Repatriation of the Rohingya is unlikely soon in the absence of any international coalition to create required conditions in Myanmar, the actions of the parties concerned suggest.
Two years into the crisis, the Myanmar nationals, given refuge in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, have expressed an unwillingness to go back home, citing security concerns.
International players, especially non-government organizations, objected to what is termed a Chinese-backed move to repatriate 235 families on Aug. 22, in view of fear and mistrust among the refugees. The Rohingya demanded recognition as Myanmar citizens, the safety of their lives, and ownership of their properties.
Dhaka was working with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, to begin repatriation and has forwarded to Myanmar authorities the names of 55,000 of their citizens.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid killing, rape, and arson starting on Aug. 25, 2017, when a military crackdown began in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In all, 1.1 million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh’s southeast corner.
M Shahiduzzaman, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, explained that a major drawback of Bangladesh’s negotiation with Myanmar is that there is "no precondition to demilitarize Rakhine state prior to the return of the Rohingya."
"A huge gap and a gaping hole were allowed to prevail as if the Rohingya were ready to bounce back into the fire as soon as Myanmar allowed them to return," the analyst told this author.
In a statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch asked the two governments to suspend plans to repatriate the Rohingya until the returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified.
Most of the 200 major organizations engaged in relief operations in Rohingya camps are against sending them back if they are reluctant to go. In Cox’s Bazar, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is, among others, being blamed for complicating the situation.
"It has now been a more difficult task to send back the Rohingya because of these beneficiaries who are raising funds showing photos of refugees," a Bangla newspaper quoted Tushar Kona Khan, a former government official who dealt with the Rohingya issue in the 1990s, as saying.
After Bangladesh gave shelter to the Rohingya displaced and traumatized by the Myanmar atrocities, the international community acknowledged a collective responsibility to support them with assistance. Still, China and Russia thwarted the UN Security Council’s possible action, be it only a statement, to push Myanmar to address the issue. India has stopped the entry of or deported some Rohingya people.
Myanmar does not recognize the uprooted Rohingya as its citizens, and the Bangladesh government doesn't call them refugees. Development agencies use the term "displaced people from Myanmar" to take a middle path for identifying this ethnic group.
Myanmar, a strategic crossroads between South and Southeast Asia, is considered a virgin economy blessed with minerals and timbers and potential for tourism. While China has been the most influential player in Myanmar’s economy, India has undertaken a major project, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project, in Rakhine, where Japan, too, wants to invest.
The United States, which shows the Western will to, according to Shahiduzzaman, "reverse the prospect of rewarding genocide or racial cleansing," is not a party to the recent repatriation efforts. Beijing, now in a trade war with Washington following a face-off in the South China Sea, has no reason to appreciate American steps into China’s sphere of influence.
A major ally of Myanmar’s military is America’s closest friend Israel, often criticized by most of the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for its occupation of Palestine and Arab land.
Two common factors -- a greed for resources and trade benefits and Islamophobia -- may have shaped the policies of some powers towards the Rohingya, whose religious identity may have made Muslim-majority countries overly cautious while reacting to the situation.
"Some are driven by economic interests, and the Rohingya might have drawn lesser amounts of sympathy for being Muslims," said Altaf Parvez, a writer who has extensively researched Myanmar and ethnic crises in the region. However, he mentioned that China might have come up with a deal for partial repatriation and India with words of consolation "to keep their relevance to Bangladesh."
Last December, a year after the crackdown that reportedly killed 10,000 Rohingya, Myanmar’s security forces were reportedly building hundreds of new homes in Rohingya villages meant to house Buddhists from outside Rakhine. For similar crimes of killing 8,000 men and boys during a siege in Srebrenica in 1995, former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic was sentenced by a Hague tribunal to life in prison.
Altaf Parvez sees no possibility of Rohingya repatriation anytime soon due to "the ground reality" after the outbreak of war between Myanmar’s forces and the Rakhine Army insurgents. "Where will the authorities take them [Rohingya] to when the war has spread all over there?" he added.
When the UN has peace missions in 14 troubled spots, the big five permanent Security Council members still fail to take similar actions to address the plight of the Rohingya, mostly living in Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp. There is also no sign that the UN General Assembly members would unite for peace for the Rohingya.
Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist based in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka and is winner of the UN MDG Award, DAJA Award, and WFP Award.
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