AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
By some estimates, at least 700,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees are living in sprawling camps on the Bangladesh side of the border with Myanmar. It's one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. Whether or not they can return home depends on conditions in Myanmar from where they fled. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled there to see those conditions and sent this report.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Children are swinging on swings in a playground donated by international aid groups. It's in the Thet Kae Pyin internment camp for Rohingya outside Sittwe, the capital of western Myanmar's Rakhine state. Despite the mirthful sounds, the Rohingya here are not having fun. The camp is fenced in and patrolled by soldiers. People live in simple bamboo and plastic huts. They've been confined here since violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Security got tighter after Rohingya insurgents attacked police in 2016 and 2017. Military operations against the insurgents sent Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. The U.S. and the U.N. have accused the military of ethnic cleansing.
I'm at the camp with USAID administrator Mark Green, and he is visibly emotional about what he's seeing.
MARK GREEN: So much of what I've seen is quite frankly just deeply disturbing. You know, here, for example, looking at all those very young children running around and such - and it suddenly dawned on me. They were all born here. This is the only reality that they know.
KUHN: The Rohingya are a stateless people. Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations. In the past couple of years, the U.S. has provided nearly $300 million in humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict in Rakhine State and other parts of Myanmar. Former lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung is one of the camp's leaders.
You've been here now for six years.
KYAW HLA AUNG: Yes.
KUHN: Has the situation improved any in terms of people's livelihoods or in terms of people's hopes to become citizens of this country?
KYAW HLA AUNG: No. Also, they (laughter) decrease from all the side - from education, from health care and every side. And from - economically, there is no improvement.
KUHN: Nor does he see any progress in their political or legal rights.
KYAW HLA AUNG: I stand for parliament member in 1990 election. Now we cannot vote. So where is law and order?
KUHN: Last year, an official commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended that Myanmar close camps like this one and gives citizenship to all eligible Rohingya. Observers see little progress on those fronts, and the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh appears stalled. Mark Green says Myanmar's government needs to be clear about what it's going to do.
GREEN: The most important thing that the government can do in the weeks and the months ahead is to take concrete steps to show its seriousness of purpose. We have heard that they support the Kofi Annan recommendations. Implement them.
KUHN: The conflict in Rakhine State is actually between two minority groups - the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya. Both of them have faced different degrees of persecution. Tun Aung Kyaw is the general secretary of the Arakan National Party, which represents the Rakhine minority. He calls the Rohingya Bengalis - in other words, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But he admits they're human beings, too, and should have rights.
TUN AUNG KYAW: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: "If they're legally qualified, give them citizenship," he says. "Don't confine them to Rakhine State. Let them go freely, anywhere in Myanmar. If they don't qualify for citizenship," he adds, "then they should be considered foreigners."
The Rakhine crisis seems to have turned Myanmar in on itself. It's turned off some tourists and foreign investors. Mark Green warns that it now threatens Myanmar's transition to democracy. He contrasts the current situation with 2015 when Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party swept to victory in the freest elections in half a century. Green was an election observer, and he recalls watching as citizens celebrated in the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
GREEN: They were expressing a wide-open enthusiasm for a bright future. And I think what we're all saying is, that future isn't bright unless this challenge is addressed.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.