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The remaking of Myanmar

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By Jan Egeland

Myanmar’s newly elected government has an opportunity to end the Rohingya crisis once and for all.

Myanmar’s general election this week marks a milestone in the nation’s young democratic journey. The National League for Democracy (NLD) victory means the ruling party will continue to hold onto power until 2025. The international community, led by the United Kingdom, must now present a united front to pressure Myanmar’s leadership into addressing grave humanitarian challenges afflicting the nation and impeding its transition to democracy.

The UK is one of Myanmar’s largest donors. In October it co-hosted an international conference to raise support for 860,000 Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh. Pledging £47.5 million for the crisis, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, called on the global community “not to turn away from the Rohingya’s suffering”. Agreed, but money alone will not end their suffering.

The UK and international community should use its influence to persuade Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and the country’s powerful military, to take three meaningful steps to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

First, the Government of Myanmar must ensure conditions are in place for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of close to a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. The Rohingya community in Myanmar has been persecuted for decades. In 2017, violence in Rakhine State forced an unprecedented 740,000 Rohingya to flood en masse across the border into Bangladesh, joining 200,000 who had fled previously. The world’s largest refugee settlement was created in Cox’s Bazar, with the United Nations calling the military campaign that spawned it ethnic cleansing.

Until the persecution and discrimination against this community ends, voluntarily repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh cannot happen. The government’s commitment to facilitate a return process is welcome, yet there have been no real signals that it is working meaningfully to enable this.

For example, no guarantees are in place that Rohingya families will be allowed to return to their original homes or land. A huge land grab is underway in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. As the country opens for business, foreign investors, construction companies, the authorities and other communities have rushed to occupy, or been placed on, the land of torched Rohingya villages. While visiting Myanmar last year, I saw with my own eyes how construction companies had laid claim to the land of others, sometimes next to the very camps of displaced families.

Second, Myanmar’s government must end the armed conflict in Rakhine. Armed conflict between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Arakan Army has escalated in recent years, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes in Rakhine State. Highly restricted access to communities living in these areas has prevented or obstructed relief organisations like mine, the Norwegian Refugee Council, from delivering aid like food, education and medicine. When we are given access, we are subjected to burdensome government access procedures, which cause delays and result in people receiving much-needed aid too late.

Unfortunately, armed conflict between the national army and ethnic armed organisations has also escalated in other parts of the country in recent years, including Shan and Kachin. The impact of the upsurge in fighting on civilians has been drastic and fuelled a major humanitarian crisis across Myanmar. Today, close to a million people need aid to survive.

Finally, Myanmar’s discriminatory Citizenship Law must be reformed so that all its country’s residents have equal rights. Myanmar is home to the largest community of stateless people in the world. Stateless minority groups like the Rohingya lack access to formal justice systems. They face challenges to obtain or prove their rights to housing and land. They lack access to livelihoods and education. And they are prohibited from voting in elections, such as the general election just gone.

Reforming the Citizenship Law was recommended by the government’s own Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Last year, I spoke with ministers and army generals in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, who reconfirmed the government’s commitment to the report’s proposals.

It’s high time their words turn into action.

The new Government of Myanmar is mandated to work towards a peaceful inclusive society where basic rights are afforded to all its people. The UK and the international community must help the new government deliver on that mandate. This opportunity must not be lost.

Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and a former UN Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs.