Why is Bangladesh believing Myanmar?

Rohingya delegation visits Rakhine to assess the atmosphere.File photo

Bangladesh is going ahead with Myanmar's pilot initiative to repatriate Rohingyas. It has appealed to the international community for support in this regard. Bangladesh sought this support on 15 May at the high level meeting on the Rohingya issue held at the Security Council.

Bangladesh permanent representative to the UN, Abdul Muhit, said, "We urge the United Nations, ASEAN and regional countries to support the pilot repatriation project and help the Rohingya returnees reintegrate in Myanmar."

The question is, why is Bangladesh going ahead with such an initiative despite the doubt, suspicions and mistrust various quarters have voiced concerning this move?

The media there reported that Myanmar is interested in taking back the Rohingyas in phases. A series of initiatives have been visible in this regard. In March, the Myanmar government took diplomats of Bangladesh, China, India and ASEAN countries to visit the Rakhine state.

The objective of the visit was to show them what initiatives have been taken regarding Rohingya repatriation. They then sent a delegation to Cox's Bazar to check the citizenship of the Rohingyas.

They have primarily selected around 700 persons for their pilot project aimed at taking back around 1000 Rohingyas. However, senior secretary of the foreign ministry, Masud Bin Momen, has said that agencies like the UN or ASAEN have not supported this process. But their support is needed and so this plan has been shelved.

But the process has not halted. A delegation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh visited Rakhine in the beginning of May to see the state of repatriation. Upon their return, they said that there is no environment or circumstances there conducive to repatriation.

Members of the Rohingya delegation said army barracks, police outposts and border outposts have been set up on their land and homesteads. They are unwilling to settle in the model villages being created for their rehabilitation upon return. When this is the feeling of the Rohingyas, how is Bangladesh going ahead with Myanmar on its rehabilitation pilot project.

Earlier in March the UN refugee agency UNHCR evaluated the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state and said the circumstances there were not conducive to the sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. They also made it clear that they were not involved in the Bangladesh-Myanmar talks on possible repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. This was being done under a bilateral pilot project between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

This new initiative between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the repatriation of the Rohingyas may be bilateral, but like before, China is playing a pivotal role behind the scenes. From the very outset of this third initiative taken up by China regarding Rohingya repatriation, people have been raising questions. What is the actual objective behind this sudden move? Does Myanmar actually want to take the Rohingyas back? Are they sincere? Or this is just a strategy? Many are of the opinion that Myanmar is actually pulling the wool over Bangladesh's eyes with this pilot project. Why is Bangladesh stepping into this trap?

Such questions are justified and realistic. When there was a massive influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in August 2017 following genocide, oppression and repression in Rakhine, within three months Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement with Myanmar to take back the 'displaced' persons. China was behind that agreement too, though they did not take any liability. They were not officially a party to the deal, nor was there any international guarantee to this. We are all well aware of the outcome of that agreement signed in November 2017.

According to the agreement, the first phase of repatriation was to have been completed within one year. That did not happen. Then in 2019, China initiated a fresh move for repatriation. That too yielded no results. Now is there any minimum reason to have any sort of trust or confidence in the pilot project that is being undertaken anew?

China is repeatedly taking steps on the Rohingya issue, and Bangladesh is placing its trust in those moves. However, what is China's role regarding Myanmar actually? In the UN and other international forums, China has always sided with Myanmar. The brutal killings and oppression of the Rohingyas by the Myanmar government has moved the whole world, but China neither condemned the actions nor protested. So it is only natural to question China's sincerity when it comes to the repatriation of the Rohingyas.

Myanmar's strategy concerning the Rakhine state and the Rohingyas is clear. They want to rid the Rakhine state of Rohingyas. Accordingly they have continuously been oppressing and repressing these people. The country's citizenship law is extremely anti-Rohingya and they are not recognised as citizens. Driving the Rohingyas out of Rakhine is nothing new. It is not a matter of just August 2017. Previously too they had sent Rohingyas into Bangladesh several times and had delayed repatriation. When international pressure steps up, then they hurriedly take such steps. Why is it so hard for us to see through this strategy of Myanmar?

There can be now doubt that international pressure is imperative if the Rohingyas are to be taken back. Bilateral initiatives with Myanmar, without the involvement of the UN or the international community, are not likely to see any results

It hardly seems that we have learnt from  our experiences with Myanmar. We possibly have once again believed China and are thinking that Myanmar will take the Rohingyas back. We are taking the bilateral route once again. A list of 800,000 Rohingyas has been drawn back and we sit back contentedly with the assurance that 1000 Rohingyas will be taken back. We are reaching out for international support for this bilateral move!

There are around 1.2 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh. This number is increasing by the year. On the other hand, international assistance for the Rohingya refugees is on the wane. It is becoming steadily more and more difficult for us to bear this pressure. It is imperative for Bangladesh that the Rohingyas be taken back by Myanmar. But in reality, as seen over the past six years, there is little likelihood of any outcome to the bilateral initiative between Bangladesh and Myanmar taken at China's behest.

The Rohingya issue is no longer restricted to Bangladesh and Myanmar alone. Given the emerging geopolitics of the region, the Rohingya issue has become a part of global geopolitics, whether we like it or not. The US Senate passed the Burma Act in December last year. This has been included in the 2023 US defence budget. We must keep in mind that the 'Burma Act' is not just a matter of the US and Myanmar. Experts feel that this will have a significant impact on the geopolitics of the region. So the Rohingya issue must be viewed holistically.

By now there can be no doubt that international pressure is imperative if the Rohingyas are to be taken back. Bilateral initiatives with Myanmar, without the involvement of the UN or the international community, are not likely to see any results. Quite to the contrary, such a move may cost us the international support and sympathy that we have had so far on the Rohingya issue.

* AKM Zakaria is the deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir