More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine state in the last three months. At least 40,000 unaccompanied children were among those to cross the border, some presenting with bullet wounds. Nearly 60 per cent of Muslim villages in the north of Rakhine have been partially or wholly burned down. Survivors have accused Burma’s military of indiscriminate murder and sexual violence. The army carried out a devastating crackdown after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in late August.

‘First, they killed my brother,’ one woman told Human Rights Watch, describing an attack by five soldiers the day before her village was burned down. ‘Then they threw me to the side and one man tore my [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me … They were threatening to shoot me.’ Earlier this month the military published an internal investigation into its conduct, exonerating its soldiers of any use of excessive force.

‘It is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,’ the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday. Unlike crimes against humanity and genocide, which Ratko Mladić was found guilty of this week, ethnic cleansing isn’t a crime in international law.

The United States and European Union have demurred on reimposing the economic sanctions lifted during Burma’s transition to quasi-civilian parliamentary democracy. China and Russia have blocked all but the most tepid denunciation from the UN Security Council. The government in Naypyidaw continues to bar entry to a UN fact-finding mission, mandated earlier this year by the Human Rights Council in response to the exodus of 90,000 Rohingya refugees in similar circumstances last October. Domestic public opinion is overwhelmingly behind Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and the military.

Burma and Bangladesh yesterday signed an agreement to begin the ‘repatriation’ of Rohingya refugees in January 2018, though Burma doesn’t recognise their claims to citizenship; according to the official – and popular – consensus, they are illegal immigrants. The state-run media have compared them to ‘human fleas’. A statement from Suu Kyi’s office praising the bilateral deal criticised Western countries and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation for having ‘portrayed the matter as an international issue’.

It has long been axiomatic among Burmese nationalist circles that Muslim countries, led by Gulf nations, are orchestrating a Muslim takeover of Burma by stealth. Suu Kyi’s national security adviser, U Thaung Tun, whose long diplomatic career involved playing down the numerous human rights abuses of Burma’s former military junta, wrote in the Wall Street Journal of a ‘sophisticated campaign designed to discredit and destabilise’ the government.

‘Any forced repatriation at this time puts Rohingyas at risk of further human rights violations and would constitute refoulement,’ according to Sean Bain, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists. Yesterday’s agreement, based on a repatriation deal struck after the violent expulsion of nearly 250,000 Rohingya in 1992, will ostensibly guarantee a safe return for all refugees who wish to go back to their villages. Neither government is in a position to make those guarantees.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who operates independently of civilian authority, has accused humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh of exaggerating the number of refugees who have crossed the border since August. He has also said that any return must be acceptable to the ethnic Rakhine majority; there is eyewitness and video evidence of Rakhine civilians participating in arson attacks on Rohingya villages.

Others in the government have insisted that the refugees must be able to prove their residence in the state, an impossible request after the gradual withdrawal over decades of any official recognition. Win Myat Aye, Burma’s social welfare minister, has mooted the idea of ‘model villages’ to rehouse those whose homes have been burned down. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees slammed the plan: there are already internment camps elsewhere in the state; more than 100,000 Rohingya live in them. There are no schools, and access to healthcare depends on the whim of local administrators.

The agreement does not specify an end date for the proposed resettlement. The immigration minister, Myint Kyaing, said last month that the government only had the capacity to process 300 returnees per day. Under the fanciful assumption that the agreement will be implemented in good faith, with the willing participation of the conflict’s survivors, the armed forces and the people of Rakhine, the last refugee will return home sometime in 2024.