Rohingya repatriation: Why rely on China?

Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar 27 September 2017REUTERS

What is the future of the pilot project to repatriate Rohingyas to Myanmar? Is the government moving away from this initiative? Or does it still think it is correct to continue with this initiative with China's support? The reason why these questions are being raised is that the UN has made a call to suspend this move.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has said the Rohingyas still face serious risks to their lives and liberty in Rakhine. In the statement issued recently from Geneva by the United Nation Human Rights Council, he claimed that the Bangladeshi authorities are using 'deceptive' and 'coercive' measures to compel Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar. He said the conditions in Myanmar were anything but conducive for the safe, dignified, sustainable, and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees.

The statement clearly said that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who commanded the forces that launched the genocidal attacks against the Rohingya, now leads a brutal military junta that is attacking civilian populations while denying the Rohingya citizenship and other basic rights.

It said that Bangladesh officials have stated that an initial group of 1140 Rohingya refugees will be repatriated to Myanmar at an unspecified date and 6000 will be returned by the end of the year.

Tom Andrews went on to say that the Bangladesh authorities have reportedly threatened arrest, confiscation of documents, and other forms of retaliation for those who resist the government’s plans. This statement of the UN rapporteur is undoubtedly a matter of concern for Bangladesh. 

The response of the state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam can shed some light on Bangladesh's position in this regard. He does not see any reason to oppose the pilot project for Rohingya repatriation. According to him, this is a trial, not a large-scale repatriation. If it doesn't work out, they can be brought back. He claimed that the Rohingyas were going voluntarily.

If the state minister sees no reason to oppose this pilot project, then we can pose a counter question. What is the justification of this 'trial' repatriation then? Bangladesh had earlier sidestepped the international community, including the United Nations, and signed an agreement with Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation. What results did that yield?

A Rohingya delegation has visited Rakhine to inspect the situation for repatriation there. From the experience they shared upon the return, does it seem that they are interested in being repatriated "voluntarily"? Some diplomats too visited Rakhine at the initiative of the Myanmar government to observe preparations being made there for repatriation. They saw a few camps had been set up there. The Rohingyas were to be rehabilitated in these camps upon return. It was apparent that the Myanmar government has no intention of returning the hearths and homes from which they had evicted the Rohingyas. Would the Rohingyas be voluntarily willing to accept such a repatriation?

The state minister himself possibly is not confident that this pilot repatriation will be a success. That is why he said that if it is not successful, they can be brought back again.

Questions regarding the outcome of this pilot project have been raised from its very outset. But Bangladesh seems to be stubbornly and knowingly going ahead with this Chinese repatriation initiative. The question is, why does Bangladesh repeatedly step into the Rohingya repatriation trap of China mediation or interest?

At a point of time when the global community is preparing step up pressure on Myanmar for its ethnic cleansing and brutal killing of Rohingyas in 2017, China has come forward to protect Myanmar. As part of this strategy, China took initiative for an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation. In effect, Bangladesh ignored the global community and went ahead to sign the agreement with Myanmar at China's behest. Under that agreement, not a single Rohingya was sent back to Myanmar over the past six years.

At the time, many quarters protested against any agreement being signed upon the advice and interest of China, with no international guarantee. The government paid no heed to the protests. That agreement has protected Myanmar from international pressure, but Bangladesh benefitted in no way. The mediator China took no liability either. So it is really astonishing that even after that, Bangladesh has gone ahead to put its trust in China, taking up a pilot project to send back 'a few' Rohingyas to Myanmar.

Taking up an unrealistic pilot project at China's advice, means incurring the wrath of the UN and the rest of the global community which is emphatic towards the Rohingyas. What is the meaning of taking such a risk knowingly?

China's interests are clear. The Rohingya repatriation pilot project will establish its authority and clout globally regarding the Rohingya issue. At the same time, this will serve to relax the pressure built up on Myanmar, centering the forthcoming election as well as the Burma Act.

There are over 1.2 million Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh. And this number is going up by around 30,000 every year, given the infants being born in the camps. It is difficult for Bangladesh to sustain this pressure. They must be sent back to Myanmar. The only way to do this is to mount such global pressure on Myanmar so that they are forced to take the Rohingyas back.

Instead of doing that, taking up an unrealistic pilot project at China's advice, means incurring the wrath of the UN and the rest of the global community which is empathetic towards the Rohingyas. What is the meaning of taking such a risk knowingly?

* AKM Zakaria is 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