Myanmar’s displaced Rohingya Muslims are marking a solemn anniversary this week.
On August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military began a brutal "clearance operation" in response to government reports that a Rohingya insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, had attacked more than 30 police outposts in Rakhine State.
The disproportionate response from Myanmar security forces, which commenced at daybreak, drove an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh over the following weeks, and led to charges of genocide against the Myanmar army leaders.
The death toll rose quickly.
An estimated 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month with thousands more in the months to follow, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), as accounts of gang rapes, torture, and mass killings were relayed by survivors and villagers who escaped the attacks.
Despite the global condemnation of their actions in 2017, the Myanmar army has continued its brutal aggression on civilians since seizing power in a coup last year, followed by attacks on all ethnic groups.
Myanmar officials have denied the military carried out human rights abuses. The government said the campaign was necessary to defend against attacks by Rohingya militants.
In March, the United States declared Myanmar military actions against the Rohingya as genocide.
Experts say ongoing abuses being committed across Myanmar have confirmed the credibility of the accounts of the 2017 attacks.
“It’s drawn the attention of the international community to the grave abuses that the military is committing and also has opened the eyes of some of the other groups within Myanmar to the plight of the Rohingya, groups that had previously not believed what the military was committing against the Rohingya or believed the military’s lies,” explained Dan Sullivan, Refugee International’s Asia and Africa deputy director.
While the move to unite all opposing ethnic forces has become increasingly popular, some rights groups are not sure that it will become reality.
“In order to overcome the ruthless military junta, all parties need to be united against them,” says Kyaw Win, the executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN). “It is not enough only opposing the junta ... it is crucial to collaborate with each other.”
There are 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, excluding the Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship in a 1982 law created by the army, which perpetuated decades of abuse and unfair treatment.
Meanwhile, life in the sprawling Bangladesh camps remains tough for the stateless refugees, who face adverse conditions and increased restrictions.
“Since the completion of the fencing around the whole refugee camp, people are having trouble traveling from one camp to another—even inside the fenced area—because of the security forces who were deployed in the camp and many other reasons,” explained a 25-year-old camp youth, who lives in Kutapalong, the world’s largest refugee camp.
The youth, who asked to remain anonymous, says that while the fencing is good for security, police often extort the Rohingya instead of protecting them, and taxi fees have doubled because drivers now have to pay more money at checkpoints.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet discussed repatriation options with Rohingya representatives during a visit to the massive camp earlier this month.
“All of them have said, we want to go back, but we want to go back … when we have an identity as citizens of Myanmar,” she said while visiting the camp. “When our rights are respected, we can have our livelihoods again, we can have our land and we can feel we are a part of a country.”
This desire for equal rights and recognition is echoed by the few Rohingya who have remained in Rakhine, as coup-related travel restrictions in Myanmar have contributed to increased food prices, exacerbating the hardships.
An experienced Rohingya aid worker in Rakhine who did not want to use his name because of security concerns, assessed the junta’s promises of new homes and jobs for Rohingya people who choose to be repatriated.
“It is very difficult, and I would say there are rare opportunities for the Rohingya. Inside Myanmar and Maungdaw, I would say no preparations have been made for them to come back,” the aid worker told VOA by phone, referring to a town in Rakhine.
The aid worker, who witnessed the 2017 exodus first-hand and assisted foreign support teams in Bangladesh, said that some of the refugees are desperate to escape the camps.
“Some people will try to come back but, in the end, it will be a more horrible situation than what they are facing in the refugee camps.”
The worker also said some repatriation shelters, complete with barbed wire and watch towers, have been constructed near Maungdaw in the last few years, but they have already been flooded and damaged.
While waiting for conditions to improve, foreign aid and rights groups are urging the Bangladeshi government to allow schooling for the displaced youngsters in the camps.
“Expanding these education and livelihood opportunities for girls and boys will be the best way to prevent social problems and criminality and to fully prepare refugees for sustainable reintegration in Myanmar society,” Bachelet said at the end of her visit.
Preparing future generations of Rohingya is also a concern for BHRN’s Kyaw Win.
“The Bangladesh government has done a great job opening its border to save many lives," Kyaw Win said. "However, not allowing education for the children in camp is like killing their souls. Education is extremely important for the Rohingya children to build up their community in future. More humanitarian and human rights organizations must be allowed to operate inside the camp to provide trauma healing courses.”
Despite setbacks created by increased Myanmar junta atrocities, the first step toward justice for the Rohingya people occurred last month in The Hague.
After dismissing objections by Myanmar’s military ruler, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July allowed a case to proceed alleging that Myanmar performed acts of genocide against the Rohingya.
Despite overwhelming evidence gathered, analysts say that more pressure is needed as the trial could continue for years.
“Fundamentally, the impunity of the junta needs to be addressed through concerted international actions with better coordinated and expanded sanctions including the oil and gas sectors, the pursuing of an arms embargo and then sustaining that humanitarian aid and accountability,” explained Sullivan of Refugee International.
BHRN’s Khaw Win agrees with calls for increased pressure on the junta.
“More countries need to join the ICJ case and more countries should open up universal jurisdiction cases against the perpetrators,” Khaw Win said, adding that mounting evidence collected by international agencies is increasingly difficult to refute.
Texting from his bamboo hut, the unnamed 25-year-old Rohingya youth struck a more optimistic tone on the historic court ruling.
“We feel good because the world is still under the administration of intellectual people that will reveal there’s no place in the world for perpetrators,” the youth wrote. “We also feel that this is the time to deliver justice and hold the perpetrators accountable.”