The Irrawaddy

Rohingya Crisis Makes Top 10 List of Conflicts to Watch in 2018

Rohingya refugees rest at a port in Teknaf, Bangladesh, after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on Oct. 25, 2017.

YANGON — The International Crisis Groups (ICG) has picked the Rohingya crisis for its ignominious list of the top 10 conflicts around the world to watch in the coming year, warning of persistent risks for both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

More than 650,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled Buddhist majority Myanmar for Bangladesh to escape what the Belgium-based think tank calls the military’s “brutal and indiscriminate” response to a late August attack on security force posts in Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Rights groups and journalists have collected a litany of reports of mass rape, arbitrary killings and arson from the refugees, prompting the UN to call the military’s behavior “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Myanmar’s military absolved itself of any wrongdoing following an internal investigation.

In picking the crisis for its list, published Tuesday, the ICG warns that it has entered “a dangerous new phase, threatening Myanmar’s hard-won democratic transition, its stability, and that of Bangladesh and the region as a whole.”

It says the government has heavily restricted humanitarian aid to northern Rakhine and continues to hold onto a “hardline stance” toward the Rohingya, albeit with broad popular support stoked by racist rhetoric from Buddhist nationalists and state and social media. The West’s moves to revive sanctions sent the right signal, it adds, but were unlikely to do much good.

Last month, Social Welfare Minister U Win Myat Aye told the Irrawaddy that Bangladesh and Myanmar had agreed to start bringing refugees back home by the end of January.

But the ICG says most refugees were unlikely to return “unless Myanmar restores security for all communities, grants the Rohingya freedom of movement as well as access to services and other rights, and allows humanitarian and refugee agencies unfettered access.”

In private, it says, Bangladesh admits the plan is doomed but has done little to prepare for the refugees’ stay, raising the risks of conflict between the newcomers and outnumbered locals facing rising prices and falling wages.

As for Myanmar, the ICG warns that a regrouped ARSA or other transnational groups could use the refugee camps as fertile recruiting grounds and launch cross-border attacks that would likely ratchet up already tense Muslim-Buddhist relations in Rakhine and even spark outbreaks of violence elsewhere should the attacks reach beyond the state.

“Acknowledging the crisis, implementing recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and disavowing divisive narratives would put the Myanmar government — and its people — on a better path,” it concludes.

As reluctant bedfellows in the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar and Bangladesh share the ICG’s list of conflicts to watch in 2018 with Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sahel, Syria, North Korea, Ukraine, Venezuela, Yemen and the US-Saudi-Iran rivalry.