stating it would “never lay down arms or renounce arms, at any time or under any circumstance”.[fn]TNLA open letter to the Panglong-21 conference, 31 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This not only matters for inclusivity, but also has on-the-ground consequences. These groups are to various degrees allied with or supported by the UWSP and KIO, and they fight together in joint patrols and in some cases together with the KIO and SSPP. All operate in adjacent or overlapping territory, and it is hard to imagine any ceasefire being sustainable without the three non-ceasefire groups.[fn]See “Military confrontation or political dialogue: Consequences of the Kokang crisis for peace and democracy in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, July 2015.Hide Footnote  

A huge amount of procedural work and negotiation is required before the next peace conference. In addition to the inherent challenges, the peace architecture has quite limited capacity. Lead negotiator Dr Tin Myo Win works extremely hard but has no chief of staff for the process and continues his medical work for Suu Kyi and as a surgeon at a philanthropic hospital. The NRPC, tasked with the day-to-day work, has only a handful of staff, compared with 120 under its predecessor. Because Suu Kyi decided to establish it as a fully government entity under her office (its predecessor was semi-independent, at least administratively), it must follow civil service staffing and budgeting regulations. Scaling up will take considerable time, and it will be difficult to draw on outside expertise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals with direct knowledge, Yangon, June-September 2016. The new multi-donor Joint Peace Fund is an initiative that can provide significant resources, but it cannot necessarily overcome the regulatory restrictions the NRPC operates under.Hide Footnote  There is thus a worrying lack of institutional capacity to support peace-process mechanics, and the armed groups also have little support capacity.

B. Questions of Content

Now that the peace process set out in the NCA has been launched symbolically on two occasions – the Union Peace Conference in January 2016 and Panglong-21 in August – the next conference will have to start addressing the substantive issues. Assuming that a revised Framework for Political Dialogue can be agreed and reasonable inclusivity of armed groups can be achieved through an expansion in NCA signatories, participants will then need to start grappling with the substance. All agree this will be very challenging, and it will likely be many years before a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached. Three key questions arise:

  • Is a negotiated federal solution possible? This is the main demand of armed groups and ethnic leaders, and Suu Kyi has strongly committed to achieving “the democratic federal union of our dreams”. The military is far more cautious. The commander-in-chief did not use the term “federal” in his opening speech at Panglong-21, emphasising “peace and unity” and that armed struggle is inconsistent with democracy. However, the military is not rejecting federalism; the commander-in-chief signed the NCA, whose first point is to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism”, and a senior military officer used the term at Panglong-21.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, opening speech, Panglong-21, Naypyitaw, 31 August 2016. NCA Section 1(a); speech of Lt. General Yar Pyae, JMC chair, at Panglong-21, reported in “21st Century Panglong commences in Nay Pyi Taw”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The potential deal is federalism in return for disarmament of armed groups. However, this will be complicated given the number of armed groups and their divergent interests, and the extent of federal powers that military and government are ready to devolve is not yet clear. There are also hundreds of armed militias, some of which have ethno-nationalist positions, but most are primarily economic actors.[fn]For details, see John Buchanan, “Militias in Myanmar”, The Asia Foundation, July 2016.Hide Footnote

  • Can the concerns of sub-minorities be accommodated? One of the more intractable issues is likely to be their status. Federalism has tended to be conceived, in geographic terms, as devolution of powers to the existing seven ethnic states.[fn]Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.Hide Footnote  This alarms smaller minority groups within these states, who fear that political domination at the state level will replace domination by Naypyitaw. This was already clear from the speeches at Panglong-21, where specific claims for new states were made by the Wa, Ta’ang and Pao (all currently having self-administered areas within Shan State) and the Red Shan (in Kachin State and Sagaing Region, where they have no territorial designation). Many other potential claims can be anticipated.[fn]See comments of Sai Htay Aung (Red Shan), Khun Myint Tun (Pao) and U Yan Kyaw (Wa), Global New Light of Myanmar, 3 September 2016; and TNLA open letter, op. cit., which specifically calls for creation of a Ta’ang (Palaung) State.Hide Footnote  Shan and Kachin political and armed group leaders in general oppose these proposals.
  • Will any negotiated solution be regarded as legitimate and be implemented? Even if a reasonably inclusive process can be achieved and consensus reached on the complex substantive issues, many constituencies may feel marginalised by the process. Minority ethnic representation is limited to those that have armed groups or political parties that won seats (in a recent change Suu Kyi initiated, those that did not win legislative seats in 2015 have only a token number at the peace conference and no UPDJC representation).[fn]See “Kayah political parties boycott Panglong Conference”, Myanmar Times, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Many influential ethnic parties won nothing in the NLD landslide and will have a minimal voice in the process; some minority groups are not represented by an armed group; and questions can be asked about how representative armed groups are of communities in their areas.

There is a fundamental doubt about whether state-based federal solutions can appropriately be negotiated between armed groups and government, in particular when civil society voices, women and youth feel marginalised in the process.[fn]“CSOs pine for seat at table”, Myanmar Times, 26 August 2016; statement by Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process on Panglong-21, September 2016; “No women, no peace: Gender equality, conflict and peace in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, 13 January 2016; “Youth ethnic alliance emerges after summit”, Myanmar Times, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote  That process should be adjusted to ensure that it has broader legitimacy. Even where representation has strong legitimacy – for example, the NLD government’s support from the majority Burman group (and many others) – the population at large has had little engagement with the peace process and may oppose solutions that devolve too much political authority and economic control to minority areas. Minority communities will not necessarily see the NLD as representing their interests, even if they voted for it, because that vote was in many ways a referendum on military rule, reflecting determination to vote out the military-backed party.[fn]For discussion of the election outcome in ethnic areas and its interpretation, see Crisis Group Briefing, The Myanmar Elections, op. cit., Section IV.C; and “The 2015 general election in Myanmar: What now for ethnic politics?”, Transnational Institute, December 2015.Hide Footnote

While Suu Kyi’s focus has been on federalism and security – she initially proposed that the political dialogue deal directly with only those issues – minority communities have many other concerns. These include rights and discrimination, revenue sharing, natural resource management and language policy.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote  Whether these are dealt with up-front as potentially more tractable confidence-building measures or sidelined by more fundamental issues can have a big impact on the dynamics of the peace process. Overlooking them would likely be a mistake.

C. The Political and Security Environment

Since the peace process was launched in 2011, it has had to face significant external and domestic challenges. Serious armed conflict on the ground and China’s role have been particularly important and are to some degree interlinked.

The most significant outbreak of conflict in recent years was the collapse of the KIO ceasefire in 2011, the seeds of which were sown prior to the 2010 election. Fighting resumed ahead of the formal launch of the peace process in August 2011, and a serious escalation in December 2012 threatened to derail it, but China’s intervention, prompted in part by fighting spilling over its border, pushed the sides back to the negotiating table.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013.Hide Footnote  Another major test came in April 2014, when serious clashes displaced some 5,000 civilians and eroded the trust of all parties in the NCA negotiations. The crisis deepened in November 2014, when an army mortar attack on a military training centre at KIO headquarters almost caused the talks to collapse. Serious fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone between government forces and the MNDAA from February 2015 hardened opposing positions of the military and several armed groups over inclusivity, part of the reason why a number of groups were unwilling to sign the NCA that year.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section II.D.Hide Footnote

With a fragile peace holding in parts of the borderlands and clashes ongoing in many others (Section II.B above), the peace process is likely to continue to be buffeted. Rigid timelines for Panglong-21 conferences risk becoming an obvious target for spoilers and an unsatisfactory framework for adjusting to unpredictable but inevitable escalations in the conflict. The military may feel less constrained by the peace process than under the previous government; given the power asymmetries, it is likely to continue pressing its ground advantage, especially with NCA non-signatories and in particular if the peace process moves slowly or it feels that armed groups are being obstructive.

China’s influence can have a big impact on ground dynamics and the peace process, given its considerable leverage over the groups on its border. It has regularly intervened, positively and negatively. Relations with the Thein Sein administration were often strained, starting with suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 and difficulties with the Letpadaung copper mine – both major China-backed projects – and long delays in announcing that a Chinese company had won the tender for the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port and special economic zone, a major Chinese strategic interest.[fn]See Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing: Recalibrating Myanmar’s China policy”, Transnational Institute, 16 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Myanmar’s markedly improved relations with the U.S. intensified China’s angst that it had lost its “traditional advantage”.[fn]“China’s engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma”, Transnational Institute, July 2016.Hide Footnote  The poor relations, combined with specific irritants such as Myanmar’s intrusion into Chinese airspace in 2015 to attack the MNDAA, a flood of refugees into China and Naypyitaw’s invitation to Japan and the West to become involved in the peace process, produced a negative stance toward the NCA, to the point that persistent allegations emerged that China was lobbying armed groups in 2015 not to sign.[fn]China has denied the allegations, which were made publicly by a member of the Myanmar Peace Centre and subsequently retracted, and privately to Crisis Group and others by a wide range of people connected to the peace process. Whether true or not, it is clear from talk with armed groups leaders at the time that there was no Chinese pressure to sign the NCA and massive private financial support from China that the authorities must have been aware of. See “Fraud probe alleges Chinese firm sent money to Myanmar insurgents”, Frontier Myanmar, 3 February 2016.Hide Footnote  

The situation has shifted significantly under the new government. China feels Suu Kyi gives more priority to the bilateral relationship, and it supports her peace overtures. At the July summit of armed group leaders hosted by the KIO, the Chinese special envoy publicly called on all groups to attend Panglong-21, and Beijing successfully put considerable pressure on several to do so. China has also given several million dollars to fund the JMC but remains uncertain about the trajectory of relations, the chances for success in the peace process and how many years that would take; it is thus likely to continue to balance support for Naypyitaw and maintaining ties with armed groups along its border.[fn]Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Beijing”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar expert on China, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

The Panglong-21 conference encapsulated both the significant advantages Suu Kyi has for forging peace and the enormous challenges she must surmount. The broad attendance of armed groups gives hope of a more inclusive, successful peace process, but it would be a mistake to think that the fundamental problems have become easier to solve. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the NCA, a sine qua non the government and military have each expressed. The announced scheduling of Panglong-21 conferences every six months artificially limits the flexibility required to secure signatures. Weak capacity in the government’s NRPC peace secretariat makes the job more difficult.

The government should consider adopting a less rigid timeframe and less unilateral approach and take steps to ensure it has the necessary support capacity in place. Armed groups need to recognise that, though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they may never get a better chance to negotiate a settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has the political authority to deliver. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 October 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: The Main Ethnic Armed Groups and their Ceasefire Status

  1. United Wa State Party (UWSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  2. National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA, “Mongla group”)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  3. Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army (DKBA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 3 November 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  4. Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-South)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 2 December 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  5. Chin National Front (CNF)  
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  6. Karen National Union (KNU)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 12 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  7. Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-North)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 28 January 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  8. New Mon State Party (NMSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 1 February 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  9. Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 February 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  10. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 March 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  11. Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 April 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  12. National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang
    Bilateral ceasefire: 9 April 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  13. Pao National Liberation Organisation (PNLO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 25 August 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  14. All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 August 2013. NCA-signatory: Yes
  15. Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: (30 May 2012)*. NCA-signatory: No
  16. Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No
  17. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, “Kokang group”)         
    Bilateral ceasefire: No†. NCA-signatory: No
  18. Arakan Army (AA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No

* An agreement was signed on 30 May 2012. It was not a formal ceasefire, but contained inter alia a commitment to “efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”.

† The MNDAA’s 1989 ceasefire ended after an army attack in 2009, with one faction being routed (and its leaders fleeing to China) and the other agreeing to become a Border Guard Force unit under partial army control. The routed faction subsequently reactivated, with support from other groups.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is an armed group umbrella organisation, whose seven members have not signed the NCA: SSPP/SSA-North, NMSP, KNPP, KIO, Lahu Democratic Union, Arakan National Council, Wa National Organisation. The last three do not have significant armed forces, so have not been directly included in the ceasefire process.

Appendix C: List of Acronyms

AA: Arakan Army

ABSDF: All Burma Students Democratic Front

ALP: Arakan Liberation Party

CNF: Chin National Front

DKBA: Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army, Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army

JMC: Joint Monitoring Committee

KIO: Kachin Independence Organisation

KNPP: Karenni National Progressive Party

KNU: Karen National Union

MNDAA: Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang)

NCA: Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

NDAA: National Democratic Alliance Army (“Mongla group”)

NMSP: New Mon State Party

NRPC: National Reconciliation and Peace Centre

NSCN-Khaplang: National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang

PNLO: Pao National Liberation Organisation

RCSS: Restoration Council of Shan State

SSA-North: Shan State Army-North

SSA-South: Shan State Army-South

SSPP: Shan State Progress Party

TNLA: Ta’ang National Liberation Army

UNFC : United Nationalities Federal Council

UPDJC: Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee

UWSP: United Wa State Party

With a population of over 630000, Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, is today the largest refugee camp in the world. CRISISGROUP
Report 303 / Asia

A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps. 

What’s new? Two years after atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State drove a wave of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, prospects for repatriation remain dim. Frustrated Bangladeshi authorities refuse to plan for the long term, have introduced stringent security measures at refugee camps, and may move some refugees to a remote island, Bhasan Char.

Why did it happen? The Bangladeshi government is struggling with growing security challenges near the refugee camps and domestic political pressure to resolve the crisis. It is also irritated by the lack of progress in repatriating any of the estimated one million Rohingya refugees on its soil.

Why does it matter? Dhaka’s restrictions on aid activities prohibit its partners from building safe housing in the Rohingya camps or developing programs that cultivate refugee self-reliance. Combined with heavy-handed security measures, this approach risks alienating refugees and setting the stage for greater insecurity and conflict in southern Bangladesh.

What should be done? While pressing for eventual repatriation, Bangladesh and external partners should move past short-term planning and work together to build safe housing, improve refugees’ educational and livelihood opportunities, and support refugee-hosting communities. Dhaka should also roll back its counterproductive security measures and plans for relocations to Bhasan Char.

Executive Summary

Bangladesh is host to roughly one million Rohingya refugees, most of whom fled over the border following a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that began in August 2017. While generously providing safe haven to this enormous population, Bangladesh has sought to treat the displacement crisis as a short-term challenge, focusing on the importance of repatriation and refusing to engage in multi-year planning. This approach has not succeeded. Repatriation efforts have stalled, crime and violence in the Rohingya camps and around them in southern Bangladesh appear to be on the rise, and Dhaka has reacted increasingly sharply. In August, it began rolling out stringent restrictions on refugees and NGOs that are interfering with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the camps and alienating refugees, thus potentially aggravating local insecurity. Bangladesh should reverse the counterproductive measures it has imposed, publicly acknowledge the long-term nature of the crisis it is facing and begin working with external partners and refugees to mobilise the resources needed to meet it.

In late 2017, after the number of Rohingya refugees crossing the border began to diminish, Bangladesh and Myanmar moved quickly to put in place a repatriation mechanism, but so far no refugees have returned through these formal channels. Myanmar appears unwilling to create the conditions needed to encourage refugees to return, while Bangladesh and its foreign partners generally appear to lack the leverage to push Myanmar to address key issues such as citizenship and security for the Rohingya. China, Naypyitaw’s most important regional partner, appears reluctant to throw its full weight behind this push, and even if it did, it is unclear whether its weight would be sufficient.

The country’s policy toward the Rohingya remains focused on near-term repatriation.

Although Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that the refugees are unlikely to return in the near or even medium term, the country’s policy toward the Rohingya remains focused on near-term repatriation. Dhaka worries that by publicly acknowledging that Bangladesh will be hosting these refugees for years to come, it will reduce pressure on Myanmar to make the changes needed to enable repatriation, and could create a pull factor that draws yet more Rohingya over the border. As a result, it is restricting the humanitarian response to meeting the refugees’ immediate needs, rather than addressing long-term challenges such as building durable shelters to withstand the region’s harsh monsoons, developing programs to help refugees become more self-reliant through education and the creation of livelihood opportunities, or helping host communities absorb the impact of the refugees on the local economy. These are the kinds of programs and resources that will over time become increasingly important to Dhaka’s successful management of the crisis.

Recently, Bangladesh has begun moving in the opposite direction by clamping down on refugees and humanitarian activities. In August – amid rising concern about insecurity in southern Bangladesh – Dhaka began rolling out new restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and access to mobile phones, as well as on NGO operations in the camps. It has begun fencing some of the camps and says it will build watchtowers and instal surveillance cameras. Although plans are not firm, it has also announced that it will press ahead with relocating some refugees to a silt island in the Bay of Bengal that is vulnerable to severe weather.

Dhaka’s response to the Rohingya displacement crisis is at an inflection point. If the Bangladeshi government continues to look at the situation through a short-term lens and falls into a pattern of heavy-handed responses to security challenges, the situation could become more fraught and dangerous for all concerned. In the absence of prospects for repatriation and longer-term planning, such a crackdown will only increase the refugees’ desperation. It could even make them more susceptible to recruitment into criminal or extremist networks, which would add to the security challenges Bangladesh faces.

There is another way forward. Rather than implementing the full suite of security measures it has proposed, it could scale back the most draconian, and instead focus on promoting genuine camp security by increasing a law enforcement presence and ensuring accountability for offenders. Rather than treating the Rohingya displacement crisis as a year-to-year problem, it could shift to a longer-term perspective and loosen restrictions on the activities that donors and humanitarian partners can undertake. Working together, Dhaka and its partners could mobilise resources and develop programs to build safer facilities, help refugees work toward a better future through education and livelihood opportunities, and support host communities. For their part, external partners can make clear to Bangladesh that if it makes this pivot, they will both continue to press Myanmar on repatriation – an essential goal that Dhaka’s domestic constituents want to continue seeing at the top of the agenda – and provide the funding and resources required to allow this approach to succeed.

Whether or not Dhaka publicly acknowledges it, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are likely to remain in Bangladesh for years to come. While the Bangladeshi government must consider the political implications of expressly recognising this probability, it should also consider the practical implications of failing to do so. The most promising path for responsibly managing the Rohingya displacement crisis requires the government to shift its sights to planning for the long term and looking to external partners for support in making those plans succeed. That is the path it should now take.

Yangon/Brussels, 27 December 2019

Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, is today the largest refugee camp in the world. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

For the past four decades, Bangladesh has provided safe haven for Muslim Rohingya facing violence and persecution in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. In 1978, around 200,000 Rohingya civilians crossed into Bangladesh to escape a violent Myanmar government operation aimed at rooting out illegal immigrants. In the early 1990s, roughly a quarter-million refugees arrived in Bangladesh after the Myanmar military unleashed another wave of abuses. Most of the Rohingya who left Rakhine State during these episodes eventually went home, though some stayed behind in the country that gave them shelter.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote

The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh increased dramatically after late August 2017, when Myanmar security forces embarked on a campaign of terror in response to attacks by a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on Border Guard Police posts. In the space of several months nearly 750,000 Rohingya fled over the border, joining those who had sought refuge there during previous crises. Bangladesh’s southern Cox’s Bazar district now hosts around one million Rohingya, some 600,000 of whom live in the Kutupalong “mega-camp”, the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]Only 34,000 of these people are officially registered as refugees with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Bangladesh, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refers to the rest as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”. This report, along with most international actors, such as the UN, uses the term refugees.Hide Footnote Hosting a refugee population of this size would be an extraordinary burden for any country, but for a developing country like Bangladesh that has faced periodic political instability and conflict – including a two-decade insurgency in the Chittagong Hills Tracts region at the end of the last century – the strain is especially pronounced.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government and UN officials, Dhaka and Yangon, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote

This report looks at the Bangladeshi government’s efforts to grapple with this new and greatly expanded Rohingya refugee crisis. In any such crisis, repatriation is the first and preferred option – but, for reasons laid out here, the current cohort of Rohingya refugees is unlikely to return to Myanmar any time soon. The report therefore suggests some ways in which the government can improve its crisis response in order to sustainably accommodate large numbers of Rohingya for some years to come. It builds upon earlier Crisis Group reports and briefings published since the Rohingya’s mass flight around August 2017.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; Crisis Group Asia Report N°296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; and Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°155, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 25 April 2019.Hide Footnote It is based upon fieldwork in Bangladesh and Myanmar, including interviews with refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps, UN and non-governmental organisation officials, donors and diplomats, Bangladeshi and Myanmar government officials, and independent experts.

II. Stalled Repatriation, Rising Frustration, New Restrictions

A. The Displacement Crisis Drags On

During the refugee crises of the 1970s and 1990s, the Bangladeshi government provided sanctuary to Rohingya fleeing military operations in northern Rakhine State. In both instances the majority of refugees returned home within a few years, but this is unlikely to be the case for the present crisis, which also involves significantly larger numbers of people. In past decades, Bangladesh’s response to successive inflows of Rohingya refugees has been to focus almost exclusively on repatriation. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya returned to Rakhine State following forced migrations in 1978 and the early 1990s, and Dhaka hoped in 2017 that it could broker a mass return once more. As soon as the number of new arrivals began to subside that October, Bangladesh opened formal negotiations with Myanmar on a process for repatriation. The following month, the neighbours signed a memorandum of understanding, and in December 2017, they set up a Joint Working Group to coordinate repatriation in what both sides committed would be a safe, voluntary and dignified manner.[fn]“Myanmar signs pact with Bangladesh over Rohingya repatriation”, The Guardian, 23 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The majority of refugees are reluctant to return to Myanmar until the authorities remedy the institutionalised discrimination and systemic persecution that underpins recurrent violence toward the Rohingya.

The two countries have made little progress since then, however. Two attempts at repatriation, in November 2018 and August 2019, ended without a single refugee who had been cleared return agreeing to go back. The problem is the conditions back home. Although the majority of refugees express their wish to repatriate, they are reluctant to return to Myanmar until the authorities remedy the institutionalised discrimination and systemic persecution that underpins recurrent violence toward the Rohingya and that Rohingya who remain in Myanmar continue to face. Rohingya leaders have drawn up a set of prerequisites for repatriation, including recognition of the Rohingya as an official Myanmar ethnic group, restoration of full citizenship rights, and lifting of restrictions on the community’s freedom of movement and access to services in Rakhine State.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government and refugee leaders, June and August 2019. See also “Rohingya refugee leaders draw up demands ahead of repatriation”, Reuters, 19 January 2018.Hide Footnote “This will be our last time as refugees. We will not let this be repeated. We must return with full rights”, said a senior member of a new political group that the Rohingya have formed in the camps.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya community leader, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Many countries back the Rohingya demands, including (increasingly) Bangladesh, where officials recognise that unless Myanmar tackles the underlying causes of the Rohingya plight returnees will be very likely to cross the border again at some point. But the demands have had little impact on decision-makers in Naypyitaw. Myanmar has persistently refused to entertain the kinds of changes that would allow the Rohingya to rebuild their lives with a reasonable measure of security and economic opportunity. It has instead argued that the way to fix the problems of Rakhine State is through an infusion of investment and aid focused on infrastructure and economic development in the northern part of the region – an infusion that would do precious little to help the Rohingya absent the introduction of meaningful protections for their economic, civil and political rights.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Neither Myanmar’s attitude toward the Rohingya requests nor conditions on the ground in Rakhine State appear likely to improve in the foreseeable future. Because of widespread antipathy toward the Rohingya, Myanmar’s looming general election in 2020 makes gestures of support even more unlikely than at less politically charged moments. There has also been a sharp increase in clashes in Rakhine State between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group fighting for autonomy that represents the state’s Buddhist majority. This conflict has displaced at least 65,000 people and has made prospects for repatriation even more remote.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote

As the displacement crisis drags on, Bangladeshi officials increasingly view Myanmar as insincere in its public commitment to take back the refugees. Each side has accused the other of manipulating repatriation protocols and procedures to slow the process. Bilateral tensions spiked in June, when a trusted aide to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister for the State Counsellor’s Office Kyaw Tint Swe, told an audience in Japan that Bangladesh was responsible for the failure to repatriate refugees through formal channels.[fn]“Myanmar says Bangladesh not helping refugee return”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 2 June 2019.Hide Footnote Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shot back that “the problem lies with Myanmar, as they don’t want to take back the Rohingyas by any means”.[fn]“Bangladesh PM attacks Myanmar over Rohingya deadlock”, Frontier Myanmar, 10 June 2019.Hide Footnote This public criticism has continued in recent months, including at the UN General Assembly in September and a Non-Aligned Movement Summit in October.[fn]See, for example, “Myanmar objects to Bangladeshi minister’s remarks over Rohingya at NAM meeting”, The Irrawaddy, 25 October 2019; and “Myanmar blames Bangladesh for Rohingya repatriation failure”, The Irrawaddy, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

The exclusion of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from the bilateral repatriation discussions – apparently at Myanmar’s insistence – means that there is no neutral party at the table to help iron out such logistical problems.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official and diplomat, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote As noted below, China has recently assumed a mediation role, but it is widely seen as siding with Myanmar and has made little progress bringing the two sides together.

In addition to their frustration with Myanmar, Bangladeshi officials are also beginning to lash out at other countries for their perceived inability or unwillingness to push Naypyitaw to ensure accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine State and to take the steps necessary for repatriation to begin.

The problem is not lack of effort, however. On the legal front, actions against Myanmar for alleged atrocities against the Rohingya are now pending at the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the Argentinian domestic courts – although because of limitations on enforcement capacity any verdict against the Myanmar state or senior officials may be largely symbolic.[fn]Priya Pillai, “Three complementary legal strategies for accountability: a momentous week for the Rohingya”, Opinio Juris, 19 November 2019.Hide Footnote Many countries, as well as the UN and non-governmental organisations, have sought to push Myanmar to take a more constructive approach to addressing the Rohingyas’ plight. But none of them has had much success in shaping decision-making on this issue by officials in Naypyitaw – whose intransigence is linked to pervasive domestic bias against the Rohingya and, increasingly, reflects a siege mentality toward international demands.

In order to mount a more effective campaign against Myanmar, Bangladesh will need more help from regional heavyweights, particularly China.[fn]Bangladesh has also lacked India’s support. Although New Delhi does not have the influence in Naypyitaw to push for a shift in policy toward the Rohingya, the fact that it has tended to take Myanmar’s side – largely for strategic and economic reasons – is still important symbolically to Bangladesh, which has looked to India as its most important international partner since its independence in 1971.Hide Footnote Thus far, however, Beijing has proven reluctant. China generally shies away from pushing other governments on issues relating to human rights, regarding such pressure as meddling in internal affairs, and it wants to advance security and economic ties with Myanmar.

Dhaka has worked to change these calculations, especially in Beijing. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a six-day visit to China in early July 2019 and lobbied Chinese officials to press Myanmar more forcefully to improve conditions in Rakhine State so that voluntary repatriation can take place.[fn]“PM Hasina: China promises to remain beside Bangladesh in Rohingya crisis”, Dhaka Tribune, 8 July 2019.Hide Footnote Hasina and members of her cabinet have also tried publicly emphasising the potential impact of a protracted refugee crisis on “regional stability”, including the multi-billion-dollar Chinese investments in Rakhine State, such as the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and oil and gas pipelines.[fn]“China-led port project inches ahead in Myanmar”, Asia Times, 15 July 2019.Hide Footnote There is something to this warning, given the porous border between Bangladesh and Myanmar and the numerous armed groups in the region, including the Arakan Army. Although Bangladesh’s policy is that it will not allow its territory to be used by these armed groups, officials in Dhaka are understandably keen to remind regional partners that they ignore the threats Bangladesh is wrestling with at their own peril.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and political analysts, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi leaders’ frustrations reflect the lack of options at their disposal to address the refugee challenge.

Following this push, China has begun to position itself as a mediator, and has at times been critical of Myanmar’s unwillingness to make concessions in discussions about repatriation.[fn]“Myanmar, Bangladesh, China to form Joint Working Group on Rohingya repatriation”, The Irrawaddy, 26 September 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, however, the impact has been modest. The primary outcome of Hasina’s visit to Beijing is that China urged both sides to make another attempt at repatriation, which predictably ended without a single refugee returning. China’s ambassador to Dhaka, Zhang Zuo, visited Rohingya refugee camps, but likely only to placate the Bangladeshi government after he had echoed Myanmar’s line that “the real solution to the problem lies in development”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi political analysts, Dhaka, June 2019. See also “Beijing sees solution to Rohingya crisis in BCIM implementation”, United News of Bangladesh, 8 May 2019.Hide Footnote China also proposed – with Bangladesh’s support – that Myanmar allow refugee leaders to conduct “go and see” visits to northern Rakhine State to help them weigh the possibility of returning.[fn]“Myanmar rejects Rohingya refugee visit to Rakhine State to inspect conditions for repatriation”, Radio Free Asia, 3 October 2019.Hide Footnote Myanmar said no, suggesting either the limits of Chinese diplomacy or the absence of pressure from Beijing to back it up. Naypyitaw may well understand that when push comes to shove, Beijing will continue supporting Myanmar, which it considers of much greater strategic value than Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi leaders’ frustrations reflect the lack of options at their disposal to address the refugee challenge. Following earlier migration waves, Dhaka sometimes mobilised mass repatriation campaigns using coercive tactics, such as cutting food aid to refugees, as was the case in the late 1970s.[fn]“Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution”, Human Rights Watch, May 2000.Hide Footnote In general, diplomats and humanitarian organisations doubt that the current government will go to these extremes. They believe that Dhaka wishes to keep the international good-will it has accrued in hosting the Rohingya and avoid the international condemnation that would come with forced repatriation. They also think that the Bangladeshi public, despite clamouring for progress on repatriation, might still oppose such harsh measures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, diplomats and political analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Hasina reiterated her government’s commitment to voluntary repatriation.[fn]“Address by Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina”, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 27 September 2019.Hide Footnote While a constructive statement, it underscores the importance of planning for a future in which the circumstances that permit return could be years away.

B. Political Pressure and a Crackdown

Over the course of 2019, Bangladesh’s leaders have grown increasingly concerned at the impact of the Rohingya displacement crisis on their country. The crisis has created tension between Bangladeshis living in Cox’s Bazar (one of the country’s least developed areas) and the refugees being hosted there. It dominates the country’s politics and is frequently in the news in ways that feed public anxiety. Throughout the year, media outlets have run prominent pieces linking the Rohingya to an increase in drug-linked crime in border areas and calling for stronger security measures.[fn]See, for example, “Crimes in the Rohingya camps”, The Daily Star, 31 March 2019.Hide Footnote Since January, security forces in Cox’s Bazar have killed dozens of Rohingya and locals alleged to be involved in drug trafficking and other crimes, in what officials refer to as “gunfights” but may be better described as extrajudicial killings.[fn]“39 Rohingya killed in ‘gunfights’ with Bangladeshi authorities in 2019”, The Irrawaddy, 23 September 2019. See also “‘Gunfights’ in Bangladesh”, The Interpreter, 13 June 2018, and “Bangladesh: Alleged Extrajudicial Killings in the Guise of a ‘War on Drugs’”, Amnesty International, 4 November 2019.Hide Footnote While the public frets about Rohingya links to drug trafficking, others, particularly in the military, worry that the crisis could threaten the fragile peace between the government and the ethnic minority armed groups that waged an insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts between 1977 and 1997.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomats, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, in August, several quickly unfolding events appeared to aggravate officials’ already high levels of anxiety over the displacement crisis and to prompt the unexpected rollout of increased security measures and restrictions in the refugee camps.

To begin with, on 22 August, a second attempt at repatriation ended with none of the 3,450 refugees cleared by both countries agreeing to return home.[fn]The first attempt at repatriation, in November 2018, also ended with no refugees agreeing to return.Hide Footnote The same day, a politician from the youth wing of the ruling Awami League was killed near the border town of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar. Allegations quickly spread that two Rohingya were responsible, prompting a riot that saw local Bangladeshis attack refugees and vandalise Rohingya shops. The manhunt that ensued ended with police killing the two suspects and created a climate of panic in the refugee camps.[fn]“Rohingya refugees shot dead by Bangladesh police during gunfight”, Agence France-Presse, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Three days later, on 25 August, large crowds of refugees – some media reports put the number at 200,000 – demonstrated to mark what they referred to as “genocide day”, ie, the anniversary of the outbreak of violence in northern Rakhine State in 2017 that triggered the mass exodus.[fn]“‘Genocide Day’: Thousands of Rohingya rally in Bangladesh camps”, Al Jazeera, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote Although the demonstrations were peaceful, Bangladeshi officials were troubled by what they saw of refugees’ capacity to mobilise quickly and in significant numbers. The event also strengthened domestic pressure on the government to take a tougher line against the Rohingya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Bangladeshi government official, October 2019. See also “August 25 Rohingya rally: Contradictory findings out of two inquiries”, Dhaka Tribune, 10 September 2019.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, on 31 August India released a citizenship register that effectively stripped citizenship from 1.9 million people in the eastern state of Assam, including many Muslims perceived to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is unclear what will happen to them if they become stateless, but some in Bangladesh fear that India will follow Myanmar’s lead and force the country to open its borders to these Muslims, exacerbating its refugee-related burdens yet further.[fn]“Bangladesh concerned about fallout from India’s citizen register”, The Straits Times, 14 October 2019.Hide Footnote

To be sure, Dhaka has reason to be concerned about security in southern Bangladesh. Reports of violent deaths and drug seizures are emerging on an almost daily basis from Cox’s Bazar, particularly around the town of Teknaf, which is on the Naf River directly opposite northern Rakhine State. As Crisis Group recommended in April 2019, measures to improve law and order could include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps – where armed groups and criminal networks appear to be active – investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues risks both harming the refugees and fuelling insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi efforts to control crime and respond to domestic political pressure have been implemented in a way that has only heightened tensions.

Bangladeshi efforts to control crime and respond to domestic political pressure, however, have been implemented in a way that has only heightened tensions. The authorities’ heavy-handed response risks increasing resentment among the refugees and, consequently, adding to the security challenges. Among other things, the government has tightened enforcement of travel restrictions on refugees so that it is difficult to leave the camps’ vicinity; placed Rohingya leaders under stricter police surveillance; evicted several humanitarian NGOs from the camps; and threatened to ban more.[fn]According to some officials as many as 41 NGOs had been banned from the refugee camps. See “Bangladesh withdrew 41 NGOs from Rohingya camps for ‘malpractices’”, bdnews24.com, 31 August 2019.Hide Footnote It has also cut off internet access in the camps and threatened to arrest any refugee found with a phone – restrictions that have not only hurt refugees’ ability to share information, mobilise, and organise social and political activities, but also have “seriously disrupted” relief activities and coordination efforts, according to aid groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee, October 2019. See also “Situation Report Rohingya Refugee Crisis”, Inter Sector Coordination Group, September 2019, p. 3; and “Bangladesh, growing tired of hosting Rohingya refugees, puts new squeeze on the teeming camps”, The Washington Post, 11 September 2019.Hide Footnote Finally, the government has replaced local officials in the camps known to be sympathetic to refugees, including the refugee relief and repatriation coordinator, who was regarded highly by humanitarian partners.

The government’s restrictive policies are already affecting the humanitarian response. Since the replacement of local officials in early September, NGOs report that it is increasingly difficult to operate in the Rohingya camps: they are subjected to much closer scrutiny and face long delays in the processing of visa requests and provision of other documents required to operate in Cox’s Bazar.[fn]In remarks that suggest a dim view of NGOs, Sheikh Hasina has told journalists that certain “international agencies that are providing voluntary services or working at Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar never want any refugee to go back”. “Bangladesh PM attacks Myanmar over Rohingya deadlock”, op. cit. But some have suggested her remarks were likely aimed at pacifying domestic constituencies. “The finger-pointing at the international community is just populism – the prime minister needs to blame someone”, said one Bangladeshi NGO leader. Crisis Group interview, Bangladeshi NGO leader, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote Some have had to interrupt delivery of humanitarian services after local authorities insisted that they replace Rohingya volunteers with Bangladeshi citizens, a request agencies working in the camps deem “totally unrealistic”. “Bangladeshis would never accept to do such menial work for symbolic pay”, commented one aid worker. “This could kill the humanitarian response”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid worker, October 2019.Hide Footnote

These polices have also increased refugees’ vulnerability and sense of desperation. While the pay for humanitarian work may be so low as to be “symbolic” from locals’ perspective, it is an important source of income for thousands of Rohingya volunteers, particularly women.[fn]“Cash ban stokes worry among Rohingya volunteers”, The New Humanitarian, 17 December 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, many of the refugees rely on remittances from abroad to supplement the support they receive from aid groups, but struggle to receive these without access to mobile phones.

Beyond their financial impact, the new restrictions on movement and internet access are humiliating and painful for many refugees, and have created an atmosphere of isolation, boredom and despair.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee and aid worker, November 2019.Hide Footnote These restrictions may become more onerous still. In September, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan announced that the government would fence the three largest refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, installing barbed wire, watchtowers and closed-circuit video cameras in an effort to further restrict the refugees’ movement.[fn]“Bangladesh to fence Rohingya camps in further crackdown”, Frontier Myanmar, 27 September 2019.Hide Footnote Work on at least some of the fences is already under way.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugee and UN official, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Finally, as further discussed below, in October, Dhaka suggested that it would press forward with an on-again, off-again plan to relocate some of the refugees to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the Bay of Bengal where it has already built shelters for an estimated 100,000 people. This idea has been criticised by humanitarian organisations because of concerns that harsh weather conditions on the island would endanger its inhabitants. Critics have also decried the site’s physical isolation, the access challenges it would present for organisations providing aid and the freedom of movement restrictions it would imply for residents.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Western government officials, June and October 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite these announcements and actions, it remains unclear whether the government will maintain the restrictions and follow through on its plans. Competing interests and priorities within the government, administration and security agencies, along with the lack of a clear solution to the crisis, have created a confused and haphazard policymaking environment. “Everyone is holding their breath”, said one UN source. “The Bangladesh government could still walk backward from some of these proposals”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. CRISISGROUP

III. Overcoming a Dangerous Contradiction

Bangladesh’s policy toward the Rohingya contains a dangerous contradiction. Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that large-scale returns are unlikely to begin any time soon, but because of concerns about saying so publicly, they have so far been unwilling to undertake the kind of medium- and long-term planning that is necessary to manage both security risks and humanitarian assistance at the refugee camps. Most immediately, the government has indicated that it wants to continue with a single-year plan for 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomats, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

A. A Reluctance to Face the Future

In explaining Bangladesh’s reluctance to engage in planning past the short term, officials identify a number of concerns. They worry that by visibly planning to host the Rohingya for what could stretch into an unknowable number of years, they will give international partners a reason to relax pressure on Myanmar to take the necessary steps to enable large-scale returns. They claim that recognising this likelihood would be demoralising to the Rohingya, and might encourage them to take up arms to force political change or turn to drug trafficking and other criminal activities to provide for themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government officials, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote Conversely, they argue that if conditions improve too much, some of the estimated 600,000 Rohingya who have thus far remained in Rakhine State might be motivated to cross into Bangladesh.[fn]“Detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, September 2019, p. 6.Hide Footnote Finally, they point to the domestic blowback they would face if they were to begin planning to accommodate the Rohingya for a long period of time, especially among residents of Cox’s Bazar, who increasingly see the refugees as both a drain on the local economy and a source of insecurity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Bangladeshi government officials, diplomats and political analysts, Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar and Yangon, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote

The Rohingya could well end up overwhelming local capacity if special provisions are not made.

Some local officials familiar with the displacement crisis and who worked closely with refugees and humanitarian groups had sought to thread a needle between these concerns and the importance of providing support that takes into account the needs of refugees almost certain to be around for at least the medium term. To improve conditions in the camps and provide refugees with a partial means of supporting themselves, they had quietly allowed some activities – such as paving roads, digging drains and building sturdier housing – that contravene official policy. Many camp residents worked as “volunteers” with NGOs to get around prohibitions on employment, and were doing tasks for which it would be difficult to hire locals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and humanitarian organisation officials, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The informal skirting of official policy to allow space for refugees to achieve a measure of self-reliance follows a pattern established over the past 25 years. Bangladesh looked the other way as tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled the 1991-1992 military operation but never returned integrated into Cox’s Bazar and nearby districts. Many found work or established businesses, and their children enrolled in local schools. Some even obtained Bangladeshi citizenship, often through illegal means. The results of this “quiet integration” approach are evident even today. A short walk through the local market that leads from the town of Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar to the registered refugee camp at Kutupalong reveals gold shops, mobile phone outlets and fruit stalls run by long-time Rohingya refugees who have become part of the local community.

This “quiet integration” approach is not a tenable solution to today’s crisis, however. The million-strong refugee population is too large and the economic situation of the district too strained.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, diplomats and aid workers, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Rather than integrating, the Rohingya could well end up overwhelming local capacity if special provisions are not made. Bangladeshi authorities have already taken some anti-integration measures, including forcing some Rohingya children out of the state school system earlier this year.[fn]Those expelled were the children of registered refugees who arrived in the early 1990s. See “Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugee Students Expelled”, Human Rights Watch, 1 April 2019.Hide Footnote

B. The Downsides of Dhaka’s Current Approach

Against this backdrop, one option for Bangladeshi authorities is to continue going in the direction in which they have already begun to move: tightening security, affording little freedom of movement, restricting access to employment and continuing to manage this massive displacement crisis through a sequence of one-year plans. But while the government may believe that this strategy plays well with its domestic constituents and serves its repatriation objectives, it should weigh the significant practical risks that its approach creates.

The emphasis on near-term planning may short-change the communities of Cox’s Bazar by denying them access to donor funding that might help them better bear the burden of this influx of refugees. Many donors recognise the need to provide support to local Bangladeshi communities in order to cushion the impact that the population surge in the district has had on the local economy, and host community support is an important part of their planning. Yet the government’s restrictions on aid programs and its year-to-year approach to planning do not encourage the mobilisation of aid funding for anything beyond the most basic needs of the refugees, let alone host community development. In some cases, donors have already committed to multi-year financing, but in the absence of proper planning there is a risk that these funds will not have the maximum possible impact.[fn]

“Moving Beyond the Emergency: A Whole of Society Approach to the Refugee Response in Bangladesh”, Centre for Global Development and International Rescue Committee, October 2019, p. 19.

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The flaws of this approach are showing as Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar cope with the welter of problems that have come with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people. Wages for daily labourers have declined and state schoolteachers have quit their jobs for higher-paying positions with NGOs, creating challenges for educating local children. Crime has increased and thousands of acres of forest have been decimated for the creation of camps and by refugees in search of firewood. The aid operation has also caused significant traffic congestion, creating safety concerns, particularly for local children walking to school. Failure to address host community frustrations is almost certain to manifest itself in increasingly greater tensions between the Rohingya and their hosts. “At first we had sympathy and we helped them”, said one politician in Ukhiya, near the Kutupalong camp. “But now we are living side by side, the situation has changed … we are facing many problems”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local politician, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Another impact of Bangladesh’s short-term focus is that humanitarian and development organisations face a range of restrictions in terms of how they are able to respond to the crisis. The UN and NGOs, for example, are not permitted to build permanent housing, which leaves refugees vulnerable to cyclones and landslides. Bangladesh has two cyclone seasons per year. As one aid worker observed: “Twice a year, we’re rolling the dice. So far we’ve gotten lucky, but eventually we won’t”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international aid worker, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Even in 2019, during which, as the aid worker said, the camps have been “lucky”, monsoon rains caused dozens of landslides that left at least ten people dead and destroyed 5,000 shelters.[fn]

“Deadly monsoon destroys 5,000 shelters in Bangladesh”, Agence France-Presse, 14 July 2019.

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Finally, short-term planning makes it very difficult to develop programming that would help refugees achieve a measure of self-reliance through livelihood opportunities and education for their children. Local observers worry that, as the situation becomes protracted, a combination of frustration, boredom and despair could lead greater numbers either to turn to crime to support themselves or to armed violence as a means of having a say in their future.[fn]

 Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders and UN official, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.

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Still, to date, the primary concession that Dhaka has made to the long-term reality of the Rohingya presence has been to construct a facility on a silt island in the Bay of Bengal, Bhasan Char, ostensibly to relieve overcrowding in the camps. Sheikh Hasina has made this relocation project her signature initiative, handing the navy a $276 million budget to make the cyclone-prone island habitable by building shelters and other infrastructure. The facility would be able to house an estimated 100,000 refugees.[fn]“Bangladesh project to house Rohingya on flood-prone island ready to open”, Radio Free Asia, 12 October 2018.Hide Footnote

The government says refugees who relocate will enjoy better services, security and livelihood opportunities (primarily agriculture and fishing) than in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Evaluating these claims is difficult, however, because the government has not permitted the UN to undertake any technical assessment and UN officials have not been able to visit the site for more than a year. UN agencies and international rights groups have expressed repeated concerns about the plan, particularly that it would leave refugees exposed to the threat of cyclones. The prospect of moving to Bhasan Char is also unpopular with many refugees, due to concerns about the island’s safety and its isolation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders, UN and humanitarian organisation officials, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also “For Rohingya, Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char ‘Will Be Like a Prison’”, Human Rights Watch, 14 March 2019.Hide Footnote (The island is much farther away from Myanmar than the camps are.)

Sensing the discontent among refugees and donors, and probably wary of going ahead just prior to the risky monsoon season, the Bangladeshi government backed away from an April 2019 deadline to begin relocation. In October 2019, it claimed that several thousand refugees had agreed to relocate, and that the first would move in November 2019, but it appears to have once again backed down in the face of UN and refugee concerns.[fn]“Rohingya island relocation uncertain after UN doubts”, Dhaka Tribune, 4 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Moreover, even if it were viewed as both safe and desirable, relocation to Bhasan Char on its own would not be an adequate response to the protracted refugee crisis in Bangladesh, as it can only accommodate a relatively small proportion (roughly one tenth) of the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar.

C. The Advantages of a Longer-term Approach

Given the downsides of short-term planning and heavy-handed security measures for managing what all parties agree (at least privately) is going to be a multi-year displacement crisis, one question the government of Bangladesh should be asking is whether there might be a more promising approach.

When it comes to programming for the promotion of self-reliance, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in education.

The answer is a provisional yes. Given the enormous burdens of hosting one million refugees, no strategy can realistically promise simultaneously to provide for their needs and eliminate all of the burdens and risks they create for host communities. Still, by taking a longer-term approach to planning for these challenges, Dhaka would be able more effectively to mobilise government capabilities and donor resources in trying to meet them, while also position them better for a successful return to Myanmar when conditions in Rakhine State improve.

Responsible preparation for a years-long period of hosting the Rohingya does not require Dhaka or its external partners to abandon pressure on Myanmar to create conditions that will allow refugees to return to their rightful homes. Indeed, donors, international organisations and civil society should continue to press vigorously for needed reforms in Rakhine State. They should appeal to regional heavyweights China and – to a lesser extent – India to join the effort, arguing along the same lines as Sheikh Hasina that the protracted displacement of one million Rohingya risks creating instability well past Bangladesh’s borders. By rallying to Dhaka’s side in continuing to push Myanmar, external partners may help allay its concerns – and those of its domestic constituents – that they have abandoned hopes for repatriation even as they work to improve conditions for the refugees during their stay in Bangladesh.

To maximise its efforts at improving those conditions, however, Dhaka will need to drop its insistence on meeting the needs of the Rohingya and their host communities through one-year planning. It will also need to relax its restrictions on humanitarian programs. It should work with the UN on a multi-year Joint Response Plan and encourage donors to consider the full suite of needs that must be met over the next several years – from basic humanitarian services to support for communities that may be chafing at the burdens of a long-term refugee presence to programming that can help refugees achieve a measure of self-reliance. It should also, with donor and UN support, build camp facilities that can withstand the monsoons, cyclones and accompanying mudslides that put residents at risk.

When it comes to programming for the promotion of self-reliance, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in education. Current educational programming contains major gaps: while early learning centres at the Rohingya camps enrol substantial numbers of children under age twelve, educational opportunities for older children are non-existent.[fn]Although official enrolment figures for children under twelve are high – 420,000 children across 5,475 centres – community leaders and NGO workers caution that some children have been enrolled multiple times and the quality of education varies significantly. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya community leaders and NGO workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also Situation Report Rohingya Refugee Crisis, op. cit., p. 2.Hide Footnote Survey data suggests that camp residents are correspondingly focused on the need to educate their older children, and eager for higher quality education in all age groups.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, Xchange, March-April 2019. According to the survey, 99.8 per cent of respondents believed that there was enough educational opportunity for those under twelve and 99.4 per cent said there was not enough opportunity for those twelve and above. Six in ten said they were dissatisfied with the quality of education.Hide Footnote To fill these gaps, Rohingya leaders have supported informal education programs to supplement current offerings, and madrassa schools, which teach both religious and secular subjects, are proliferating. For its part, UNICEF has prepared a multi-level standardised curriculum, which targets competencies similar to those that children would learn in a more formal school setting, up to the eighth grade. None of these stopgaps, however, provides children with exposure to an accredited curriculum that can be the gateway to educational advancement down the road.[fn]Rohingya leaders have expressed frustration both that they were not consulted in the development of the UNICEF curriculum and that – because it is not accredited in either Bangladesh or Myanmar – it would put students at a disadvantage should they seek to enrol in formal schooling at a later date. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya community leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The medium-term goal should be to teach the curriculum that is used in Myanmar.[fn]When refugees first began arriving in Bangladesh after August 2017, Myanmar reportedly rejected a request to use its curriculum in the camps. It is unclear how strongly it was pressed, however, and more recently both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have expressed willingness to explore the possibility of using the Myanmar curriculum. Crisis Group interviews, NGO workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also “UN, NGOs accused of bungling effort to educate Rohingya children”, Al Jazeera, October 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group interviews indicate that Rohingya leaders strongly prefer this option because they see their future as being back in Myanmar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. This preference was also reflected in a recent survey of the informal education sector in the camps, where use of the Myanmar curriculum is common. “We Must Prevent a Lost Generation: Community-led Education in Rohingya Camps”, Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2019, p. 7.Hide Footnote Giving Rohingya children instruction in the Myanmar curriculum could help strengthen literacy in a community where, as a result of lack of opportunity, around half of the refugees received no formal schooling before arriving in Bangladesh (though many had attended religious schools) and many cannot speak the Myanmar language.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, op. cit. Only one in ten females and two in ten males had any formal schooling.Hide Footnote By providing language and literacy skills, an education in the Myanmar curriculum could help Rohingya overcome perceptions that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh when they are ultimately able to return to their homes, and therefore make it easier to overcome resistance within Myanmar to extending them citizenship and in turn support repatriation efforts.

The Bangladeshi government could also use the development of this programming as a tool to further its diplomatic goals. Teaching the Myanmar curriculum would require not only the approval but also the support of the Myanmar government, which would need to facilitate both accreditation and the travel of Myanmar-speaking teachers to the camps. Although by some accounts Naypyitaw earlier refused requests along these lines, Bangladesh should press again, seeking support from China and others, and underscoring that Myanmar can show its support for repatriation by acceding. It would also be a way for Bangladesh and Myanmar to pursue cooperation on an issue that is less politically charged than repatriation, citizenship or accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine. Ideally, Myanmar NGOs and civil society organisations could be engaged to support this effort, creating valuable links between the Rohingya and mainstream Myanmar society, from which they have been cut off.

Regardless of the curriculum and language of instruction, it is important that the authorities scale up education quickly, in consultation with Rohingya community leaders and those running informal education programs. While the refugees’ future is uncertain, education will be an asset wherever they end up.

Creating income-generating opportunities for the Rohingya could help reduce their reliance on external support and give them more agency.

Progress on livelihood opportunities and skills-based training is no less essential, although the path forward is less clear than it is in the area of education. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya are unemployed and reliant on humanitarian aid.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, op. cit. Eighty-eight per cent of the 1,277 respondents said they were unemployed at the time of the survey.Hide Footnote Aid pledges remain robust but will inevitably decline in the coming years, even if Dhaka takes steps to encourage more donations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, aid workers and diplomats, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. The 2019 Joint Response Plan is 66 per cent funded, only slightly below the 2018 plan which was 71 per cent funded. For funding figures, see the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs website.Hide Footnote Creating income-generating opportunities for the Rohingya could help reduce their reliance on external support and give them more agency. Because of the potential impact of work force competition on wages and opportunities for Bangladeshi locals, however, any move in this direction needs to be paired with support to host communities to blunt ill effects and mitigate possible friction with the Rohingya. Local humanitarian workers and Rohingya leaders suggest that there is a great deal of work that Dhaka, donors, NGOs and institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank could usefully do to develop a package of livelihoods programs that benefit refugees and corresponding support that cushions surrounding communities against the impact of a surge of new workers into the local work force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders and aid workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

In shifting to an approach that emphasises the development of refugee self-reliance, Bangladeshi authorities should roll back newly introduced and counterproductive security restrictions that pull in the opposite direction – increasingly toward treating the Rohingya population as a nascent security threat to be isolated or walled off. While camp security should be a priority, the government needs to avoid draconian and alienating measures like fencing and phone confiscation that appear intended to make camps seem like prisons and threaten access to or provision of humanitarian services.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote Similarly, the government should shelve plans to relocate tens of thousands of detainees to Bhasan Char until it has addressed the well-founded concerns raised by humanitarian workers and refugees, and can ensure that the process is voluntary.

Finally, the Rohingya themselves should have greater opportunity to participate in planning for their future in order to create trust, build optimism about the future and develop the community’s capacity to fend for itself. In interviews with Rohingya leaders, Crisis Group found a perception that neither Bangladeshi officials nor humanitarian organisations consult them properly on key initiatives, which has led to possibly avoidable problems in implementation.[fn]Rohingya leaders highlighted several examples where inadequate consultation had led to negative outcomes. These include the hiring of Rohingya women as volunteers with NGOs, which provoked a conservative backlash and resulted in them facing threats from other refugees, and the design of smart ID cards distributed by UNHCR, which had prompted protests from refugees, who were concerned that it would undermine their prospects for ethnic recognition in Myanmar. Consulting with religious and other leaders could have helped the humanitarian organisations anticipate resistance to these steps and build support that would have mitigated the backlash. Crisis Group interviews, aid workers and Rohingya community leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Initially, the lack of consultation was understandable: the chaos of the immediate crisis response made deliberation difficult. But the Rohingya have since organised and are finding their voice. Refugees are establishing new groups focused on politics, education and gender. Some of these organisations may not be truly representative of the entire community (women remain very much under-represented in most of them), but together they are increasingly positioned to offer a range of valuable perspectives about the community’s future – a future they see as being back in Myanmar.[fn]Crisis Group interview, leader of a Rohingya women’s group, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Near-term prospects for repatriating Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are slim. Dhaka’s policy toward the refugees should evolve to recognise this emerging reality. Its recent policy moves to combat crime and insecurity and to put in place restrictions on refugees and NGOs are largely counterproductive and could lead to a dangerous downward spiral in the camps that would only undermine security further. Beyond rolling back draconian measures and focusing on steps better tailored to making the camps safe – such as increasing police presence – the government should shift its focus to addressing the question of how it will create a secure and protected environment for both the Rohingya and their hosts in southern Bangladesh over the longer term.

Taking a longer view of the displacement crisis, and discarding the practice of single-year planning to manage it, could help Dhaka mitigate risks from armed gangs to extreme weather. Providing the Rohingya with education and vocational opportunities as part of this effort could help not only avert militancy and criminality but also support the refugees’ eventual reintegration into Myanmar.

Such a policy shift from Dhaka will require international partners to play their part as well. They should continue pressing Myanmar to create the conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation. On the ground in Bangladesh, they should significantly increase support to Bangladeshis in and near Cox’s Bazar, not only to alleviate the burden that the refugee crisis has imposed but also to mitigate the domestic political backlash that is narrowing Dhaka’s policy options for the crisis response. Together with Dhaka, they should look for ways to expand the role of Rohingya refugee representatives in making decisions about their future. It is a future that the Rohingya, Dhaka and external partners all hope will bring the refugees back to Myanmar, but that in the meantime will require all parties to make the best of a difficult situation in Bangladesh.

Yangon/Brussels, 27 December 2019

Appendix A: Refugee Population in Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh