More than 650,000 new Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, all of whom have arrived since late August. They fled a campaign of genocide organized by the country’s military (Locally known as Tatmadaw), with ideological support from racist Buddhist monks and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. They joined Rohingya who were already in the country, having fled earlier purges, most recently in 2012. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are now over 1,000,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This is a huge amount of Rohingya to ensure humanity help for such small country. Bangladesh has introduced herself as humanitarian country in the World.
Bangladesh and Myanmar has already started to repatriate Rohingya, who fled since August last year, under a deal. This deal was signed on 16 January and the process was about to begin on January 23. But this process has been postponed just one day before repatriation begin, amid widespread fears that refugees would be forced to return. Repatriation of the persecuted Muslim community begins soon, but worrying questions remain about what awaits for them in Myanmar. The international community has a task, should it wish to accept it, now that Myanmar and Bangladesh have announced a two-year timeframe for the repatriation of more than half a million Rohingya to Rakhine state, where they fled their homes in the midst of murderous communal conflict.
Given the conflict’s deep and complex roots, two years seems a short time to bring all the refugees home, particularly the Muslim Rohingya, let alone bring the current crisis to a satisfactory resolution. But Myanmar and Bangladesh have shown they are unwilling to wait for a full resolution, leaving open the question of the refugees’ safety on returning. This repatriation deal is no deal at all. This extremely dubious agreement follows preliminary talks in November between Dhaka and the government of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The deal provides for the weekly return of 1,500 Rohingya so that all 650,000 of these victims of ethnic cleansing will have returned to Myanmar within two years. But there are large and extremely dangerous holes in the agreement which in fact offers no benefit whatsoever to the refugees. The most worrying element is that nowhere in the document is the name ‘Rohingya’ used. Moreover, they are referred to as ‘residents’ not ‘citizens’ of Myanmar, where they have lived for generation to generation.
Furthermore, the Suu Kyi government plans to quarter the returning refugees in such like internment camps, some of which will probably be the same prisons into which part of the population was herded 18 months ago. There is no provision for the rebuilding of property destroyed by Buddhist miscreant with the help of the security forces. One of the most absurd claims of Suu Kyi and her goverbnment is that the Rohingya burnt down their own homes.
It is harshly surprising that the first reaction from Rohingya Muslims sheltering in Bangladesh has been distinctly unenthusiastic. They may be living in challenging conditions in sprawling camps but at least they are safe and they are free. International aid charities can now reach them and there is a major effort to restore these often starved and traumatized refugees to better health. An outbreak of diphtheria is currently being tackled by dedicated medical teams from Bangladesh and abroad aid groups. Such support was not available to the Rohingya when they were back home and is unlikely to be available if they do agree to return under the present conditions. Indeed, it can be expected that there will be a general refusal to return to Myanmar to what seems clear will be further persecution. This deal impulses that the Myanmar military attack on Rohingya Muslim brutally again.
The Bangladeshi government of Sheikh Hasina has been placed in an extremely difficult position by the Rohingya influx. It wants them to return home to Rakhine province but has unwisely grasped the apparent rescue line tossed to it so cynically by Suu Kyi. Since the terms of the deal do absolutely nothing to address the core issues, including the entitlement of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar citizenship, to live in peace with freedom of worship and enjoy full rights before the courts, safety of their present shelters. At that point Suu Kyi and her people will be able to say that the Rohingya would rather stay in the country in which her regime claims falsely that they belong. Thus the Bangladeshi government will have actually defeated its own aims. And Suu Kyi and the Buddhist bigots whom she refuses to rein in will have pulled off a blatant and shameful exercise in ethnic cleansing. The international community must force the scrapping of this dangerous deal.
It is not surprising that Bangladesh, with its constrained resources, should be anxious for the Rohingya to leave. A funding conference in October won pledges of around £266m. Bangladesh estimates that the cost of even basic services for the displaced could be more than £1bn a year. International donors should step up. But when they do so, they should press the two governments to not just delay but scrap this agreement, and to include the UN high commission for refugees in their new discussions. The haste to repatriate the refugees is extreme disturbing. But the real problem is not the timeline but the deal itself, and the assumptions and attitudes underlying it.
Restoration for whom?
This concerns the question: Restoration for whom? It is not enough to allow only the most recent Rohingya refugees the right to return. This should be extended to the entire Rohingya exodus population. Moreover, the issue should be expanded to include other ethnic nationality refugee populations, such as the Karen, Shan and Kachin. A process needs to be established to enable the free and peaceful return of any Rohingya refugee who wants to go home to Burma, no matter how long ago he or she was forced to flee, and the free and peaceful return of refugees from all the other ethnic nationalities as well. International activists and media should keep pressure on the generals and Suu Kyi until this is achieved. In fact, this is why their efforts to deny repatriation are so strong. They understand that once they start letting non-Burmans come back, they will have to open the door to everyone.
Yanghee Lee, a UN special rapporteur who was banned from visiting Myanmar raised same question. On 21 January, She said, ‘First of all, where would they (Rohingyas) go back to? They’ve lost their livelihood, they’ve lost their crops, and they’ve lost their fields. All the rice now is reportedly being sold elsewhere to other countries. They’ve lost their homes, so the rebuilding process is going to be huge, and the people should not be subjected to living in another camp-like situation.’ She also urged that the return of any refugees to their homes be entirely voluntary, stressing there needs to be ‘informed consent’, so they will know exactly what they are going back to.’
About Temporary Camps
According to meeting that took place in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on 16 January, the two countries agreed that Bangladesh would establish five transit camps close to the border between the two countries, from which returnees would be received initially in two reception centers on the Myanmar side. According to Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, Myanmar would shelter the returnees in a temporary accommodation at the 124-acre Hla Pho Khung camp near Maungdaw township, which can accommodate 30,000 people in its 625 buildings. Wakar Uddin, the US-based Director General of the Arakan Rohingya Union, a non-profit group representing various Rohingya organizations worldwide, said that he had reservations about about the safety of Rohingya once they’ve returned to Myanmar. ‘It is a bad deal because the refugees are going to be transferred from one camp from Bangladesh to another camp in Burma, where there will be serious security concerns,” he said, using another name for Myanmar.
The genocide in Rakhine again since late August has shocked the world. The stories of the refugees are so terrible that there is no question that it is a full and clear genocide, although major parties such as the U.S. and the E.U. still refuse to describe it as such. Nonetheless, the International Community does recognize that one million refugees are untenable and that they have to be allowed to go home. There is great pressure being imposed on Burma’s leaders to permit this, and which will continue when the U.S. Secretary of State visits the country on November 15th. All elements of the anti-Rohingya racist alliance–the Tatmadaw, Suu Kyi and the monks – want to prevent repatriation, but they will probably fail. With this many refugees just across the border, the pressure will never go away.
Right now, they are negotiating for partial and only grudging admission. First, they are using absolute denial of repatriation as a threat. When the Security Council released its latest “statement” (not a “resolution,” which China prevented), they reacted to even this watered-down condemnation by saying that it would ‘seriously harm’ repatriation. At the same time, they are systematically seizing and rezoning Rohingya land, as they have already stolen their crops and livestock. The Rohingya may someday be able to return, but if the dictatorship has its way this will only be to new concentration camps.
Finally, Burma is a mess. It is absolutely a failed state. When you have genocide of a vulnerable group that is perpetrated by one arm of the government and openly backed by the other, this is the highest level of failure. Elsewhere the country is no different from Yemen or Somaliam, such war torn country. There is perpetual conflict, never-ending oppression and exploitation, and for the Rohingya the most severe of the crimes against humanity. The Rohingya must be allowed to return home, all Rohingya who have fled over the last forty years. Indeed, all the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) and refugees in and from Burma must be allowed to go home. The greatest task of the government must ensure providing potable water, food and medical care for these people to come home. Everything else includes commercial and resource development with comparison meaningless.
Writer: Journalist and Geopolitical Analyst