Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi looks on during the 9th ASEAN UN Summit in Manila, Philippines, 13 November 2017.
Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi looks on during the 9th ASEAN UN Summit in Manila, Philippines, 13 November 2017. REUTERS/Linus Escandor Ii/Pool
Briefing 151 / Asia

Myanmar’s Stalled Transition

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The Burmese translation of this Briefing is available as a PDF and can be downloaded below.

What’s new? Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is halfway through its first term, in what was to be a crucial phase in Myanmar’s transition away from authoritarian military rule. Thus far, however, her government is a disappointment – seemingly inept at governance and complicit in the forced mass flight of Rohingya Muslims.

Why does it matter? On a range of key issues, from the economy to talks with ethnic armed groups, the government appears stuck, unable to formulate and carry out strategy or unwilling to make difficult decisions. Of most immediate concern, the Rohingya crisis has no resolution in sight.

What should be done? The policy challenge is to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity. External pressure can be important but is unlikely by itself to produce results. Robust diplomatic engagement, including by the UN special envoy, will be required to translate such pressure into meaningful change.

I. Overview

At the midpoint of the Aung San Suu Kyi government’s five-year term, Myanmar is at a crossroads. The Suu Kyi administration faces enormous international opprobrium over the Rohingya crisis – the flight of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh due to a brutal army counter-insurgency campaign – as well as domestic opposition to the concessions needed to address international concerns. Yet the government’s challenge is not only political. Its performance to date on issues from peace talks with Myanmar’s numerous insurgencies to the economy shows that it is not adept at formulating strategy or implementing policy. Even were the government to develop the political will to respond constructively to the Rohingya crisis or other problems, progress is likely to be limited. This means that, in addition to the external pressure that continues to build, principled diplomatic engagement is also vital to translate that pressure into at least some meaningful steps forward.

In 2011, Myanmar embarked on a remarkable and largely unanticipated transition away from 50 years of isolationist and authoritarian military rule. The transition culminated in broadly free and fair elections in 2015, a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, and the peaceful transfer of power to an administration headed de facto by Aung San Suu Kyi – the military regime’s long-time nemesis and an international democracy icon.

The new government has underperformed on the peace process, governance and the economy.

Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast. The sky-high expectations of what Aung San Suu Kyi could achieve were never justified, given the enormous structural obstacles and the uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement with the military, imposed by the constitution. Even against more realistic benchmarks, however, the new government has underperformed on the peace process, governance and the economy. The military’s brutal maltreatment of the Rohingya – involving crimes against humanity and which a UN report released on 27 August has said merit investigation for genocide – and the Suu Kyi government’s acquiescence therein, became a defining new crisis.

Outside actors should play a role to try to resolve it. Three sets of tools are available. First, there are targeted sanctions, which serve as a means of sending an international signal that actions such as the campaign against the Rohingya are unacceptable and have consequences. Given the history of Myanmar sanctions and current attitudes in the country, these are unlikely to alter the thinking of the military or the government, but they would represent a broader message to others who might be considering similar action. Second, there is continued international scrutiny, notably from the UN Security Council, as well as moves toward international accountability – for example, the establishment of an independent mechanism by the UN General Assembly. These would probably get the authorities’ attention and thus could have an effect. On their own, however, they will not suffice to produce meaningful change.

High-level engagement, through both bilateral and UN channels, is therefore a critical third component of the policy mix. Beyond conveying concerns, the goal should be to help identify, and offer support for, practical steps the government could take to achieve progress on accountability for crimes against humanity and the substantial improvement of conditions in Rakhine State, so as to be conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.

II. The NLD Government’s Performance

A. A Faltering Start

Following the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2015 elections, party chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi took over as Myanmar’s de facto leader in March 2016.[fn]For Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar since the 2015 elections, see Asia Reports N°296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; N°290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; N°287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; N°283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; and N°282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; and Asia Briefings N°149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; and N°147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015.Hide Footnote Although the military-drafted constitution prevented her from becoming president, she was able to use the NLD’s legislative majority to pass a law installing her in a newly created position of “state counsellor”, fulfilling her pre-election pledge that she would be “above the president” and “make all the political decisions”. A close confidant, Htin Kyaw, served as a ceremonial president, passing the position’s considerable executive authority to Suu Kyi.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The military expressed their displeasure at this arrangement, which they considered unconstitutional, but they did not challenge it in the Constitutional Tribunal – which, given the party’s landslide, consisted entirely of NLD appointees – or make any concerted effort to subvert it.[fn]“Military MPs slam bill to create ‘state counsellor’ role”, Myanmar Times, 1 April 2016; “NLD to ram through state counsellor law”, Myanmar Times, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing did, however, make a point of sending all formal communications to the office of the president rather than that of the state counsellor, and he very visibly accorded the president the full protocol of head of state.[fn]The commander-in-chief sees the president off at the airport when he leaves on foreign trips; and when he introduced a new air force chief, it was to the president, with Suu Kyi having to travel to the president’s office for the meeting. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar military analyst, Yangon, February 2018. “General Maung Maung Kyaw appointed as commander-in-chief (air)”, Eleven News, 3 January 2018.Hide Footnote

The cabinet selected by Suu Kyi was underwhelming for a leader of unparalleled popularity who had the whole country’s talents to draw upon. Both key economic ministers – finance and commerce – were revealed shortly after their appointments to have fake PhDs; they retained their posts in any case.[fn]“Broken promises, daunting challenges”, Frontier Myanmar, 27 March 2016; “NLD leadership challenged over cabinet choices”, Myanmar Times, 28 March 2016.Hide Footnote The rest of the cabinet was a mixture of uninspiring party loyalists, two members of the regime-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and retired diplomats from the military regime years who were brought into key ministerial positions. It was clear that, in selecting candidates, priority had been given to trust over capacity, reflecting at least in part deep-seated fears that the military and old elite would attempt to undermine the NLD-led government, as well as the shallow bench within NLD circles. Some of the non-NLD ministers are close to former General Shwe Mann, the former junta number three, now an ally of Suu Kyi – which was a reassurance of their loyalty. A senior NLD member acknowledged publicly at the time that the lin-eup was not optimal, but that it would improve over time. It was the first of many suggestions or rumours of a reshuffle that has not materialised to date; so far, only a few individual changes have been made, and a few new deputy ministers appointed.[fn]“NLD defends ‘experimental’ cabinet as pressure builds”, Myanmar Times, 22 April 2016.Hide Footnote

In the absence of strong political direction the government often projects a tone reminiscent of the authoritarian past.

The reliance on former military-era diplomats in the cabinet, including the inner circle – state counsellor’s office minister and cabinet office minister – was particularly unexpected. It appears to stem from the fact that these individuals intimately understand the country’s opaque administrative systems, as well as its often more important informal power relations, and have thus been indispensable in asserting the state counsellor’s authority over the bureaucracy – inherited in toto, up to permanent secretary level, from the previous government. Yet it has left some party stalwarts privately disgruntled and, in the absence of strong political direction, has meant that the government often projects a tone reminiscent of the authoritarian past. Increasingly, government policies are following suit, particularly as regards civil liberties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and diplomats, April 2016-July 2018. On the decline in civil liberties, see “Report of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, A/HRC/37/70, UN Human Rights Council, 9 March 2018, sec. II.B.Hide Footnote

From the outset, decision making has been highly centralised in Suu Kyi’s hands. In addition to the state counsellor’s job, she holds the portfolios of foreign affairs and president’s office minister (and initially also two others, energy and education); she also chairs numerous inter-ministerial committees. She has had to carry the load of her subordinates’ and fellow citizens’ huge expectations with no experience of government or management, a problem exacerbated by consolidating so much authority on her shoulders. The result has been muddy decision making, focused on minutiae of procedure rather than the articulation of any clear vision or political direction.

The state counsellor herself often appears aloof and isolated. During the military dictatorship, she gave inspiring speeches to the country – over her compound gate when she was under house arrest in the 1990s or on her travels during brief periods of freedom. Since taking office she has gone largely silent, discontinuing President Thein Sein’s practice of monthly radio addresses to the nation, giving almost no media interviews and rarely travelling within the country. She has always found travel draining. While, at first, she seemed comfortable making frequent official trips and being fêted abroad, the world has become a less friendly place since the Rohingya crisis erupted. She now increasingly avoids international travel.[fn]She sent the second vice president to represent Myanmar at the UN General Assembly in September 2017, and the president to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore in April 2018, both meetings she had previously attended as de facto head of state.Hide Footnote She gave a rare international policy speech in Singapore on 21 August, but it was clearly pitched at a regional audience and will do little to assuage international concerns.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, The 43rd Singapo­­re­ lecture, 21 August 2018, available at Footnote

Her most important domestic relationship is with the commander-in-chief, who has significant constitutional powers and autonomy, and heads by far the most powerful institution in the country. Suu Kyi is often portrayed as careful not to upset the military, but she has regularly taken decisions that do exactly that – for example, in establishing the state counsellor position; appointing a civilian national security adviser (who, among other things, represents Myanmar at international security meetings such as the Shangri-La Dialogue); and declining to convene the National Defence and Security Council, the top security body under the constitution, despite repeated military calls to assemble it. She took all these decisions without consulting the commander-in-chief or informing him in advance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, diplomats and analysts, April 2016-July 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Lost in Transition

The government’s relative incapacity and inexperience meant that it was unable to make progress on key issues. From early in her term, the state counsellor declared peace with Myanmar’s many ethnic insurgencies to be her top priority, yet she has achieved little.[fn]She initially stated that her top priority was “national reconciliation” – implying healing multiple divisions within Myanmar society – later specifying the peace process.Hide Footnote This outcome is perhaps not surprising, given that she inherited a process that was already stagnating. Yet the manner of the failure highlights the government’s broader weaknesses. On taking power, Suu Kyi disbanded the previous government’s peace centre, which despite its problems was staffed with many capable and experienced people. She established a new, far smaller structure and appointed her personal physician, Dr Tin Myo Win, as lead peace negotiator – a role he has performed part-time and never seemed to relish. The state counsellor and her senior minister have regularly undercut him in meetings with ethnic armed groups.

The peace process itself has become formalistic, with none of the dozens of unofficial, trust-building interactions that the previous government pursued alongside the set-piece meetings. But the biggest weakness has not been capacity, but rather lack of leadership from the top. Despite continued discussions among the parties, including the third Union Peace Conference in July 2018, a negotiated end to the country’s interlocking conflicts remains out of sight.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar and Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, op. cit.Hide Footnote Indeed, the first half of 2018 has seen a major escalation in fighting in northern Myanmar, particularly northern Shan and Kachin states.[fn]“UN concerned about heavy fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin state”, Reuters, 2 February 2018; “‘Sharp escalation’ in fighting across Myanmar’s Kachin state, warns rights expert”, UN News, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote

The stagnation of the peace process reflects a broader stasis of government, with decisions made in an obscure and apparently ad hoc manner.

The stagnation of the peace process reflects a broader stasis of government, with decisions made in an obscure and apparently ad hoc manner. The NLD administration has been particularly criticised at home for its handling of the economy. When in opposition, the NLD paid scant attention to economic issues, an attitude that carried over to the current government term – the belief apparently being that with sanctions lifted, and Aung San Suu Kyi in power, the economy and foreign investment would take care of themselves. The state counsellor has also often said that peace is a prere­quisite for development. As the peace process stalled and the economy sputtered, local businessmen and the urban middle class came to feel considerable grievance that the government was failing to meet the people’s aspirations for a better life.

There have been some steps forward, such as a new companies law and reinvigoration of the Myanmar Investment Commission with the appointment of a more dynamic new chair. But while top-line GDP growth remained solid, if significantly below potential, at 6.5 per cent in 2017, business leaders’ and public sentiment is decidedly negative – reflecting a lack of confidence in the government’s economic policies, and substantial sectoral variation and inequitable distribution that the growth figure masks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Myanmar and international businesspeople, economists and market research company conducting perceptions surveys, January-July 2018. See also “Growth amidst Uncertainty, Myanmar Economic Monitor”, World Bank, May 2018; “Investors dissatisfied with government’s lack of direction on economy”, The Irrawaddy, 29 June 2018.Hide Footnote

At the same time, the NLD has disappointed the hope and expectation of many voters that it would expand civil liberties. Certainly, many citizens sense and are pleased that the country is now governed by politicians who are neither deeply corrupt nor dismissive of public concerns and well-being. But the government has clearly undermined civil liberties and taken an authoritarian turn in both word and deed. A far greater number of journalists and social media users have been prosecuted for criminal defamation in the Suu Kyi administration’s half-term than in the whole term of the previous government. A former child soldier has also been imprisoned for giving a media interview on his experiences, and two Reuters journalists are being pro­secuted under the Official Secrets Act for investigating killings of Rohingya, after being arrested in what many observers believe to be a police entrapment operation.[fn]See report of the special rapporteur, op. cit.; “Burma: Repeal Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law”, joint statement by 61 human rights organisations, 29 June 2017 (available at; “Myanmar: Former child soldier jailed after media interview: Aung Ko Htwe”, Amnesty International, 18 July 2018; “Myanmar to try Reuters reporters on state secrecy charges in move seen as blow to press freedom”, Radio Free Asia, 9 July 2018.Hide Footnote The court will hand down its verdict on 3 September.

While the civilian government lacks full control of such cases, since the police are under a military-appointed home affairs minister, the attorney general is a civilian appointee and the president has broad powers to drop charges and issue pardons. The president ordered the release of 199 people in pre-trial detention, at Suu Kyi’s direction, when the government first took power in April 2016.[fn]“POC’s [prisoners of conscience] walk free”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 9 April 2016Hide Footnote More recently, the government has seemed comfortable with the large number of new freedom of expression cases before the courts, in many of which it greenlighted charges.[fn]Under the 2013 Telecommunications Law, the transport and communications minister must approve any criminal defamation charges.Hide Footnote In the case of the Reuters journalists, Aung San Suu Kyi herself has taken a strident stance – clashing with a former adviser, U.S. politician Bill Richardson, when he raised the case, and stating in a recent interview that the journalists had broken the law, potentially prejudicing the court.[fn]“U.S. adviser rebukes Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘I don’t want to be part of a whitewash’”, The New York Times, 24 January 2018; “Exclusive: Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi”, NHK, 8 June 2018.Hide Footnote These developments have taken place in spite of the fact that numerous NLD legislators are themselves former political prisoners, many charged with the same offences in the past or for whom the treatment of the Reuters journalists was highly reminiscent of their own experiences.

The government’s other key stated priority is constitutional reform. In particular, it wants to remove the restriction on Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president and reduce the role of the armed forces in politics. Given the military’s veto on constitutional changes, such amendments would require the top brass to cooperate in relinquishing its prerogatives under the national charter, which is very unlikely to happen in the next several years.

C. The Rakhine State Crisis

The government inherited a toxic political situation in Rakhine State, following outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence there in 2012 and 2013. Aung San Suu Kyi sought to buy time, announcing in August 2016 the establishment of an advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with a twelve-month mandate to examine the crisis and recommend steps to address the underlying issues, including the plight of Rohingya Muslims. The advisory commission was perhaps an expedient option at the time. There was no political consensus on a way forward, and steps on citizenship, basic rights and desegregation that were obviously needed were hugely controversial among the Rakhine State’s Buddhist majority and in Myanmar as a whole. Socio-economic relations on the ground in Rakhine, including between ethno-religious groups, appeared to be gradually improving after the 2012-2013 violence, suggesting that the passage of time might give the government greater room for manoeuvre.[fn]See Richard Horsey, “Has Myanmar’s Rakhine State reached a turning point?”, Nikkei Asian Review, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Instead, while the government was coming to grips with the basic tasks of gover­ning the country, as well as grappling with the realities of cohabitation with the military, the Rakhine State tension boiled over, with the first attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on border police bases in October 2016. It then erupted into full-blown crisis following the second round of ARSA attacks in August 2017, with the military, border guard police and Rakhine vigilantes committing grave human rights abuses against the Rohingya population that are widely considered crimes against humanity.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, A New Muslim Insurgency and Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit. See also “‘We will destroy everything’: Military responsibility for crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, Myanmar”, Amnesty International, June 2018; “‘Acts of genocide’ suspected against Rohingya in Myanmar: U.N.”, Reuters, 7 March.Hide Footnote

Myanmar has gone from a global good news story of political transition under a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a cautionary tale of failed hopes.

It is perhaps not surprising that the floundering government was unable to craft a credible response to the crisis, particularly given Myanmar’s staunchly anti-Rohingya public opinion and the military’s belligerent stance. But these failings, when set against the brutality of attacks on Rohingya villagers and the enormous scale of the displacement, suggest a lack of political will and have caused irreparable damage to Myanmar’s reputation and that of its government and Aung San Suu Kyi personally. In less than twelve months, Myanmar has gone from a global good news story of political transition under a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a cautionary tale of failed hopes. A series of high-profile former international supporters have denounced Suu Kyi, who has lost several of her honours and awards.[fn]“Bob Geldof calls Aung San Suu Kyi ‘handmaiden to genocide’”, Reuters, 13 November 2017; “Bono, a former Aung San Suu Kyi campaigner, says she should quit”, AFP, 29 December 2017; “Oxford strips Aung San Suu Kyi of Freedom of the City”, The Independent, 27 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Isolated in its Naypyitaw bubble, the government initially failed to comprehend the gravity of the Rakhine abuses and the international reaction thereto. Its responses, both diplomatic and policy, were either seen as complicit, or as too little, too late. And when foreign leaders and diplomats began to express their outrage bluntly, the government’s initial reaction was intransigence. It appeared to believe that it just needed to wait out the storm of international criticism. As it has become clear that the storm would not pass, and if anything is intensifying as time goes on, the government has attempted to shift its stance to damage control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and diplomats, August 2017-July 2018.Hide Footnote

III. A New President and an Attempted Reset

The second anniversary of the NLD taking power, which fell just ahead of Myanmar’s annual New Year holiday in April 2018 – traditionally a time of taking stock and making resolutions for the year ahead – gave the government an opportunity to reflect. Domestically, it has not been damaged by its response to the Rohingya crisis; on the contrary, the nation has rallied around Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of international condemnation. But there is a growing sense, particularly among the urban middle class and business elite, that the government has mishandled the economy. Despite solid growth figures, there are strong perceptions of economic malaise in the country and government failure to deliver on people’s basic needs – including jobs and electricity and other services. While most refrain from criticising the state counsellor personally, her government and cabinet come in for sharp reproach.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Myanmar and international businesspeople, economists and market research company conducting perceptions surveys, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

Facing increasing censure of her government at home, and an ever more hostile international environment, by early 2018 the state counsellor had begun signalling privately that she intended to cut back on her responsibilities and overseas travel. There was also persistent talk of a major cabinet reshuffle to inject new energy and competence into government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and analysts, Yangon, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

The key element of these plans was a change in president, with the resignation of Htin Kyaw announced on 21 March. While the stated reason for his departure was “to take a rest”, his wife subsequently revealed that he had only expected to be president for a few months, the NLD having believed that within that time it would be able to amend the constitution, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to become president.[fn]Myanmar president office announcement 1/2018, 21 March 2018; “U Htin Kyaw resignation ‘planned in advance’, wife says”, Frontier Myanmar, 23 March 2018.Hide Footnote Upon entering government, it would appear, NLD leaders were buoyant – to the point of naïveté – about the prospects for constitutional change.

The new president, Win Myint, was sworn in on 30 March. The same day, the NLD announced that he had also been appointed first vice chairman of the party – the first time it had designated a successor to Suu Kyi.[fn]“NLD party revamp elevates U Win Myint to no. 2 spot”, The Irrawaddy, 30 March 2018.Hide Footnote Win Myint is a lawyer and longstanding NLD member who until being appointed president served as lower house speaker. In that role, he was known as authoritative, determined and shrewd – quite different in character from Htin Kyaw and a very unlikely candidate for ceremonial president. For this reason, many interpreted his selection as a move by Suu Kyi to hand over some of her responsibilities.

In April, a small but discernible shift occurred in Myanmar’s international engagement on the Rohingya crisis.

Win Myint reinforced this view with his inaugural and Myanmar New Year speeches, in which he set out a clear, broadly populist agenda focused on access to justice, land reform and anti-corruption efforts.[fn]“‘I promise that you will see with your own eyes the changes that you have yearned for as I walk along this path together with you’: President U Win Myint”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 31 March 2018; “Myanmar New Year greetings of President U Win Myint”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April.Hide Footnote He immediately set about meeting each of the top-level executive bodies, starting with the anti-corruption commission. Government insiders indicated that while there was no formal division of labour between the new president and the state counsellor, it was expected that he would focus on domestic matters, particularly issues of concern to ordinary people, while the state counsellor would continue to lead on the peace process, the Rakhine State crisis and international relations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, diplomats, Yangon, Naypyitaw, April-May 2018.Hide Footnote

Five months on, however, the impact of the changes is limited. The main development has been the empowerment of the anti-corruption commission. In his 10 April meeting with the commission, the president urged the chair – a reform-minded former general, Aung Kyi, who acted as the old regime’s liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi – to have the courage to follow evidence wherever it led and to alert him if the commission faced interference. The next week, the commission filed charges against the director of Myanmar’s food and drug administration for allegedly demanding money in connection with a tender award. And in May, the finance minister resigned in the middle of a high-profile investigation, although the commission ultimately said it did not have grounds to pursue charges.[fn]See “President U Win Myint meets with anti-corruption commission”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 12 April 2018; “Following the money”, Frontier Myanmar, 8 May 2018; “Myanmar’s finance minister resigns: President”, Reuters, 25 May 2018; “No grounds to act against ex-planning and finance minister, anti-corruption commission says”, The Irrawaddy, 9 June 2018.Hide Footnote

In other areas, the president has made little concrete progress in implementing his agenda or establishing an institutional base to enable him to do so. Part of the reason is structural: the president’s office consists of a small number of officials reporting to Aung San Suu Kyi in her capacity as minister of the president’s office; the president himself has no political advisers or other senior staff. Part of the reason is also political: however much she may wish to relinquish some responsibilities, the state counsellor and her office remain the government’s centre of gravity, with officials and ministers reluctant to take decisions unless they have been referred to her office.

The long-telegraphed reshuffle has also not materialised. The only major change has been the appointment of a new finance minister, Soe Win. He is respected and competent, but as an octogenarian has reinforced the sense of the cabinet as an all-male gerontocracy (the only woman being Suu Kyi herself). The optics do not sit well with the NLD’s election promise of bringing “change” to a country long led by ageing generals, particularly as Myanmar has one of the youngest populations in the region.[fn]The 2014 census found a median age of 27 and about 55 per cent under the age of 30.Hide Footnote

Around the New Year in April, a small but discernible shift occurred in Myanmar’s international engagement on the Rohingya crisis. Scrutiny of the situation had reached a new intensity with the unprecedented visit of the UN Security Council to Myanmar and Bangladesh at the end of April. The visit did not go well for Myanmar, with representatives of all fifteen council members personally shocked by the scale and gravity of what they had seen in the Bangladesh camps, contrasted with the grossly inadequate response and defensive attitude in Naypyitaw. On 1 May, when the council concluded its trip, the state counsellor’s office attempted damage control, issuing a statement promising “an important turning point” in relations with the UN. Afterward, diplomats and visiting senior UN officials noted more openness and engagement from Myanmar leaders and officials on the subject of Rakhine.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Security Council members, UN officials, diplomats, Yangon and Naypyitaw, April-July 2018; press release, Office of the State Counsellor, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote

UN staff are still unable to get travel authorisations to northern Rakhine.

Substantive developments ensued. On 31 May, Myanmar announced that an Independent Commission of Enquiry – the members of which would include an “international personality”, assisted by a staff of national and international legal and technical experts – would be established to investigate alleged human rights violations in northern Rakhine; previous domestic investigations, one headed by the first vice president and others conducted by the military and police, had found essentially no wrongdoing. Also on 31 May, and after long negotiations, the government agreed upon a memorandum of understanding with the UN’s refugee agency and development program on assisting the government to create conditions conducive to the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh.[fn]“Government to help Rohingya seek justice for rights abuses”, The Irrawaddy, 17 May 2018; “Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar will establish an Independent Commission of Enquiry”, Office of the President, announcement 3/2018, 31 May 2018; “Government of Myanmar and United Nations Agencies initial MoU on assistance for the repatriation process of displaced persons from Rakhine State”, Office of the State Counsellor, press release, 31 May 2018. The memorandum of understanding was formally signed on 6 June.Hide Footnote

There has been little progress in implementing these announcements, however. The Commission of Enquiry was constituted on 30 July, with two relatively low-profile international members from the region, and two national members; technical and legal staff will no longer be appointed, but such expertise will be “called on if required”. In an inaugural press briefing, the commission chair stated that “there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing of anybody, because we don’t achieve anything by that procedure” and that seeking accountability was equivalent to “quarrelling”.[fn]“Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar establishes the Independent Commission of Enquiry”, Office of the President, press release 8/2018, 30 July 2018; press briefing by the commission, Naypyitaw, 16 August 2018 (video available at The chair is former Philippines Foreign Minister Rosario Manalo; the other international member is former Japanese diplomat and UN official Kenzo Oshima. The national members are former member of the Constitutional Tribunal Mya Thein and the head of Suu Kyi’s Union Enterprise for Rakhine, Aung Tun Thet. Thus, a total of four members were appointed, not three as initially announced in May.Hide Footnote

To add to the malaise, the secretary of the Rakhine Advisory Board – a body appointed by the government to advise it on carrying out the Annan commission recommendations – announced his resignation out of concern that the body “had achieved little” and risked giving “a false impression that things are being done”.[fn]“Citing lack of progress, secretary to Myanmar’s Rohingya panel quits”, Reuters, 21 July 2018.Hide Footnote Bill Richardson had already resigned from the board in January in a high-profile falling-out with the state counsellor. The chair, former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, issued a statement insisting the board was effective and the government had acted on its advice. But the damage was done; the board discreetly wound up its business on 16 August.[fn]“Myanmar’s Rohingya panel head refutes criticism by outgoing secretary”, Reuters, 22 July 2018; “A year after the assault on the Rohingya, Myanmar’s generals are unapologetic”, Washington Post, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote

The text of the memorandum with the UN was not made public, apparently at the government’s insistence, but a near-final version leaked in late June. There was considerable international criticism of aspects of the deal, particularly the failure to use the word “Rohingya”, include guarantees on citizenship, or consult or inform refugees about the content prior to finalising it.[fn]See “Secret U.N.-Myanmar deal on Rohingya offers no guarantees on citizenship”, Reuters, 30 June 2018; “Oral update by Ms. Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 38th session of the Human Rights Council”, UN Human Rights Council, 27 June 2018. The refusal of the government to use the word “Rohingya” or allow it into official documents is seen by that community as an attempt to deny their identity. Hence, it has become controversial for other organisations to avoid the usage.Hide Footnote Since then, there has been no real progress on implementation, with UN staff still unable to get travel authorisations to northern Rakhine, other than to a few villages chosen by the government, and with visits accompanied by the government.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Yangon, August 2018; “U.N. says it is still denied ‘effective access’ to Myanmar’s Rakhine”, Reuters, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote

This rather negative sequence of events had already set the stage for a difficult UN General Assembly session for Myanmar. The findings of an independent international fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, presented at a press conference on 27 August, add to pressure on the Myanmar government and military. The mission’s report concluded that the “crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts” and recommended that the commander-in-chief and other military leaders be investigated and prosecuted for genocide; it also found that “through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes”.[fn]“Report of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, UN Human Rights Council doc. A/HRC/39/64, 24 August 2018 (released publicly on 27 August).Hide Footnote The U.S. State Department is expected to release its own detailed investigation of abuses against the Rohingya shortly. On 28 August, the UN Security Council will meet in open session on Myanmar and be briefed by the secretary-general.

The UN secretary-general appointed a special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, in April. She has had initial positive engagement with the state counsellor and the commander-in-chief, as well as other domestic stakeholders; the diplomatic corps in Myanmar is welcoming; and the Security Council has expressed its support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, April-July 2018; media stakeout, Security Council president and special envoy, UN, New York, 23 July 2018, at Footnote While expectations should be moderated, Burgener can play an impor­tant role in raising difficult issues with the government, helping to choreograph inter­national responses, and acting as an interface with the UN and the international community.

IV. The Road Ahead

A good sense has emerged of the Aung San Suu Kyi administration and its weaknesses. The administration has attempted to respond to public and international concerns on the Rohingya crisis, shifting its approach somewhat and announcing some new initiatives. Yet changes have mostly been unconvincing – limited in scope or peripheral in nature. The appointment of Win Myint as president, which many had hoped could infuse new momentum into government, and perhaps set the stage for a more coherent response to the Rohingya crisis, has not so far had a major impact.

In June, the NLD held a party congress, only its second ever, confirming the top leadership and policy platform ahead of by-elections in November 2018 and general elections in 2020. It appears very unlikely at this stage that the administration will fundamentally change the way it operates or significantly increase its capacity in the remainder of its term. These are the immediate constraints upon an improved response to the situation in Rakhine State, and to greater reform more generally – even while constitutional limitations and poor government-military relations remain important underlying factors. This reality will shape how Myanmar is able to address the many crises it faces.

The coming general elections mean that the window for making unpopular decisions is also shrinking. Two years out, national politics is already starting to shift into election mode, and the government beginning to consider what successes it will be able to present to the electorate in 2020; it is pushing for major infrastructure projects and other initiatives to be completed by this date.[fn]For example, it is pushing to complete four major liquefied natural gas power projects or the peace process with ethnic armed groups. “Myanmar bets on huge LNG projects to meet power needs”, Frontier Myanmar, 31 January 2018; “Peace process to complete before 2020 as participants ready for federalism: UPDJC”, Eleven News, 13 July 2018.Hide Footnote The political opposition is also beginning to object more vocally to government decisions, and the military is similarly unlikely to want to hand political victories to the government going forward. These circumstances will make it much more difficult for the government to achieve crucial objectives, particularly vis-à-vis the Rohingya crisis, which is the most politically charged issue at home.

The November 2018 by-elections will not be particularly hard-fought. Only thirteen seats (out of 1,156) are up for grabs, so the balance of power will not change. Nevertheless, the NLD is concerned that the results will be – or will be interpreted as – a referendum on the government’s performance, entailing political risks, particularly as the NLD currently holds eleven of the thirteen seats, several of which are potential swing seats in ethnic minority areas.

The challenge is to find ways to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity and other key concerns.

The NLD is also likely to retain its legislative majority in the 2020 general elections, even if the government is unable to improve on its current performance. Aung San Suu Kyi remains personally popular in the Burman-majority heartland, despite her government’s perceived weaknesses. There is no effective opposition – and unlikely to be one in time for the elections. It will probably be 2025 before Myanmar sees a major political shift, unless the Aung San Suu Kyi era ends before then. Policy adjustments may be possible but hopes for major progress on accountability for crimes against humanity, substantially improved conditions in Rakhine State, and the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees should be modest. Significant progress on the peace process, political reform and economic vision in the next few years also seems unlikely.

International policy on Myanmar thus faces steep challenges. China has a pivotal role. It has positioned itself as Myanmar’s key diplomatic ally, including at the UN Security Council, and as indispensable to continued progress in the peace process. It is using its considerable leverage to push for agreement, possibly as soon as September 2018, on a “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” – a multi-billion (possibly tens of billions) dollar Belt and Road Initiative that could include road and high-speed rail infrastructure, connected to a port and special economic zone at the Indian Ocean seaboard town of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

This project is likely to have a huge impact on Myanmar’s economy and geostrategy, in ways that are only just beginning to come into view. It would deepen political and economic relations between the two countries, solidifying China’s support for Myanmar’s position on Rakhine State, and making China potentially more helpful to Myanmar in restraining the armed groups active along the two countries’ border. But it would also make Naypyitaw more reliant on Beijing, something it has long sought to avoid. The Myanmar military also worries that in the future China may move to securitise the rail and road corridors and the port.

For the West, the challenge is to find ways to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity and other key concerns. Targeted sanctions can serve as an important signal of principle – to Myanmar and others around the globe – but, given the history of Myanmar sanctions and current attitudes, are very unlikely to change the thinking of the military or the government. Other actions, such as Security Council scrutiny and moves toward international accountability are of greater concern to the authorities, but will not be sufficient in and of themselves, since the problem is not merely one of political will, but also govern­­ment capacity and the inherent intractability of the issues.

Engagement through high-level bilateral channels and the UN therefore remains a critical part of the policy mix, not only as a channel for conveying concerns, but also as a means of identifying and supporting concrete steps that the government can take to achieve meaningful – albeit probably limited – progress in implementing the Annan commission recommendations, pursuing accountability and creating conditions conducive to Rohingya refugee return. Other grave violations of human rights in the ethnic armed conflicts, progress on the peace process and threats to civil liberties should not be overlooked.

The special envoy provides a mechanism by which scrutiny and pressure can be translated into meaningful action on the ground.

The new UN special envoy could play an important role in this regard. Burgener has access to the key stakeholders, including the state counsellor and commander-in-chief, and broad diplomatic support, including from the Security Council. She has made clear that she sees her role as a bridge-builder, but that she will discuss all the difficult issues with the Myanmar authorities behind closed doors, rather than via public diplomacy. It is vital that there be strategic coordination between Burgener and other parts of the UN system, in particular the Security Council and the General Assembly, to ensure that they are mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory.

In particular, the special envoy provides a mechanism by which scrutiny and pressure from these bodies can be translated into meaningful action on the ground, even if that is likely to be limited – without this, pressure alone will likely achieve little other than pushing Myanmar back into isolation and reliance on its regional allies. Burgener will also need a focused approach to her mandate, which is extremely broad and covers the multitude of issues set out in the 2017 General Assembly resolution.[fn]“Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, General Assembly doc. A/C.3/72/L.48, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote While she should prioritise the situation in Rakhine State and the Rohingya crisis, it is important that she also give attention to the peace process and the broader democratic transition.

On the question of accountability and preservation of evidence, there are no perfect options. While the Security Council has the authority to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, the politics of the council mean that such a move is presently inconceivable. The court could soon rule that it has jurisdiction over the specific crime of deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, without the need for a referral, but such a ruling would not be a route to accountability for other international crimes – whether in Rakhine State or elsewhere.

For this reason, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has proposed the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism, possibly by the General Assembly; although it could take considerable time to become operational, such a body would appear to be the best option currently on the table.[fn]This body could be similar to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria or the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.Hide Footnote In the meantime, every effort should be made to ensure that Myanmar’s own Commission of Enquiry conducts as credible and transparent an investigation as possible – in the short term, it is the only means by which perpetrators could be held to account.

V. Conclusion

Halfway through the Aung San Suu Kyi-led administration’s five-year term, the Myanmar government is facing enormous challenges in the peace process, gover­nance, the economy and, by far the most serious, a defining new crisis in Rakhine. The civilian government is widely seen as complicit, or at least acquiescent, in the forced mass flight of the Rohingya. This has had a major impact on Myanmar’s international reputation and on that of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi personally, and has brought international condemnation and diplomatic pressure.

In considering what progress may be possible, it is important to be aware that the Rakhine crisis is occurring in a wider context of lack of vision and ineffectiveness of government, something that is unlikely to change in the near future. Public sentiment in Myanmar also remains firmly behind the government. Robust diplomatic engagement, including by the UN special envoy, will be required to translate international scrutiny and pressure into meaningful steps to improve the situation on the ground. On the specific question of accountability for international crimes, an independent mechanism under UN auspices seems to be the most feasible approach, given the improbability of any Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court.

Brussels, 28 August 2018


Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

International Crisis Group
Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 21, 2018.
Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 21 January 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Report 296 / Asia

The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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What’s new? Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s brutal military operations in Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017. The two countries have set a framework for repatriation, but returns are unlikely any time soon. Indeed, small numbers of Rohingya continue to flee.

Why does it matter? Failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees poses the risk that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will live in limbo or that Bangladeshi sentiment will turn against them. Authorities might attempt to force return to Myanmar or resettlement elsewhere, which could prompt violence on either side of the border.

What should be done?  The Myanmar government must allow the UN and its partners access to northern Rakhine and ease security and other restrictions on the population. In Bangladesh, donors should continue humanitarian aid, while investing in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, which hosts the refugees, to improve prospects for their future integration.

Executive Summary

In the last eight months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled indiscriminate and brutal operations by Myanmar’s military in northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017, and many more from previous years. The two countries have agreed upon a procedural framework for voluntary repatriation, but no Rohingya have returned and small numbers continue to flee. The burden of the crisis may have shifted to Bangladesh, but the onus of responsibility remains squarely on Myanmar. The world must pursue accountability for crimes committed and press the government to create the conditions for voluntary repatriation. The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, however much international opprobrium Myanmar faces. Planning for the refugees should proceed on that assumption, while efforts continue to protect those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.

Failing to develop long-term plans for the refugees would not only risk that hundreds of thousands of people remain in limbo. It could also lead the status quo to morph in dangerous ways. For now, host communities and political elites in Bangladesh largely sympathise with the refugees, but if the sentiments of either were to shift – after the December elections, for example, or due to prolonged negative impacts on host communities – the Rohingya might face pressure to return against their will or move into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those the Bangladeshi government is building on remote Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – due to organised resistance by refugees to relocation or premature repatriation, communal violence against returning refugees, or renewed ARSA mobilisation in Rakhine State.

The social, political and strategic implications of this crisis for Bangladesh are complex at all levels. The host communities – neglected by Dhaka at the best of times – are already feeling the strain. While there is no disagreement in political and policy circles about the intractability of the crisis, there is widespread reluctance to acknowl­edge it, as it would reflect badly on the Bangladeshi government’s ability to protect its sovereignty and could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of ethnic cleansing. Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. After the December elections, the next government (likely to be the same as the present one) will have to make some difficult longer-term decisions. This subject will be covered in detail in a forthcoming report.

Hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Myanmar has constructed some of the infrastructure that could support a limited return, in the form of heavily guarded processing and holding camps. But it has done little if anything to create conditions on the ground that would give refugees, who fled abuses that likely constitute crimes against humanity, and who continue to be fearful and traumatised, the confidence to go back. It has bulldozed many burned Rohingya villages, is building new roads, power lines and security infrastructure across northern Rakhine State, and has promoted or allowed the expansion of existing villages and construction of new settlements inhabited by other ethnicities. The refugees’ return to their homes and lands thus is not only increasingly unlikely, but also becoming impossible in practice. Ethnic Rakhine political leaders and local communities are staunchly opposed to repatriation, and the government has done little to mitigate their resistance (indeed, its own relations with ethnic Rakhine have soured). Moreover, hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Most refugees express no intention to go to third countries, and in any case their opportunities to do so are likely to remain scarce. They want to return home. Many refugees hope that the unprecedented international attention their plight has received over the past months could help them achieve that, but they are resigned to staying for an extended period in Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group has significant networks of members and supporters in the Bangladesh camps, and appears determined to remain relevant as an insurgent and political force. The extent to which it can do so is uncertain. It launched a small cross-border attack on a Myanmar army convoy on 5 January, but it has conducted no actions since then. Whether it can leverage widespread disaffection and the significant sympathy it still enjoys in the camps into political authority and sustain cross-border attacks remains to be seen. There is no evidence it has established links to transnational groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, viewing the situation in the camps through a counter-terrorism lens would be unhelpful, as the Bangladeshi authorities appear to recognise.

Improving the situation in northern Rakhine State, where 100,000-150,000 Rohingya still live (and on some estimates as many as 250,000), is not primarily a development challenge. It depends on the Myanmar government and security forces changing course. For the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, particularly those in rural areas, life is becoming increasingly untenable. Curfews, checkpoints and movement restrictions mean that they cannot gain access to farms, fishing grounds, markets, day labour opportunities or social services. These people say they do not want to leave, but if the restrictions are not urgently eased, many may decide they have no other choice.

Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

To prevent further deterioration, the international community should continue pushing the government to allow unfettered United Nations and aid agency access to northern Rakhine. They should press for accountability for crimes committed by the security forces and others. It is also vital to ensure that the government changes conditions in northern Rakhine, to improve the prospects of an eventual refugee return, and more urgently to stabilise the situation of the Rohingya who remain, so as to prevent a further exodus. The recent appointment of a UN special envoy for Myanmar, combined with continued scrutiny and engagement from the Security Council – which just completed a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar – can hopefully result in some progress on these issues. The recent statement from State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office promising improved relations with the UN, together with the appointment of a new president, may open space for changes in the government’s approach.

Realistically, however, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh appear unlikely to return any time soon. Donors should prepare for the long haul. They should not only fund the humanitarian operation but also invest in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugees currently reside, to reduce the burden on host communities, minimise risks that local sentiment turns against refugees and create an environment more amenable to their integration. The Bangladeshi government currently resists such an approach, given the domestic political costs of acknowledging that the Rohingya will remain indefinitely. Similarly, many Western governments are understandably loath to acknowledge explicitly that prospects of the refugees’ return are slim. But sustained political discussions on long-term solutions between the government, donors and multilateral institutions are vital. Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

I. Introduction

Myanmar’s Rakhine State has long been afflicted by a toxic mixture of centre-periph­ery tensions, communal and religious conflict, and extreme poverty and underdevelopment.[fn]For detailed background on Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; and 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote In 2014, Crisis Group warned that the state’s turmoil represented “a significant threat to the overall success of the country’s transition” away from military rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., p. i. Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar, is one of the poorest parts of the country. The extreme poverty is inseparable from anti-Muslim discrimination, both by society and by government, through abusive regulations or bureaucratic procedures and practices. The state’s population of 3.2 million (2014 census) is made up of a majority of Rakhine Buddhists (around 60 per cent) and a significant minority of Muslims (around 35 per cent). In northern parts of the state, prior to the recent exodus there was a large majority of Muslims. There are also a number of smaller minority groups in Rakhine, including Chin, Mro, Khami, Dainet, Maramagyi and Kaman.Hide Footnote Muslims in Rakhine, particularly the Rohingya, have long been subject to state-spon­sored discrimination and denial of rights, considered by Amnesty International to amount to apartheid, a crime against humanity.[fn]“‘Caged without a roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, November 2017.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which also refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), emerged in the wake of communal strife in 2012. It launched attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017. These attacks provoked an indiscriminate military response that the United Nations, foreign governments and human rights organisations have branded as ethnic cleansing, likely involving crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017.[fn]Inter Sector Coordination Group Situation Report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, Cox’s Bazar, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote

This report assesses the political and conflict dynamics at play in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and in Rakhine State, looks at how the crisis may evolve, and examines what options the Myanmar government and international community have for addres­sing it. It is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since November 2017, including interviews with diplomats and aid agency representatives; ARSA members; and more than 100 Rohingya refugees – women and men, educated and uneducated – in the Bangladesh camps, conducted by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language. Some interviews were also conducted with Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine; these were carried out remotely due to access restric­tions and the need to minimise risks to interviewees. The report examines the situation in northern Rakhine State, the prospects for refugees’ repatriation and conditions in the Bangladesh camps, including the status of ARSA. A forthcoming report will explore the challenges Bangladesh faces as a result of this sudden, massive influx of refugees, including in relation to the December 2018 Bangladeshi elections.

II. Prospects for Repatriation

The situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels.

The Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments have agreed upon a procedural framework for refugee return, which was supposed to have started on 23 January and be completed “preferably within two years”.[fn]The bilateral framework consists of a 23 November 2017 “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”; 19 December 2017 terms of reference for a “Joint Working Group”; and a 16 January 2018 “Physical Arrangement for Repatriation”, including a verification form that prospective returnees must fill out in advance.Hide Footnote But the situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels. This is unlikely to change in the short or medium term, and indeed Rohingya continue to leave Rakhine for Bangladesh. Nor does forced repatriation appear likely in the coming months, given the Bangladeshi government’s calculation (discussed in section IV.A below) that such a step would be detrimental to its interests in the December elections and in securing donor backing for the huge humanitarian operation that supports the camps. The Awami League government has expressed sympathy for the Rohingya refugees in its campaign materials.

The lack of returns has become the subject of diplomatic manoeuvring by both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has repeatedly declared that the physical infrastructure required for repatriation is in place, and that it is not responsible for any delay.[fn]For example, “Diplomats, UN officials witness true situation in Rakhine State”, Global New Light of Myanmar [GNLM], 16 February 2018.Hide Footnote But, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi told the UN Security Council on 13 January, “the construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation”.[fn]“Briefing on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council”, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 13 February 2018; “Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote UNHCR and most other UN agencies have had no access to northern Rakhine State since the start of the latest crisis in August 2017, though the government is holding discussions with UNHCR and the UN Development Program, and has recently signalled following the UN Security Council visit that it is open to closer cooperation with the UN (see section V below).

Bangladesh has reiterated its commitment to voluntary repatriation – that it will not force any Rohingya to return against their will – but has sought to test Myanmar’s willingness to accept returnees. A number of repatriation lists have been announced:

  • In late December, Bangladesh suggested it would send an initial list of 100,000 Rohingya to be verified by Myanmar for repatriation. The list was to be drawn from a biometric database of refugees compiled by the Bangladeshi authorities. This database did not include household information, however, making it impossible to produce family-based lists, and the verification proposal was quietly dropped.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “100,000 Rohingya on first repatriation list”, Dhaka Tribune, 27 December 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 15 January, Myanmar provided Bangladesh with a list of 508 Hindus that it wanted included in the first batch of returnees, as well as 750 Muslims whose residence in Myanmar it had verified. There was no indication that any of these people wished to return to Myanmar, and Bangladesh has not proceeded with their repatriation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “Myanmar says over 1,200 refugees to return from Bangladesh next week”, The Irrawaddy, 16 January 2018.Hide Footnote
  • During the 15-17 February visit of the Myanmar home minister to Dhaka, Bangladesh handed over a list of 1,673 Rohingya families (8,032 individuals) “to start the first phase of repatriation”. Myanmar says Bangladesh failed to use the agreed-upon form, and omitted key identifying information – including declarations of willingness to voluntarily return – making it impossible to assess the list. Myanmar nevertheless announced in early April that it had verified 675 from the list as eligible for repatriation, although it is unclear if or when these people will return, and they were not asked if they are willing to do so.[fn]“Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018; “Myanmar to accept over 600 refugees from Bangladesh”, Mizzima, 5 April 2018.Hide Footnote

The major obstacle to return remains fear. Crisis Group interviews in the last several months with Rohingya in the Bangladesh camps suggest that the vast majority of refugees want to return to their villages in Rakhine State as soon as conditions allow; few expressed a desire to go to third countries or settle permanently in Bangladesh. But the Rohingya are only willing to return if they can do so in safety and with dignity. Many refugees said they had lost everything – homes, land, cattle, businesses and savings, as well as loved ones. They believe now is the time to secure their right to compensation for everything they have lost. They understand it will be difficult to obtain that right, but having no real alternatives, they are resigned to waiting and hoping.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “‘I still don’t feel safe to go home’: Voices of Rohingya refugees”, Oxfam, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again.

Myanmar has done little to create an environment conducive to return. The inaction begins with the fact that the government and military continue to deny the seriousness of the violence that occurred. Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again. The only official acknowledgement of wrongdoing relates to the extrajudicial executions of ten Rohingya men in Inn Din village, though the local Reuters journalists who exposed the case remain in prison facing charges under the Myanmar Official Secrets Act.[fn]“Tatmadaw investigation team issues statement on findings of discovery of unidentified bodies in Inndin Village cemetery in Maungtaw Township”, Naypyitaw, 10 January 2018; “Massacre in Myanmar”, Reuters, 8 February 2018; “Myanmar police witness says searched Reuters reporter’s home ‘for news’”, Reuters, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote In a 19 March speech, the Myanmar Armed Forces’ commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, reinforced the view that the Rohingya are outsiders, saying they “do not have the characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar”. The UN secretary-general expressed shock at these comments.[fn]“UN chief hits out at Myanmar army leader over comments”, AFP, 27 March. The commander-in-chief referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, a term widely used in Myanmar to imply that they are foreigners from Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

Rakhine Buddhists and other non-Muslims in the state remain staunchly opposed to any refugee return. Many across Myanmar share such views. A recent legislative debate provides a striking example of the strength of domestic sentiment against repatriation. On 14 March, the lower house debated a motion calling on the government to review its decision to relocate 55 (Muslim) Kaman families from Rakhine State to Yangon. The families are among those who were displaced from towns in southern Rakhine by communal violence in 2012 and have been confined to camps since then. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman are a recognised ethnic minority who at least in principle enjoy full citizenship.

Yet during the debate, a representative from the military bloc in the lower house expressed concern that “terrorists can pose as IDPs [internally displaced persons]”.[fn]“MPs to discuss motion on reviewing resettlement of 55 households from IDP camps”, GNLM, 6 March 2018; “Pyithu Hluttaw debates relocation of IDPs to Yangon”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote When originally proposing the motion on 5 March, a representative from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party compared the relocation to the “spreading of cancer cells”.[fn]“Racist Myanmar MP: ‘Ethnic Kaman Muslims are cancer cells’”,, 6 March 2018.Hide Footnote The motion was eventually defeated, with a government representative pointing out that the Kaman are citizens and as such are entitled to live wherever they want in Myanmar but that the reason for their move to Yangon is that local officials have obstructed their return to their homes in southern Rakhine. Any return of Rohingya refugees, who face much greater bureaucratic and legal obstacles to establishing their citizenship, will face far fiercer opposition given the animosity toward them from a broad section of Myanmar society, local media and elites across the political spectrum.

III. Situation in the Bangladesh Camps

The lack of any realistic prospect of repatriation means that the Rohingya refugees will remain in the Bangladesh camps for an extended period. The conditions in those camps are dire, and they are likely to remain so despite a huge and costly international humanitarian operation projected at around $1.2 billion per year.

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival.

That operation has succeeded in providing emergency food, shelter, water, sanitation, health and protection services to some 900,000 refugees, while tackling diphtheria and measles outbreaks.[fn]The 900,000 figure includes approximately 700,000 who have arrived since August 2017; several tens of thousands who arrived earlier in 2017; and others who have arrived in recent years.Hide Footnote Yet the reality is that the camps, the largest and most densely populated refugee settlements in the world, were not planned and are not suitable for habitation. Much of the area is rapidly cleared forest land, vulnerable to landslides and at serious risk from cyclones. Makeshift shelters, water supply points and latrines could be flooded or overwhelmed by monsoon rains that will arrive imminently. A large preparation effort is underway, but it faces fundamental constraints of geography.[fn]“UN launches 2018 appeal for Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities”, joint UNHCR/International Organisation for Migration press release, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival. Now they are preparing for the rains – many arrived at the tail end of the last monsoon season and are aware of the impending challenges, and there have already been some storms. Most count on international concern translating into real improvements in their prospects for return. A major fear remains the possibility of forced repatriation, which occurred following the 1978 and 1991-1992 exoduses, exacerbated by the diplomatic manoeuvring between Bangladesh and Myanmar described above.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. For discussion of repatriation following the 1978 and 1992 exoduses, see Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., section II.C; “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of exodus?”, Human Rights Watch, September 1996.Hide Footnote

A. Leadership and Governance in the Camps

Given the chaos of the 2017 exodus, and the difficult conditions on arrival in Bangladesh, leadership and governance structures among refugees have been somewhat ad hoc. Village populations generally did not arrive in the camps together, and therefore are not living together, prompting the emergence of new geographically based leaderships.

There has long been a system of informal leadership in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, known as the majhi (traditional leader) system. This system was established at the time of the last major refugee flight in 1991-1992, but it was bedevilled by corruption and the majhis’ abuse of power. In 2007 the majhis were replaced with elected camp committees with a facilitation rather than decision-making role.[fn]“Rohingya crisis: Situation analysis”, ACAPS, November 2017.Hide Footnote

In the initial stages of the latest exodus, before the aid operation kicked in, the delivery of assistance was disorganised; refugees living close to main roads received goods from well-wishers, whereas those in less accessible areas received little. When the Bangladeshi army took charge of crisis management in mid-September, it instructed refugees to select a majhi for each group of 50-200 households. Those chosen were tasked, among other things, with drawing up family lists that the army used as the basis for food distribution.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.

These majhis are now the lowest level of political organisation in the camps, the primary dispute resolution mechanism (sometimes supported by committees of elders that they arrange), and the interface between refugees and the Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies. Above them are two further levels: “head majhis” (representing larger “blocks” within the camps) and “chairmen” (representing entire camps, or sections of larger camps). Since it is often not feasible for authorities to deal individually with the hundreds of majhis, many interactions are at the level of head majhis or chairmen.[fn]To give a sense of numbers, in the Balukhali mega-camp which hosts more than half a million refugees, there are over 800 blocks, each represented by a head majhi.Hide Footnote All of these leaders are men. While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Due to the risk that majhis may be unrepresentative or corrupt, some aid agencies have established parallel project structures that do not automatically go through the majhis.Hide Footnote

While the majhis have the greatest day-to-day influence over refugees’ lives, local Bangladeshi power-holders also have significant clout – including current and former local government officials. Some of these individuals were implicated in the early days of the exodus in allegedly taking money from arriving refugees to allow them to put up shelters on government and forest land, though a number of them have denied the charges as politically motivated. These reported scams were mostly shut down by the Bangladeshi army when it stepped in. Nevertheless, these local power-holders are likely to continue controlling some aspects of the political economy related to the refugees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Extortion adds to Rohingyas’ woes”, New Age Bangladesh, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Bangladeshi army and intelligence service have asserted their authority in the camps and environs, through perimeter controls, checkpoints and informants – albeit with a focus on major security threats rather than low-level criminality, which is mostly handled by the majhis. The majhis have also organised a system of volunteer night watchmen or sentries, at the request of the army and local magistrates. Sentries are provided with a torch, jacket and baton, with each sentry responsible for a block; they report through the majhis to the army each morning.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

ARSA is a significant presence in the camps. That ARSA members and supporters are there is unsurprising, given that the militant group had firmly established itself in Rohingya villages across northern Rakhine. Its members were recruited from and lived in those villages – and fled to the Bangladesh camps with the rest of the population. A small number of senior leaders and prominent cadres avoided entering the camps or being biometrically registered by the Bangladeshi authorities. These men stayed out of the camps as a security precaution and to be able to move more freely.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and representatives of humanitarian agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Refugees are able to move freely within and between camps, but they are restricted from travelling to Cox’s Bazar or Chittagong, except with medical referral. It has up to now been easy for them to travel to the town of Teknaf, but since early March soldiers at checkpoints have started asking about reasons for travel.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.

What has been less certain is the extent to which ARSA would be able to regroup in the camps, mobilise the population and project its authority. It was able to do so in Rakhine State by leveraging the anger and desperation of a community facing daily oppression, and by building strong networks through prominent local community and religious leaders. It offered hope, or at least a sense of agency, and bolstered its position via a combination of religious legitimacy and fear.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote Mobilising in the Bangladesh camps is a completely different prospect. Village populations are scattered across the camps, new leaders (the majhis) are emerging, and the “common enemies” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – are far away across an international border. When the majority of refugees are struggling to establish basic standards of living in the camps and come to terms with the catastrophe triggered by ARSA’s last major action, the militant group’s raison d’être has undoubtedly been weakened.

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.[fn]“Five security personnel injured in ambush attack in Northern Rakhine”, GNLM, 6 January 2018.Hide Footnote Its immediate statement claiming responsibility, and its subsequent statement the same month rejecting repatriation proposals, also made an apparent attempt to position the group as the political voice of the Rohingya.[fn]ARSA press statements, “Turaing ambush against the Burmese terrorist army”, 7 January 2018; and “Burmese terrorist government’s unreasonable repatriation plan for Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh”, 20 January 2018. Available on the group’s Twitter account, @ARSA_Official.Hide Footnote

There is evidence, albeit thus far limited, that ARSA is organising in the Bangladesh camps. First, some acts of violence in the camps can be plausibly linked to ARSA. There have been a small number of killings of majhis and other leaders attributed in the media to criminals or to the fact that the victims were working with the Bangladeshi authorities on potential returns. It seems, however, that in at least a few of these cases, the person killed may have been on an ARSA hit list since before the exodus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya leader shot dead in Cox’s Bazar”, Dhaka Tribune, 20 January 2018; “Second camp ‘leader’ killed in Bangladesh refugee camp”, AFP, 23 January 2018; “Bangladesh tightens security in Rohingya camps”, The Irrawaddy, 2 February 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus.

Second, ARSA members themselves claim to have influence over the majhis. Indeed, it would be surprising if some of the majhis were not linked even more directly to the group given the extent of ARSA’s previous mobilisation and support in Rakhine State ­– and its success in imposing its will through violence. This combination of persuasion and targeted violence is precisely analogous to ARSA’s earlier tactics in Myanmar. Another opportunity for ARSA to exert its influence is through its members or supporters volunteering as night watchmen. Finally, religious leaders – some of whom were key ARSA community mobilisers and leaders in Rakhine State – continue to be important in the camps.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not, however, imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus, which itself is not certain. The strong presence of Bangladeshi army and intelligence personnel in and around the camps, plus the geography of the area and its high population density, means that ARSA will find it difficult to reorganise in Bangladesh without the authorities knowing. Now that the majority of the Rohingya population is in Bangladesh with little prospect of return, other objectives, notably organising to lobby for improved living conditions and opportunities in Bangladesh, are likely to assume greater importance for refugees – and hence for any group that draws its constituency from them – than mobilising for an insurgency across the border. Much, therefore, depends on how the political situation in Bangladesh evolves.

B. Refugee Views on ARSA and the Use of Violence

Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering.

Detailed Crisis Group discussions with refugees indicate that the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya, sparked by the ARSA attacks, has influenced perceptions of ARSA in different ways. Some refugees adopt the view that, whether or not those attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive them from their land. Others believe that the Rohingya lost everything as a result of the attacks, while gaining nothing. Many expressed the hope that something positive might come from their plight, as the Rohingya have never before received so much global attention. “Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering” was a commonly aired sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many of those who had supported or engaged in ARSA’s resistance saw violence as a last resort. They believed that ARSA’s rationale was bolstered by fatwas (religious judicial opinions or binding religious edicts) from Rohingya clerics in Rakhine State and in the diaspora declaring armed struggle to be legitimate or even obligatory. On the other hand, other voices among the Rohingya, including leading clerics, had long counselled against violence and continue to do so.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, The Politics of Rakhine State and A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This question was the subject of a detailed media report in Bangladesh in March 2018.[fn]“Rohingya muftis prohibit jihad and self-defense”, Dhaka Tribune, March 2018.Hide Footnote The article cited the issuance of a fatwa by 47 Rohingya muftis (Islamic scholars who interpret religious law) condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defence, against Myanmar.[fn]The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept to war-making. In reference to violence, it can encompass insurgency and guerrilla war as well as terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS self-identify as “jihadist”, and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that might constrain combat tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: that fighting to return society to a purer Islam is proper; that violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them is justified; and that, in fact, there is a duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or to detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. For more about Crisis Group’s use of this term, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote It stated that Deobandi madrassas in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan backed the fatwa (Deobandi Islam is a Sunni revivalist movement to which the most influential Rohingya clerics adhere).

There has always been, and continues to be, a strong current of thought among Rohingya that opposes any form of violent resistance. Yet two considerations are relevant to assessing whether the fatwa represents a significant shift in sentiment away from ARSA and militancy among the Rohingya. First, it is not new; it was issued in October 2017, at the height of the exodus, a time when Rohingya leaders felt it was vital to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees did not represent a security threat. Second, the fatwa did not categorically reject the idea of violent resistance; it did, however, caution against it at the time of issuance. That is, it was not a rejection of ARSA as such, but rather of particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, muftis who signed the fatwa, Bangladesh, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many observers have expressed concern about the risk of transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Islamic State or their Bangladeshi affiliates – exploiting the Rohingya crisis to mobilise or recruit in the camps. While this concern is legitimate, given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that such exploitation is happening, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps. ARSA has always distanced itself from transnational jihadism, and the group, its members and refugees interviewed continue to do so.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The Bangladeshi authorities share this assessment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladesh intelligence official, Dhaka, April 2018; Bangladesh security officials, Cox’s Bazar, January 2018. This assessment will be examined in greater detail in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

IV. What Next for the Crisis?

A. In Bangladesh

There is little prospect that the situation in Rakhine State will improve sufficiently in the near future for voluntary repatriation to be conceivable. The future of the refugees is thus very much dependent on developments in Bangladesh.

Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.

Little suggests Bangladeshi authorities are inclined to force refugees back to Myanmar. Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opinion polling professional, Dhaka, April 2018. This assessment will be examined in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote It would also damage relations with donor countries that are funding the $1.2 billion per year humanitarian operation. Public opinion and government calculations could easily shift, however. Two factors will be especially important.

First is the sentiment of the host community in Cox’s Bazar. Currently, relations between refugees and locals are relatively good – better, in fact, than during the 1990s crisis, even though the numbers of refugees now are far higher. But continued positive relations cannot be taken for granted. In the two sub-districts where the refugee camps are located (Ukhia and Teknaf), refugees outnumber the local population two to one. The rapid influx has placed a huge burden on the host community – prices have risen, day labour rates gone down, farmlands been lost, transport times lengthened, and deforestation and environmental degradation worsened. Locals worry about the health and security implications of the camps. Their sympathy could easily dry up as the crisis becomes protracted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of local community and refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise and repatriation stalls”, Reuters, 28 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Second is whether sentiment in Bangladesh as a whole and the government’s stance in particular shifts after the elections. This could happen even if the current Awami League government holds onto power, which seems likely. Bangladesh has always insisted that the refugees must return to Myanmar, and it has rejected the idea of local integration. Pressure on refugees to return to Myanmar remains a future possibility, even if the Bangladeshi population and government for now largely welcome them.

At the same time, Bangladesh has made clear that it is making contingency arrangements. It has moved forward with a $280 million plan to resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees on an isolated and flood-prone island, Bhasan Char, in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladeshi navy issued a tender on 24 November 2017 for development of the island camp and necessary flood defences; the government says it has no timeline for the development – indeed, no allocation from the budget has reportedly yet been secured[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Bangladeshi civil society who has closely followed the matter, May 2018.Hide Footnote – and that no Rohingya will be moved against their will. The plan has alarmed aid agencies, however, who have concerns about the site’s suitability and the difficulty of access to it. Refugees strongly oppose moving to the island, but they seem to think that the scheme will never get off the ground. If their relocation were to appear imminent, serious resistance could be anticipated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and aid agency representatives, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Floating island: New home for Rohingya refugees emerges in Bay of Bengal”, Reuters, 22 February 2018; “Dhaka bemoans lack of funding for Rohingya refugee island”, Reuters, 27 March 2018.Hide Footnote Demonstrations already took place in January, when refugees believed they might be pressured to repatriate.[fn]“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh protest repatriation move”, AFP, 20 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Most [refugees] say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible.

In general, refugees have strong communications networks and, despite being mostly illiterate (the Rohingya language has no written form in general usage), have access to considerable information about their predicament and the attendant international debate. Almost all refugee families also have access to a smartphone – like Myanmar as a whole, which has one of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates.[fn]Smartphone penetration in Myanmar is 80 per cent, significantly higher than in its neighbours (Singapore is 78 per cent and Thailand 59 per cent). Realizing Digital Myanmar, Telenor, February 2018.Hide Footnote These devices are now connected to Bangladeshi networks through SIM cards purchased on the black market (refugees are officially prohibited from purchasing a Bangladeshi SIM card). WhatsApp serves as essentially the sole means of communication for Rohingya, mostly via sharing of audio files and video clips. Most refugees are members of multiple WhatsApp groups, giving them access to news and religious teachings, as well as a connection to their families, including those still in Myanmar or in other countries.[fn]Of the many WhatsApp groups, some connect people from a particular village in Rakhine (eg, the Taung Bazar group and the Badanar group); others are content-based, such as the Rohingya Ettafaq (Unity) group, the Rohingya social media group, the Arakan Azad (Freedom) group and the Rohingya National news group.Hide Footnote Some of these WhatsApp groups also could serve as a means of coordination and mobilisation, particularly should the refugees face major challenges, such as forced repatriation or resettlement to the island.

To the extent that refugees have had time to think about their future in any detail, most say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible. Very few express an intention to go to third countries. In any case, possibilities for doing so are limited: the smuggling route by boat across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia remains extremely difficult, the land route via India across Myanmar to Thailand is expensive and fraught with peril, and only a handful of refugees have the resources and connections to leave by air. Informal integration in Bangladesh is also more difficult than in the past. Authorities now restrict marriages between refugees and locals, and because Bangladesh IDs are now biometric, they are more difficult and expensive to obtain on the black market than they were previously. Some refugees have avoided entering the camps and being registered, to make it easier to move around and to leave – but their number appears to be very small (it includes some senior ARSA members, as mentioned above).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and analysts, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. In Northern Rakhine State

Beyond building the physical infrastructure to support limited returns, Myanmar has made no real progress in creating conditions on the ground that would give refugees the confidence to return. In the meantime, among the 100,000-150,000 Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine, a few thousand per month continue to leave for Bangladesh.

Rohingya in northern Rakhine report that they have no wish to leave unless circumstances compel them to do so. Those that are leaving cite reasons including their inability to obtain food or medical treatment for serious illness or injury; the confiscation of their land; and accusations by the authorities that a family member is an ARSA member.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in northern Rakhine State and recently arrived refugees in Bangladesh, January-March 2018. See also “Confidential briefing note on the Maung Nu massacre and its aftermath”, Arakan Project, 22 February 2018 (non-public); and “Remaking Rakhine state,” Amnesty International, March 2018.Hide Footnote Recent arrivals from north Rathedaung and south Buthidaung reported fleeing due to food shortages and land confiscation (such as for a new border guard police base in Ah Lel Chaung village-tract). They also relate that while there are no direct threats from police or security forces, continued discrimination and restrictions make it impossible to continue trade and rural livelihoods. The rural economy has virtually collapsed, and poor people say they have to survive on the few day labour opportunities remaining or rely on remittances from family or friends in Yangon or overseas.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands.

Much of Maungdaw township’s rural areas and other parts of northern Rakhine are now virtually depopulated. These areas will not remain as they are, frozen in time pending eventual repatriation in the months or years to come. Many villages were burned to the ground, and those – as well as some that were not burned – are now being bulldozed and trees and vegetation uprooted. Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands. The government, or private companies under their direction, are constructing new roads and extending the electrical grid. The military and Border Guard Police are rolling out additional security infrastructure. The government is pushing for development projects and Myanmar conglomerates have been encouraged to look at business opportunities in the area. Whether these activities reflect a government strategy to remake northern Rakhine as a Buddhist-majority area – as some rights groups and other observers have claimed and as Rakhine nationalists have advocated – is unclear.[fn]For details of the changes that are taking place, see “Remaking Rakhine state”, Amnesty International, March 2018. See also “Burma is pumping millions into rebuilding Rakhine, but is it for the Rohingya?”, Washington Post, 14 March 2018; “With Rohingya gone, Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine seek Muslim-free ‘buffer zone’”, AFP, 16 March 2018; “‘We have no intention of hiding anything’: Myanmar rebuilding in Maungdaw, Rakhine state”, Channel News Asia, 20 March 2018.Hide Footnote But whatever the motives, the consequence will be that with boundaries and landmarks erased, refugees’ return to their original homes and lands will be near impossible, and the possibility of any return at all greatly reduced.

In the meantime, relations between the (Buddhist) ethnic Rakhine population and the government have deteriorated sharply in 2018. The Rakhine State crisis thus has become three-sided, pitting not only the Rakhine against the Rohingya but Myanmar authorities against both, which further undermines prospects of stability and of addressing the Rohingya’s plight. Two incidents in particular have ignited ethnic Rakhine anger. First was a police crackdown in January on an anti-government demonstration in the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U that left seven Rakhine participants dead and at least a dozen hospitalised; they had been protesting a government decision to ban events commemorating the 223rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom. The shootings were followed two days later by the arrest of the most prominent Rakhine politician, the lower house MP Dr Aye Maung, for comments at a literature festival that the authorities said were seditious and supportive of the Arakan Army. He and a second person were subsequently charged with high treason, which carries a mandatory sentence of death or life imprisonment.[fn]Burma Penal Code section 122, as amended by Burma Act XX, 1950. Death sentences are still handed down, but judicial executions are no longer carried out in Myanmar. For details on the incidents, see “7 people reported dead after police crackdown on protest in Mrauk-U”, The Irrawaddy, 17 January 2018; “MP, author charged with high treason”, The Irrawaddy, 9 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence.

The perceived lack of a credible government response or accountability for the police shooting, and Dr Aye Maung’s ongoing prosecution in Sittwe court, both continue to inflame local sentiment. On 30 January, the Mrauk-U administrator was stabbed to death, likely because of his perceived role in the crackdown. In the early hours of 24 February, three bombs exploded in Sittwe, at locations that appeared to target the government – near a senior official’s home, a court and a government office, respectively. A policeman was injured. Three other devices were found and deactivated. No group claimed responsibility but there has been widespread speculation that it may have been the Arakan Army, the only group seen as having the motive and capacity. If it is responsible, the murder and bombings would mark a significant escalation for a group that normally only attacks military targets in rural areas. On 17 January, it had issued a statement threatening “serious retaliatory measures” against those responsible for the Mrauk-U shootings.[fn]United League of Arakan/Arakan Army statement, 17 January 2018. See also “Three bombs rock Myanmar’s northwestern city Sittwe, policeman injured”, Reuters, 24 February 2018.Hide Footnote

At a time when it must grapple with unprecedented challenges in Rakhine State, the government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence. The government would be well advised to ease tensions with the Rakhine community. Of course, this should not include acquiescing to Rakhine demands that are contrary to human rights norms or Myanmar’s international legal obligations; nor should it detract from the obligation to hold Rakhine politicians or anyone else accountable for hate speech or inciting violence. But the government should review its high treason prosecutions against Aye Maung and his co-accused, which may not serve the public interest at this time, and ensure there is accountability for the police shootings in Mrauk-U.

V. Role of the International Community

The Rohingya crisis presents a significant dilemma for the international community. On one hand, it is vital to insist on the right of the Rohingya to return home and Myanmar’s obligation to create conditions conducive to that, as well as to pursue accountability. On the other, no voluntary repatriation is feasible for the foreseeable future, which means concerted efforts are required to ease the burden on Bangladesh and provide alternative options for the refugees.

The harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on [the Rohingya] issue.

Until now, many countries have been concerned that explicitly acknowledging that the refugees are unlikely to go home would relieve pressure on Myanmar to accept them back and could be seen as rewarding the architects of ethnic cleansing. But the harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on this issue and even such increased efforts as could be plausibly achieved – given that China and Russia remain opposed to any punitive action from the Security Council – are highly unlikely to do so. The risk of failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees now is not just that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to live in limbo. It is also that the status quo could morph in dangerous ways.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit.Hide Footnote If host communities or national political sentiment in Bangladesh turns against the refugees, the government may pressure them to return against their will or force them into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those being constructed on Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – in Bangladesh, because the refugees would resist, perhaps even violently, and in Myanmar, because a forced return could lead to communal clashes with hostile non-Muslim communities and could prompt ARSA to mobilise in support of returnees.

In Bangladesh, it is vital that international donors not only support the humanitarian operation by funding the Joint Response Plan,[fn]The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, launched by UNHCR and IOM in March 2018, is an appeal for $951 million to support the humanitarian operation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for the period March-December 2018 (
).Hide Footnote
but also that they invest heavily in development support for the affected part of Bangladesh, to reduce the burden on local communities and the government and to create an environment more conducive to any future local integration.

In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the situation needs to be stabilised so that the lives and livelihoods of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities who remain – in all parts of the state – are more secure and the exodus to Bangladesh from the north of the state ends. This challenge is not primarily one of development, but one of policy. As an immediate step in northern Rakhine, the government needs to ease the draconian restrictions on freedom of movement – curfews, checkpoints and other impediments – so that agriculture, fishing and trading can resume in rural areas and there is better access to services. It should follow through on promises of closer cooperation by providing unfettered access to the UN and its international NGO partners – including by quickly reaching agreement on the memorandum of understanding it is discussing with UNHCR and the UN Development Program. In the longer term, the only credible solution is progress on desegregation, citizenship and equality in all parts of Rakhine State, as outlined in the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan.

The UN Security Council visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar from 29 April to 1 May demonstrates the deep concern of Council members and will likely strengthen their commitment to ongoing scrutiny of the situation.[fn]For a summary of the visit, see the series of “dispatches from the field” by Security Council Report, available at Footnote The UN secretary-general’s appointment in advance of the visit of a special envoy for Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, gives the UN an important new avenue for political engagement with the government.[fn]“Secretary-General Appoints Christine Schraner Burgener of Switzerland as Special Envoy on Myanmar”, UN Press Release, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote These developments – in particular, a strategic combination of continued Council scrutiny with sustained diplomatic engagement by the special envoy – could create new opportunities to make at least some progress on the immediate steps outlined above. Indeed, at the end of the Security Council visit to Myanmar, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a press release stating that “this is the appropriate time” for strengthened cooperation with the UN on Rakhine State and expressing confidence that the Council’s visit would be “an important turning point in this regard”.[fn]Press Release, Ministry of the Office of the State Counsellor, Naypyitaw, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote This signal, along with the appointment of President Win Myint at the end of March 2018, which could lead to redistribution of political authority in the government, may open space for changes in the government’s approach. Progress on longer-term solutions through implementation of the Annan Commission recommendations will remain extremely difficult.

VI. Conclusion

The massive exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh has slowed to a few hundred per week. But no repatriation has taken place or appears likely. The large majority of Rohingya are now in Bangladesh, living as refugees in squalid mega-camps. The threat of landslides and floods looms large as the monsoon and cyclone season approaches, with a concomitant risk of waterborne disease. Those who remain in northern Rakhine State are in a precarious position, unable to move freely or sustain livelihoods; many may be forced to flee to Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months.

Efforts to pursue accountability – whether through the International Criminal Court or other mechanisms – remain vital, as does pressing Myanmar to improve the situation in northern Rakhine and create conditions conducive to voluntary return. At the same time, large-scale voluntary returns for now are highly unlikely. The imperative must be to find sustainable solutions for the refugees in Bangladesh. In addition to supporting the humanitarian operation, donors should invest in developing the affected area of Bangladesh to help host communities and to create conditions amenable to local integration. The reluctance of the international actors to openly acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced out by Myanmar’s military operations are unlikely to return any time soon is understandable. But the lack of sustained political discussions and concrete planning for the refugees’ extended stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their plight and could propel the crisis in a dangerous new direction.

Brussels, 16 May 2018

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group,2017

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