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Myanmar coup stokes fear among Rohingya in Bangladesh

February 4, 2021

The military coup in Myanmar has drawn condemnation from Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh. Many of them are now more fearful to return to their homeland, but some remain hopeful.

A Rohingya man reacts after a fire burned houses of the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox's Bazar
A Rohingya man at the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox's BazarImage: Mohammed Arakani/REUTERS

In the world's largest refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, Aung San Suu Kyi has always been a hot topic. The most famous Myanmar leader, who was recently arrested by the nation's military after it ousted the civilian government in a coup, has never addressed the community as her people.   

In fact, about 750,000 Rohingya Muslims had to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 when Myanmar's military launched a counterinsurgency operation, involving mass rape, murders and the torching of villages. Suu Kyi, who served as state counselor from 2016 until her ouster this week, failed to condemn the military operation, which was described by the United Nations as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

In 2019, when The Gambia lodged a lawsuit against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) seeking to prevent a genocide of the Rohingya minority, Suu Kyi personally appeared at The Hague-based court and rejected the genocide claims, warning the UN judges that allowing the case to go ahead risked reigniting the crisis and could "undermine reconciliation."

A blow to repatriation efforts? 

Now that the military is in complete control of Myanmar after the coup, Rohingya refugees said they are even more afraid. Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya living in the overcrowded camp, told DW that the coup and Suu Kyi's arrest could make it more challenging for people like him to return home.

"Suu Kyi's recent remarks concerning us sounded softer than in the past. But, as she has been arrested now, I think our return home will be delayed even further," the 80-year-old refugee told DW, adding: "Myanmar's military doesn't want to take us back."

Mostofa Kamal, a Rohingya leader at the camp, voiced a similar opinion. He sees a connection between the coup and the recent Rohingya repatriation deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Officials from both countries met last month to discuss ways to start the repatriations, with Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry seeming more hopeful of success, and officials saying they expect to begin sometime in June.

"The military coup has taken place at a time when both Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to start the repatriation. I think the military has taken it into consideration and made the country politically unstable to stop it," he told DW. "As Myanmar's situation is volatile now, no one will talk about sending us back there," he stressed. 

Densely populated camps

Although the largest Rohingya exodus from Myanmar took place in 2017, Bangladesh has been hosting refugees from the community ever since the 1970s.

Most of the 1 million or so Rohingya in Bangladesh now live in five camps that cover an area equivalent to a third of Manhattan. Over 700,000 live in the world's largest and most densely populated refugee camp, Kutupalong, an area of just 13 square kilometers.

About half of the refugees are children, and there are more women in the camps than men. Most of them live in shelters made of bamboo and plastic sheets, and they are not allowed to work and cannot leave the camps without the permission of the government.

In the past, some refugees managed to return to Myanmar. But recent attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement proved unsuccessful as the Rohingya refused to go, fearing violence in a country that doesn't recognize them as citizens and denies fundamental rights.

'Maximum pressure is necessary'

Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka, believes that the coup in Myanmar won't hamper the repatriation. "The repatriation agreement was made between two countries, not between two individuals. So, despite any change in the government, a country is bound by the terms of such an agreement," he told DW.

Ahmed pointed out that two major Rohingya repatriations took place in the 1970s and 1990s under a military government.

"It's the military government that has initiated the repatriations in the past, not when Aung San Suu Kyi was in power," Ahmed said, adding: "Same thing could happen now if the military wants to ease some international pressure by taking back the refugees."

Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, also shares a similar view, arguing that renewed international pressure could make a difference. 

"Maximum pressure from the international community is necessary to not delay repatriation. Our rights to return to the original villages we came from, full citizenship of Myanmar and the protection must be ensured in the process," he told DW. 

Fear of more repression 

But in the camp, some refugees are afraid to return to a country that is under a military regime. 

"The military killed us, raped our sisters and mothers, torched our villages. How is it possible for us to stay safe under their control?" asked Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association in Cox's Bazar. "Any peaceful repatriation will hugely be impacted. It will take a long time because the political situation in Myanmar is worse now," he told The Associated Press. 

Meanwhile, the United Nations fears the coup will worsen the situation for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Myanmar's Rakhine state. 

"There are about 600,000 Rohingya those that remain in Rakhine State, including 120,000 people who are effectively confined to camps, they cannot move freely and have extremely limited access to basic health and education services," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

"So our fear is that the events may make the situation worse for them," he said.

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DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul