Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya crisis Contents



In the face of the ethnic cleansing, some argue genocide, of the Rohingya by the Burmese authorities—and with a return to attacks against ethnic groups in the North East of Burma—it is time for the DFID once again to review its engagement with Burma.

The UK Government should adopt a frame of reference for relating to Burma that reflects that country’s deliberate, state-sanctioned long-term, ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people which has resulted in huge costs, of all kinds, for the Rohingya, Bangladesh and the international community as well as potentially protracted and intractable displacement challenge on a huge scale.

The UK needs to build an effective alliance across the international community whereby relations with Burma are consistently imbued with an expectancy of accountability and conditionality. Burma has created huge human, moral, financial and economic debts. A bill should be coming for what the Burmese army has done and what elements of Burmese government and society have become accessories to. And it is not limited to the Rohingya. Recent reports and evidence of Burmese military offensives in Northern Shan, Kachin and Karen states, inevitably give rise to the very grave concern of whether a perceived lack of accountability or consequence has emboldened the perpetrators.

The UK and allies should gather support for the UN Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court and to apply targeted financial sanctions at all identifiable key figures. There needs to be a realisation and acknowledgement by the Government of Burma that there are consequences for such human rights violations. There also needs to be a recognition by the UK Government that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi herself is now becoming part of the problem.

The result of this is a need to re-frame the UK’s aid and development programmes in Burma. Our predecessors recommended that DFID Burma needed to maintain flexibility in case of a situation change. The main DFID programme and policies were drafted at a time of high optimism: democracy appeared to be opening up, a Nobel Peace Prize winner was de facto President. Since then there has been ethnic cleansing, the breaking of ceasefires, a closing of civil society space, including restrictions on media freedoms and the persecution of journalists, and a reduction in religious freedom.

The situation has now dramatically changed and as a result we need to see dramatic change in our engagement with Burma.

Unfortunately, the only change we have been made aware of so far by the UK government, nine months after the start of the Rohingya crisis is the end to training of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, by UK military forces.

British tax payers must be assured that none of their money is being used to prop up a government accused of crimes against humanity. In response to our report, DFID must clearly outline all of the UK’s on-going financial commitments in Burma, including those through multinational organisations, identifying in each case, the justification for continued engagement and the due diligence undertaken to reach that position—including results that have been achieved. This is particularly important and urgent in relation to UK aid-funded support for:

which, from all the evidence we have received, seem to be going backwards not forwards.

DFID also needs to consider increasing the funding for the ethnic communities caught up in the recent conflicts in the North and East and those still trapped in refugee camps on the Thai border whose funds have recently been cut back.

There is a model the UK could return to and that is the model of aid to Burma before the lifting of sanctions.

The Rohingya crisis

The Rohingya crisis remains, as we described it in our initial report, a huge human tragedy and humanitarian crisis, ‘staggering in scale and complexity’. The immediate priority for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh remains protective and mitigating arrangements for the impact of the monsoon season and possible cyclones; the subject of our most recent report. The UK Government’s reply—just received and published alongside this report—points to 200,000 Rohingya refugees at risk from flooding and landslide; of who 24,000 are “extremely vulnerable” and in need of relocation. Our recent discussions with Bangladesh government figures suggested reticence, perhaps simply uncertainty, about plans for relocation. We welcome the UK Government’s reply which stated that 800 acres of additional land has been made available close to the existing camps and engineering work was underway to make as much of it suitable for safe relocation of refugees at risk.1


We commend the generosity and compassion of Bangladesh’s authorities and local communities pursuing the open border policy for Rohingya people fleeing the violent ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the Burmese army. We recognise the enormous responsibilities that offering this sanctuary has engendered for Bangladesh—already one of the most densely populated countries in the world; one of most vulnerable to natural disasters; and home to around 21 million people living in extreme poverty. It is for these reasons we urge the UK Government to continue and strengthen its efforts to persuade the international community fully to shoulder and share these responsibilities in line with World Humanitarian Summit commitments to recognise the ‘public good’ that countries who host refugees provide for the world. Perhaps once the immediate threat of this year’s monsoon season has receded, we regard the integration, legal status and longer-term issues, such as education and livelihoods, for the Rohingya as of paramount importance for purposeful dialogue with the Bangladesh authorities.

Looking more broadly at DFID’s work in Bangladesh, the situation was more positive. Bangladesh recently graduated to lower middle-income status, after many years of sustained economic growth, and a ‘development success’ story in-the-making, has been confirmed. The positive gesture made towards the Rohingya, in the spirit of international humanitarian norms, must not be allowed to be the cause, real or perceived, of any lessening of Bangladesh’s development trajectory. We pull no punches, Bangladesh has plenty of other challenges to the quantity, equality and sustainability of its economic performance and we touch on these: persisting extreme poverty; unequal wealth distribution; restrictions on open society; abuses of human rights; abuse, discrimination and violence against women and girls; corruption and—looming over it all—threats from both insidious and shocking climate change-related disasters.

However, there was a lot of energy and confidence in the people we met, the projects we visited and the places we travelled through. Our perceptions and our evidence indicate to us that the work of DFID in Bangladesh is well-targeted, at or around the challenges we identified, and appropriately agile, working to demonstrate, showcase and promote good practices (rather than attempt, with limited resources, the heavy-lifting). DFID works alongside many partners, both international and local, but perhaps head and shoulders above the rest is BRAC, Bangladesh’s homegrown development facility, now the biggest NGO in the world. The strategic partnership between DFID and BRAC, now into its second 5-year tranche, should be studied and its lessons and virtues replicated where appropriate.

1 Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis—monsoon preparedness in Cox’s Bazar: Government response to the Committee’s Third Report, Fifth Special Report, 2017–19, HC 1055, 22 May 2018, p iv

Published: 22 May 2018