Rohingya repatriation should start soon
After several failed attempts in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, Bangladesh and Myanmar recently announced a pilot initiative for the repatriation of Rohingyas. Myanmar scheduled a tour to Rakhine for the ambassadors or consul generals of 11 countries, including Bangladesh, India, China, and eight ASEAN members, in early March 2023, to review the situation there. The envoys noted that Rakhine has a secure security environment now. The repatriation process should now begin.
Following the Ambassador's visit, a commission from Myanmar's military junta visited Bangladesh to evaluate potential repatriation candidates. As part of this pilot initiative, Myanmar confirmed a list of over 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh who may be returning soon. On May 5, a 20-person Rohingya delegation from Bangladesh visited Rakhine to examine the situation and urge other Rohingya into voluntary return as part of a confidence-building campaign.
Deng Xijun, China's Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, visited Myanmar twice before visiting Dhaka in July. He reassured Bangladesh that Myanmar had now agreed to return the Rohingyas to North Mangdaw in Rakhine. He explained that the Rohingyas would initially live in temporary camps following their repatriation. They would later build their homes there with voluntary labor. Myanmar will pay the Rohingyas for this.
Unfortunately, certain Western countries and right-wing organizations have continued to advocate for the suspension of this pilot project, claiming that democracy is required for any repatriation and that the current political atmosphere makes it difficult for Rohingyas to return. "Those who keep claiming that the situation in Myanmar is "not favorable" to repatriation have rarely visited Rakhine," Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen responded. "It's bizarre. They also did not address whether the circumstances in Cox's Bazar is conducive to the displaced people living a dignified life. This is a question they must answer for themselves."
Coups, military rule, ethnic conflicts etc. have been the history of Myanmar, so does the persecution on Rohingyas. The unrest was sparked mostly by religious and socioeconomic divisions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. During World War II in Burma, Rohingya Muslims allied with the British and promised a Muslim state in exchange fought against Rakhine Buddhists aligned with the Japanese. Following the country's independence in 1948, the newly established union government of the largely Buddhist country denied the citizenship of the Rohingyas, subjecting them to widespread and systematic discrimination. Many worldwide academics, analysts, and political figures, including South African anti-apartheid crusader Desmond Tutu, have linked it to apartheid.
Burmese authorities became increasingly antagonistic to the Rohingyas during Ne Win's military reign, enacting measures that denied them citizenship. The persecution of the Rohingyas thus went beyond all bounds. Violent, large-scale crackdowns against Rohingya, such as Operation King Dragon in 1978 and Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991, drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh. When the Burmese Citizenship Law was passed on October 15, 1982, Rohingya Muslims in the nation were legally unrecognized and denied Burmese citizenship.
To summarize, Myanmar has never had a truly democratic environment devoid of military intervention. As a result, some actors' assertion that "democracy is a prerequisite before any repatriation" is only a purposeful disregard of Myanmar's past.
However, triangular attempts with China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar persist. On September 4, a high-level team from South Asia and Southeast Asia, led by Bangladesh's ambassador to Myanmar, visited Rakhine to discover what steps have been taken to restore trust and give protection to the Rohingyas. Ko Ko Hliang, a union minister and the committee's vice-chair-1 for Rakhine State stability, peace, and development, informed and directed the delegate. The delegate, according to sources, was happy with Myanmar's conduct.
Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Deng Xijun informed that, 'Myanmar agreed to settle the Rohingyas in their original villages- a demand that the Rohingyas had been making in response to Myanmar's earlier plan of resettling Rohingyas in camps or model villages. Several voluntary organizations including 'Asian Coordination Centre for Humanitarian Assistance' and UNHCR will be engaged during the repatriation process.' All technical issues have been discussed. Myanmar has confirmed identity of 2087 Rohingyas already. Repatriation of the first batch may begin within months. 100 refugees could be sent home every day."
Since the beginning of the crisis in 2017, this can be considered a breakthrough. Every stakeholder should back the endeavor. We should keep in mind that the Rohingya issue appears to be taking a back seat to other global crises in 2022 and 2023, including the Russia-Ukraine war. Because of the huge political attention in, and donor pledges for, Ukraine, there is a donor scarcity for Rohingyas. Bangladesh, the host country, has received little more than 50% of the required cash in 2022, while donors gave only 60% of the required funding in 2020, down from approximately 72% to 75% two years earlier. As of mid-August, the 2023 Appeal, which asked USD 876 million, was only about 28.9% financed, rendering Rohingya refugees particularly vulnerable this year.
Second, because the Rohingya refugees lack viable economic options, the nearby Rohingya camps may become havens for criminal activity, putting the security of the entire region at risk. The recruitment of refugees by extremist networks is raising increasing concern since it may feed unrest not only in Bangladesh but also throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Third, around 30,000 Rohingya infants are born in refugee camps in Bangladesh each year on average. As a result, the Rohingya population has risen to around 1.2 million. A new generation of Rohingya children is growing up without a sense of belonging, exacerbating the catastrophe.
Fourth, the security situation for Muslims in Rakhine is better than it has ever been. Living conditions, health care, and education have all improved. The number of Muslim-specific educational institutions has grown. After a nine-year hiatus, Sittwe University welcomed 200 Muslim students last year. This year, a large number of Muslim students were accepted. Muslims, too, have access to medical treatment. The Junta government is providing a 'National Verification Card (NVC)' to returnees. Junta's willingness to resolve the situation appears to be improving. Except for Rakhine State, the country has been plagued by severe conflicts between the regime and ethnic groups. Rakhine State is presently better than it has ever been.
In such circumstances, without a doubt, the repatriation procedure should begin immediately. The world community has a primary humanitarian duty to assist the Rohingyas. Though the decades-long antagonism between Rohingya communities and the Myanmar government is unlikely to be erased quickly, the ASEAN, the United Nations, and global and regional entities can all play vital roles in fostering trust between them.
The international community should send a clear statement that "we are watching the situation in Myanmar, as well as the conduct of the Myanmar Junta towards the Rohingyas." If we can input this and act on it, the ice of mistrust will slowly but surely melt. "The returnee Rohingyas will not be abandoned; they will be observed and their security condition will be monitored"- such a message should be delivered by global actors.
Nobody should attempt to prevent test repatriation. Such mock repatriation will help to identify the issues before embarking on a large-scale repatriation move. This will aid in the development of better planning prior to the start of a full-scale repatriation. This is a litmus test for the international community, right-wing organizations, global actors, and Myanmar parts that must pass with flying colors.
The writer is a security affairs analyst