This month's military coup in Myanmar has made an already dire situation for Rohingya refugees even worse, say human rights activists. Now, prospects are even more unlikely for hundreds of thousands to return to Myanmar from sprawling camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
"The coup is obviously good for no one," says Matthew Smith, cofounder of the human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights. "But for the Rohingya, the risk is heightened. This is the military regime responsible for the atrocities over many, many years."
Most recently, in 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh as the result of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign launched by the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw. The military said it was responding to coordinated attacks on Myanmar security forces by Rohingya extremists. It later faced allegations of genocide in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Following the Feb. 1 military coup, the fate of the approximately 600,000 Rohingya who still live in Myanmar and any possible plans for repatriating those outside the country lie in the military's hands, activists say.
"They have the plan to destroy us," Ro Khin Maung, executive director of the Rohingya Youth Association in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, told reporters on Monday. "Now they are leading our country."
The military's actions, Maung said, have led to past Rohingya exoduses. And a 1982 law it enacted denies the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, the right to hold citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar — even if their families have lived there for generations.
"They will torture us even more"
The repatriation process has started and stopped many times over the years, but in the days following the coup, Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, now Myanmar's leader, vowed that it will move forward and promised to "protect" the Rohingya.
Bangladeshi officials — who recently began shifting some Rohingya to a remote island described by human rights activists as "the Rohingya Alcatraz" — expressed hope that repatriation processes would "continue in right earnest."
But it is difficult to see a way for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar safely, says Smith.
"If there was even a shred of hope for a safe, voluntary and dignified return, it's completely gone now. Though there was not much to work with to begin with," he says.
While few Rohingya refugees were keen to go back to Myanmar before the coup, many are even more fearful of doing so now.
"Even if they try to repatriate us, we will not agree to go back under the current situation," Nurual Amin, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, told the Associated Press. "If they take us back to that regime, they will torture us even more."
Laurel Miller, director of the International Crisis Group's Asia program, tells NPR via email: "Even if the military leadership suggested it would move forward on repatriation as a way of burnishing its image, it's unlikely that Rohingya would be willing to return in a context in which the repression by the military overall is going up, not down."
The coup puts the Rohingya in a difficult position, says Wai Wai Nu, a human rights activist and former political prisoner who is Rohingya. While the Rohingya would rather see a democratically elected leader in place, no government has adequately addressed their needs, she explains.
"I do not think military dictatorship is the solution," she says. But "the Aung San Suu Kyi government was not easy to work with [and] did not do anything to protect the Rohingya."
"We had a lot of hopes"
Civilian rule under Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy proved disappointing to the Rohingya, says Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya social justice activist based in Canada.
"Initially, we had a lot of hopes when the NLD won their first term" in 2015, she says. "But as the time goes by, we realized that the civilian government was never going to work with us."
After the Tatmadaw's crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, stayed infamously silent — even in the face of international pressure. She went on to defend the military against accusations of genocidal crimes, including murder and gang rape, at the International Court of Justice in 2019.
During the Hague hearing, Suu Kyi admitted the military had used "disproportionate force" in 2017, but insisted the world had an "incomplete and misleading picture" of the Rohingya situation.
Even though working with Suu Kyi's government on issues such as repatriation was not easy, the situation is now "even worse" with the military in charge, Wai Wai Nu says, and has put Rohingya in an "extremely concerning and dangerous" situation. The "international community should put on every pressure they can" for Myanmar to face its "fundamental problems" and heal its political and ethnic crises, she says.
On Wednesday, President Biden announced U.S. sanctions targeting the coup leaders, their business interests and their close family. Some, including Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, were already subject to sanctions for the military's treatment of the Rohingya.
"We'll freeze U.S. assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining support for health care, civil society groups and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly," Biden said.
The president also called for Suu Kyi's release. Although the U.S. has made clear that humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya will continue, Biden did not mention the Rohingya in his remarks — something Yasmin Ullah says was "truly a missed opportunity to help emphasize the importance of acknowledging Rohingya as part of Myanmar."