Since August, an estimated 650,000 Rohingyas, out of a population of a million, have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape a campaign of arson, rape, and murder believed to have been orchestrated by the Myanmar military. In late November, the government of Myanmar agreed to let these refugees return—although not to their homes, and at a pace that could drag out the process for a generation. Even if this offer was honored—and there is plenty of reason for skepticism—it would hardly be cause for celebration: Myanmar does not seem to have made any genuine commitment to address the causes of the flight, which U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described as “ethnic cleansing.”
The world community, and particularly the United States, should consider taking a twofold approach. It could use its leverage to make the November agreement a true turning point for the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya to their homes in Myanmar and at the same time invest in helping Bangladesh cope with the many Rohingya who are likely to remain in Bangladesh.
The government of Myanmar (also called Burma) recognizes over 100 ethnic minority groups—but not the Rohingya. The term “Rohingya” generally refers to Muslim communities in Myanmar’s coastal region of Rakhine, people whom the government classifies as “Bengali” in reference to their traditional ties of ethnicity and culture with the land that is now Bangladesh. Although many (perhaps most) Rohingya families have lived in their villages for longer than the modern nation has existed, they are officially considered migrant foreigners and lack citizenship rights.
Driven by a congruence of interests between the military, civilian leaders including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and a faction of the Buddhist clergy, persecution of the Rohingya has escalated over the past two years. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein put it, “The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable.” He noted
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