Myanmar drama over Rohingya repatriation

Influx of Rohingya refugees in in Palangkhali of Ukhiya, Bangladesh. This photo was taken on 16 October 2017. Photo: Prothom Alo
Influx of Rohingya refugees in in Palangkhali of Ukhiya, Bangladesh. This photo was taken on 16 October 2017. Photo: Prothom Alo

It has been two years since Rohingyas fled the oppression and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and crossed over into Bangladesh. This is being seen as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent times and the UN acknowledges the 2017 brutalities as genocide. However, despite two years having passed, not a single refugee has returned to Rakhine.

Diplomats and analysts of international affairs have said that the UN, the European Union, various western countries and the international community have stood beside Bangladesh from the very beginning of the influx of Rohingyas into the country. However, the international community has been more or less overlooked in the two initiatives taken so far to repatriate the Rohingyas.

Myanmar has carried out a diplomatic drama with Bangladesh concerning the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Under mediation of China, Myanmar and Bangladesh had initially fixed 15 November 2018 as the date for repatriation. The next date as fixed for 22 August 2019. Both these attempts fell through.

Myanmar may come under pressure again regarding the Rohingya crisis during the UN general assembly in September. In the meantime, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ) are preparing investigations into Myanmar’s brutality against the Rohingyas.

Faced with this international pressure, Myanmar turned to China and agreed to take the Rohingyas back. On 22 August the international community was watching Cox’s Bazar for the start of Rohingyas to return to Rakhine. Meanwhile in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai met the country’s army chief senior general Min Aung Hlaing. He assured that China would extend its cooperation in face of international pressure.

In the meantime it is not clear what strategy Bangladesh will adopt following the two failed attempts at repatriation. Speaking to Prothom Alo on Saturday evening, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said that the repatriation date had been fixed based on China’s special initiative and Myanmar’s request. Though the repatriation did not take off on 22 August, the preparations remain in place.

Myanmar, however, blames Bangladesh for the stalled repatriation attempt. The country’s state-owned newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar on Friday stated that the Bangladesh government had failed to properly distribute the forms for voluntary repatriation. It said Bangladesh also avoided sending back 400 Hindu families.

In this connection, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said that there is a crisis of confidence among the Rohingyas concerning the Myanmar government. It is Myanmar that must make an effort to restore this confidence.

In November 2017 Bangladesh had reached a bilateral agreement with Myanmar regarding the repatriation of the Rohingyas, though Bangladesh was also wanting a multilateral agreement in this regard. It is evident that Myanmar is least interested in taking back the Rohingyas, said concerned quarters, and that is why both attempts for repatriation have failed.

On the second anniversary of the Rohingyas fleeing into Bangladesh, the US state department issued a statement praising Bangladesh’s role in helping the refugees. It said that since the discrimination against the Rohingyas continued, the US would lend its support to the Myanmar government to implement the Kofi Annan recommendations in this regard. The US would continue to encourage Myanmar to ensure that the Rohingyas can return voluntarily in a dignified manner to Rakhine.

Bangladesh’s diplomats feel that Myanmar is attempting to tarnish the image of Bangladesh in the international arena by blaming it for the failed repatriation attempts. As it is, Bangladesh is being lauded by the international community for its selfless support to the Rohingyas despite all odds.

Former Bangladesh ambassador to the US, M Humayun Kabir, on Saturday told Prothom Alo, “When resolving the Rohingya repatriation crisis, we have to take into consideration the internal political and social structure of Myanmar. The government, the military and the religious leadership of the country are all one when it comes to the Rohingya issue. That is why along with support from friendly states, Bangladesh must continue to garner international support to put pressure on Myanmar to resolve the problem speedily.”

Humayun Kabir feels that China also has geostrategic interests in the matter. It has investment in Myanmar and is also keeping watch on Japan’s investments there. It also does not want other countries to gain a strong foothold in Myanmar. That is why China has taken such an interest in the Rohingya issue, he said.

Director of Dhaka University’s Centre for Genocide Studies, Imtiaz Ahmed, told Prothom Alo, Myanmar would be coming under pressure regarding Rohingya repatriation at the UN General Assembly. And that is why it staged a sort of drama with Bangladesh regarding the repatriation. It was the same on 15 November 2018. It hasn’t ever been sincere about taking the Rohingyas back.

Professor Imtiaz said, “We should learn from these two incidents so that we don’t fall into Myanmar’s traps anymore.”

* This report has appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir