Pragmatism, not politics, the best way forward for Rohingya repatriation

All stakeholders in the plight of the Rohingya stuck in camps in Bangladesh will need to show pragmatism, and spurn political maneuvering, if the refugees are to have any chance of returning home.


IT IS MORE than three years since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched coordinated attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine State, triggering a clearance operation by the Tatmadaw that resulted in more than 700,000 Muslims fleeing to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. Since then, none of the refugees have agreed to be repatriated to northern Rakhine. Organisations and activists working on behalf of the Rohingya and the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh each have differing opinions and attitudes about the situation.

The Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw refer to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, to imply that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya do not accept the label and insist that theirs is a distinct ethnic group. Rohingya leaders in the Bangladesh camps have insisted on a number of conditions being met before they will agree to repatriation.

They include being recognised as citizens and having the right to travel outside Rakhine State, to which their community is confined. They also reject the National Verification Cards that the government wants them to accept and which it says are a step towards citizenship. Instead, the Rohingya want to be issued with citizenship cards. They also want their return to be voluntary, safe and dignified and for it to be monitored by an independent third party, such as the United Nations.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 27, Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Sheikh Hasina suggested a four-point plan to resolve the situation, the first three of which were addressed to Myanmar. She said it must manifest clear political will supported by concrete action for the sustainable return and reintegration of the Rohingya; must build trust among the Rohingya by discarding discriminatory laws and practices and by allowing inspection visits to northern Rakhine by Rohingya representatives; and must guarantee the security and safety of the Rohingya by deploying civilian monitors from the international community in Rakhine. Hasina also said the international community must ensure that the root causes of the Rohingya problem are addressed and that violations of human rights and atrocities committed against the Rohingya are accounted for.

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Addressing the General Assembly the following day, Minister for the State Counsellor’s Office U Kyaw Tint Swe called on Bangladesh to faithfully implement a bilateral agreement signed with Myanmar in 2017, saying it was “the only feasible way to resolve the issue of the displaced persons”. Kyaw Tint Swe said displaced people who had been living in Rakhine “have a different legal status”. Those who qualify for citizenship would be issued with citizenship cards and the rest would receive NVCs, which he likened to the “green card” issued to immigrants in the United States.

In an address to an ASEAN-UN meeting at the UN on September 28, Minister for International Cooperation U Kyaw Tin said Myanmar could not accept the term “Rohingya” to describe the Muslims who live in northern Rakhine. “If the Bengalis are named as an ethnic group, they will demand fundamental rights mentioning they are ethnics and hold referendums in the long run … and they would be able to demand the right of secession. For that reason, the government can’t accept the usage of Rohingya,” he said.

Kyaw Tin also said it would be “impossible” to allow representatives of the refugees in Bangladesh to make inspection visits in northern Rakhine because if they were to say anything negative about the situation there it would adversely affect the repatriation process.

If we are going to end this crisis and bring the refugees home, officials from both sides must understand the root causes of the conflict, the historical background and present political situation in Myanmar, and then try to solve it by adopting a new approach. Only then can good results be achieved.

For example, Rohingya activists and officials from the Bangladeshi government should try to understand the situation Myanmar is in and adopt an appropriate approach. The problem of Muslims in Rakhine State facing human rights violations did not just arise during the time of the NLD government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It began when the British annexed and colonised Burma in the 19th century. After independence, successive military governments did not resolve the problem completely and so it remains. While the NLD government was trying to address this historical legacy peacefully, ARSA forces launched their attacks, which meant the NLD then had to take a back seat to the Tatmadaw. The created further problems.

The 1982 Citizenship Law is the key to trying to resolve the problems of the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine. The final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by the late former UN secretary-general Mr Kofi Annan, which was published in August 2017, recommended that the NLD government review the law.

However, the government believes it cannot review the law because it rules under the terms of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and the Tatmadaw stands firmly in support of the law. The NLD government is worried that if it moved to review the Citizenship Law, the democratisation process might be adversely affected. Rohingya activists and the Bangladesh government need to understand the predicament in which the NLD government finds itself in trying to resolve the problem. During a delicate transition to democracy, they should not make demands that are beyond the capability of NLD government and that might put it in a difficult situation.

The NLD government should make an effort to enable the refugees to return home and for the Muslims who remain in Rakhine to have the rights to which they are entitled so that they may pursue livelihoods and not be a burden. A community that is reliant on the authorities for its needs is not good for either Rakhine State or Myanmar.

The recent reports of Rohingya being intercepted outside Rakhine after fleeing camps in Sittwe is evidence that human rights violations continue. At the same time that the refugees in the camps in Bangladesh are enduring difficult conditions, Tatmadaw leaders are also experiencing undesirable consequences because of international pressure and sanctions. The NLD government is also in a difficult situation, with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi being blamed for the refugee problem by sections of the international community, and having some of her awards and honours withdrawn.

Overcoming this complicated and difficult situation, which is good for no one, will require all stakeholders in the crisis to show pragmatism and make undertakings in the best interests of those who fled to Bangladesh. It is extremely important to avoid political maneuvering. Only then, will it be possible for the repatriation of the refugees with dignity to materialise.

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