03/30/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – Thousands have fled the violence in Myanmar, where a military junta has ruled since a coup on February 1. The months following have seen escalating bloodshed and worsening attacks on civilians as a growing pro-democracy protest movement sweeps the country. Saturday was the deadliest day yet, with 114 people—including six children—killed by security forces associated with the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw.
A seven-year old girl was shot by the Tatmadaw earlier last week. She was sitting on her father’s lap in their family home when soldiers entered the house and shot at her father, hitting her instead. She was rushed to the hospital but quickly succumbed to her wounds, sparking national outrage against the Tatmadaw and a chorus of condemnation from the international community.
Much of the violence today centers around the pro-democracy movement, but Myanmar has been torn by political, ethnic, and religious conflicts for years, leading well over a million refugees to flee the country and causing the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands more. The Tatmadaw has long persecuted Rohingya Muslims and ethnic-minority Christians, including with bombings, torture, and attempts to forcefully convert minorities to Buddhism.
Many refugees from Myanmar flee directly across the western border into India and Bangladesh or across the eastern border into Thailand. Some end up resettling as far away as the United States and Australia, but many others face decades of uncertainty in massive refugee camps like the one in southern Bangladesh that caught fire last week, displacing more than 45,000 refugees and killing at least eleven.
Refugees from Myanmar face a host of issues, even aside from the often dangerous living conditions in camps. Of particular concern to the international community in the aftermath of the coup is the risk of host countries sending refugees back to Myanmar. Such a move on any of their parts would put refugees at grave danger given that, in many cases, the Tatmadaw was the force that drove them out of Myanmar in the first place.
Though the bulk of refugees in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand arrived before the coup, many have fled Myanmar since February 1 as well, including dozens of police defecting as a result of orders to shoot civilians. Unfortunately, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh have all sent refugees back to Myanmar or at least suggested that they would do so.
Sending refugees back to Myanmar would violate the principle of non-refoulement, a binding requirement of customary international law prohibiting countries from returning refugees to a country where they face significant risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm. Malaysia was widely criticized for sending 1,086 Burmese refugees back to Myanmar shortly after the coup. Bangladesh has engaged in the practice intermittently for years despite human rights groups warning that the practice violates international law.
India considers the refugees a security risk and announced the deportation of 150 refugees earlier this month. The country has seen a significant rise in religious nationalism in recent years, making it difficult for the country to accept the largely Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian refugees coming from Myanmar.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand said on Monday that his country would accept refugees, though Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, reported on Monday evening that Thai authorities had forced over 2,000 refugees back over the border into Karen State where the Tatmadaw had engaged in bombings over the weekend.
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