For the past nine years, Rayan has lived in a giant ghetto with a mass of 1.2 million Rohingya refugees, on the Teknaf peninsula, in southern Bangladesh. At 31, he is confined to his fate of statelessness and the misery of these camps, which were to be temporary. In the labyrinth of shelters made of bamboo, sheets and tarpaulins, the daily life of the Rohingyas is under a drip of international aid. Rayan learned to survive, got married, had two children. An improbable return to his native country, Burma, is the only hope that animates him. But this prospect has faded even further since the military coup of February 1. “Our future is darkening, comments the young man. We are very worried about the possibility of repatriation, about the whole fate of Burma, and about our Rohingya brothers who remained there and in danger, because the army can target them at any time. “
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A cap screwed on his head, Rayan has seen, over the years, the history of his family get bogged down. The Rohingya have never stopped fleeing their state of Rakhine, in Burma, to arrive in the camps, crossing the Naf River at night, on the border with Bangladesh. A Muslim minority, they are considered outcasts, obstacles to national unity by the Burmese Buddhist authorities which, in 1982, deprived them of their citizenship.
“We are the survivors of a genocide”
In August 2017, massacres perpetrated in Rakhine by Burmese soldiers once again pushed the Rohingyas towards Bangladesh. 742,000 of them flooded into the camps, with stories of rapes, executions, and villages set on fire. “We are the survivors of a genocide”, said Rayan, who asked to change his name, out of fear of the military. Not far away, on the immense beach of Cox’s Bazar, he saw desperate comrades cramming into unsanitary boats, bound for Malaysia or Thailand, in the hope of a better life. Before, by the hundreds, to disappear forever at sea.
Today, the fate of the Rohingyas in Burma is at the mercy of their worst enemy: the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, which reduced them to one of the most persecuted minorities. The mastermind of the putsch, General Min Aung Hlaing, led the massacres of the summer of 2017. He is advancing a repression justified by the need to counter a group of Rakhine insurgents, but Burma is accused of “genocide” by the UN, and its leaders tried by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The latter, in 2019, interviewed the head of the civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi. The old icon of dissent has remained unmoved.
“For us, Aung Saan Suu Kiy has lost his dignity and respect”
If the generals now hold it, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize does not draw any sympathy from the Rohingyas, who keep his government image of a mock democracy and compromises with the junta. “Under his tenure, Rakhine became a war zone. For us, she lost her dignity and respect ”, loose Rayan, who hates him at the height of his disappointment. However, a civilian government, even limited, could curb certain military inclinations. Without nets, will the generals engage in new attacks against the Rohingyas? “They have already given proof, in the past, of their willingness to use violence against them. The Rohingyas are therefore very vulnerable ”, warns Tun Khin, president of the British group Burma Rohingya Organization.
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Some 600,000 of them still live in Rakhine, including 126,000 displaced, some in precarious camps. They remain deprived of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to healthcare or education, in a situation close to “apartheid”, according to Amnesty International. “The coup d’état exposes them more to a risk of atrocities”, says Daniel Sullivan, lawyer specializing in the defense of refugee rights.
“The military took positive steps towards the Rohingyas”
However, their situation was less tense recently. “The consequences of the putsch are very uncertain because the soldiers have taken positive steps, explains Wakar Uddin, who heads the Arakan Rohingya Union organization from the United States. For example, they met Rohingya leaders to reassure them, and they reported to Bangladesh that they remained committed to repatriating the refugees. Unless it is a tactic to appease the international community. “
Despite the current Burmese crisis, Bangladesh persists in its desire to continue the process of returning refugees, under an agreement reached at the end of 2017 with the Burmese authorities. For this poor nation, the Rohingya are a burden and the authorities are even trying to transfer part of them to a purpose-built island, despite the disapproval of human rights defenders.
Fearing a new influx, Dhaka has stepped up surveillance of its border this month. But Yangon, which has only validated 42,000 Rohingyas on the list of 840,000 presented by its neighbor, is dragging its feet in reintegrating the undesirable people who, for their part, do not want a return without the guarantee of their safety and their rights. “The probability of the repatriation of the Rohingyas was almost at a standstill before the coup and it is diminishing even more now”, believes lawyer Daniel Sullivan.
“For the first time, an empathy exists”
Some activists and experts hope that the putsch will push the international community to face up to Burma’s responsibilities, despite China’s support. Starting with the continuation of the genocide trial conducted in The Hague. “Without a strong international response, the military will not back down”, affirms Simon Billenness, who calls for sanctions and carries out boycott campaigns to pressurize the financial interests of the military. In his sights, foreign firms that deal with the Burmese junta: the French Total, the American Chevron, or the Swiss jeweler Harry Winston, accused of buying Burma “Stones of genocide”.
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In the immediate future, facing the common enemy, the Burmese people unite in protest. “In the streets of Rangoon, Rohingyas and Burmese demonstrated side by side, welcomes Tun Khin. For the first time, there is empathy. “ From the camps in Bangladesh, Rayan and his brothers in misfortune stand in solidarity with the strikes and civil disobedience movements which engage in a standoff against the military dictatorship. But he remains suspicious of this sudden unity: “ True solidarity remains impossible as long as there is still hatred in people’s hearts. “
International pressure is increasing
Despite international criticism, Malaysia on Tuesday 23 February expelled more than a thousand Burmese migrants to Burma, where the Burmese junta is under pressure following the adoption by the United States and the EU of new sanctions against those responsible for the putsch. As the demonstrations on the ground grow and the repression intensifies (four dead and more than 600 arrests as of February 23), the G7 foreign ministers have “Firmly” condemned, Tuesday, this violence, calling on the security forces to “The greatest restraint”. The Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) is also expected to try to lobby this week.