Rohingya repatriation needs multilateral diplomacy

Ali Imam Majumder | Update:

Noor Ankis, 25, whose husband Ayub, a leader of the unregistered makeshift camp in Kutupalong, was killed late last month, poses for a picture with her two children in Cox’s Bazar. ReutersA minister of Myanmar’s State Counselor and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recently visited Bangladesh and held talks with the foreign minister. The Myanmar authorities assured Bangladesh that they would take back 500,000 Rohingyas. But the fact is that just during the 24 hours that he was in this country, 500,000 Rohingyas entered Bangladesh.

In a speech over the radio on 19 September, Aung San Suu Kyi said the same thing. At that time the newly arrived Rohingyas in Bangladesh were just over 400,000. That means even after this promised repatriation, the ethnic cleansing continued. So there certainly are doubts concerning the hold of the ruling party over the state machinery in Myanmar. Now perhaps, under international pressure, they are having to think otherwise. Our government responded positively to their proposal.

From 25 August this year till date, about 550,000 Rohingyas fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh. They still are coming. Despite our own burgeoning population, the government has provided them with shelter on humanitarian grounds. Along with assistance from the UN and other intentional agencies, we are also having to use our own resources to provide them with food, shelter, etc. So, the shorter their stay here, the better.

The Rohingyas have fled their homeland in face of ethnic cleansing. The Myanmar government has been carrying out killings, torture, rape, looting and burning down village after village. The atrocities have not halted as yet.

There had been just over one million Rohingyas living in Myanmar. There has been protest in the UN and the Western world over these recent events. Various Muslim states have protested too. Unfortunately, China and Russia has clear support for Myanmar. India has provided some humanitarian support for the Rohingyas, but has not taken a stand against the ethnic cleansing.

Various human rights organisations are protesting. The role of the international community, under UN leadership, has given hope. Our prime minister strongly highlighted the situation at the UN General Assembly. She made specific recommendations regarding repatriation of the Rohingyas.

The Myanmar government claims that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 25 August launched an attack on a number of army camps and border outposts. Bangladesh has always adopted a stand against such sabotages. BGB and other agencies are always alert so that such attacks cannot take place from Bangladesh soil. And if any such attacks do take place, as Myanmar claims, punishment will be ensured. Stringent operations have been carried out to nab them.

The military operation that violates all human rights in Myanmar is an attempt to annihilate an ethnic community from the country. And the Myanmar government is being condemned for this by all countries, except a few who are looking into their own commercial or geostrategic interests. Aung San Suu Kyi is being castigated. When she was incarcerated, neither China nor Russia stood up for her. India wasn’t there for her either. It was the Western world in the international circuit that was strongly in her favour. The Muslims community in Myanmar, including the Rohingyas, was Suu Kyi’s supporters.

There are talks of a joint working group for repatriation. Many consider that it would be best if UNHCR is involved in this too, tough this time the Rohingyas are not being termed as refugees. However, UNHCR is working here. And supervision on the Myanmar side by such international agencies will be encouraging for the returning Rohingyas. Their homeland is hell for them now. Recently 20 foreign diplomats were taken under government supervision to inspect certain specific places in northern Rakhine. Even they reported of military oppression.

This is not the first time Rohingyas are here. Around 300,000 of them came in three phases in 1978, 1992 and 2016, victims of ethnic hatred and oppression. The refugees of 1978 could be repatriated in 1979. The 1982 Citizens’ Act hadn’t been enacted then. They were citizens of that country then.

About 30,000 refugees of 1992 still remain in two camps of the country. In October 2016, about 66,000 Rohingyas crossed the border for shelter in Bangladesh. There are another 70,000 or so unregistered Rohingyas in various places of Teknaf. Another 300,000 or so have been absorbed into our population, it is assumed. The question is, if they were taken back, why are they returning en masse?

The long authoritarian rule in Myanmar has divided rather than united the country ethnically. It’s economic and social indicators are regressive. It is not just the Rohingyas, but certain other ethnic groups too that face adversity. There is even armed struggle in some instances. The answer to this is to create a society livable for all through democratic means.

The majority Burmese make up 66 per cent of the population. The remaining population consists of various ethnic minorities. They must all live in harmony. Exerting force by the state machinery is not a solution.

Educated in the West, Aung San Suu Kyi should understand this best. She should be most successful in turning around the tide in the country. Perhaps she did want to take certain steps to resolve the Rohingya problem. She was the one who formed the Kofi Annan commission. The implementation of this commission’s report will bring about a permanent and sustainable solution to the problem.

The joint working group can draw up a framework for repatriation. But experience says that they are normally reluctant to return. Memories scare them. Then in 1982 they were even stripped of their citizenship, even though they have been living in that region for centuries. Their movement is restricted. Livelihood is tough there. They would undoubtedly be overjoyed to return home from camps in a foreign land in their citizenship was granted.

That was the basic proposal of the Kofi Annan report. They would have to be free like anyone else in the country to move around and seek a livelihood. It may take time to implement these matters. But repatriation would be easier if this was declared in advance. It is also necessary that international relief and human rights workers be allowed to enter and work in the Rakhine state. This would give the Rohingyas a sense of security and the opportunity to rebuild their hearths and homes.

We must take up multilateral diplomatic efforts to make Myanmar agree to such arrangements and to garner international support for rapid repatriation of the Rohingyas. Russia, China and India must be told that Myanmar may be important to them, but we are not to be ignored either. Our foreign secretary perhaps has gone to Delhi on such a mission. We must also step up our efforts to urge Muslim countries under Saudi leadership to take a stronger stand. Perhaps our government is working to this end. Such efforts must be strong and continued. The only solution to the problem is rapid repatriation of the Rohingyas. We all realise this. 

* Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be reached at This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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