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Editorial

Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis has lasted too long

The government must give refugees reasons to feel safe to return

Most Rohingya refugees remain in camps, such as this one in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, out of fear of being persecuted if they return to Myanmar. (Reuters)

Roughly one year has passed since about 700,000 members of Myanmar's Rohingya minority living in the western state of Rakhine were forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh due to persecution at the hands of the military and other groups. Most of those who fled are still stuck in refugee camps, afraid to return home.

It is extremely troubling that this serious humanitarian crisis has lasted so long. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, and other officials must make it a priority to create conditions under which refugees can feel safe to return.

The crisis began in late August in 2017, when Myanmar's military began targeting unarmed Rohingya civilians after a campaign to wipe out Rohingya insurgents. Troops shot these civilians indiscriminately, assaulted women and burned down Rohingya villages. Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, who at the time was serving as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, described these actions as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

In November 2017, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to quickly begin the process of returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, the plan has made little headway because most refugees fear they will be persecuted again once they are repatriated.

Efforts must be made to ease those fears. The first step is for the Myanmar government stop denying that atrocities were committed against the Rohingya.

In July this year, the government formed an "independent commission" to look into allegations of human rights abuses. It is a step forward, if late in coming. But the government still keeps a tight lid on information, apparently because that is what the military wants. But as long as the government sticks with this approach, its claims of progress on the issue will be met with skepticism. A Myanmar court recently handed seven-year prison sentences to two Reuters journalists covering the plight of the Rohingya. That is utterly outrageous.

Meanwhile, steps must be taken to improve the lives of the Rohingya people who are effectively isolated in Rakhine.

In 2012, violent clashes broke out between Rohingya, who are largely Muslim, and local Buddhist mobs and others when the government, then led by President Thein Sein, confined roughly 100,000 Rohingya in suburban internment camps under the pretext of maintaining public order.

Six years on, many still remain isolated in camps and are living under poor conditions. This harsh reality discourages Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh from returning.

What is most fundamentally needed is for the Myanmar government to introduce a system for granting citizenship to the Rohingya population. An advisory commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted this recommendation to the government in August 2017.

The panel's recommendations must have been poorly received, however, because the Rohingya crisis surfaced immediately after the report was presented to the government. We hope that a transparent framework for cooperation to resolve the Rohingya issue -- including efforts to help the refugees put their lives back in order after returning to Myanmar -- is created and that the international community plays an active role.

Western governments have grown increasingly critical of Myanmar's government. Earlier in September, the International Criminal Court ruled that it has jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of Rohingya people to Bangladesh as a possible crime against humanity. That verdict is likely to lead to a preliminary examination by ICC prosecutors of the Myanmar military officials thought to have directed the persecution of the Rohingya. We will be closely watching developments on this front.

In sharp contrast to the Western reaction is the support that China, Myanmar's biggest trading partner, has expressed for the government's stance. Japan, once the top source of development assistance for Myanmar, has largely avoided openly criticizing the government and has instead been urging the country to improve the situation while simultaneously providing it economic assistance.

Underlying the Rohingya crisis are a number of deep-rooted issues that must be addressed by Suu Kyi and other government leaders. These include the strong sense of prejudice against the Muslim minority among the Buddhist-majority population, and the extensive power of the military.

The lack of tangible results in resolving the crisis has fueled international criticism of Myanmar's leadership, sapping the investment appetite of foreign businesses. Kofi Annan, who strove so hard to find a solution to the Rohingya problem before passing away in August, may very well be unable to rest in peace.

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