Repatriation Of The Rohingya Refugees: Case Of Bangladesh – OpEd


The repatriation of the Rohingya refugees is a pinned affair in international politics. It is seen that around one million refugees are hosted by the neighboring country like Bangladesh for humanitarian reasons. Bangladesh is highly praised by the international community for strengthening her hands for the stateless and displaced fellow citizens. The repatriation of this influx is now a tough reality that cannot be avoided before creating other crises by this large number of population.

The enriched background of this ethnic group i.e. Rohingya is highly noteworthy who has been living in the State of Rakhine/Arakan for so many years. Arakan’s history roots back to the early period of Islam when Arab traders were exploring the world in the then Asia. Muslim rule in Arakan was glorious which took place for centuries particularly during the period of Maruk-U from early 13th to the end of 18th century. Arakan was the place for multi-ethnic and multi-religious people living unitedly in relative peace and prosperity.

Literatures suggest that Bengali literature went through a magnificent era during the 16th and 17th centuries. This thriving period came to an end in the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1825 where Arakan lost its sovereignty to the British. After the occupation, there lived two mainstream races in Arakan who were the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhists. Due to the laziness of the matriarchal menfolk in Burma, Arakan’s new English civil ruler asked cultivators from Bengal to cultivate the fertile land.

Subsequently these imported farmers farmed lands and once changed their lots. The global recession of the 1930s affected the Buddhists farmers a great deal in Arakan. The nationalist Buddhists became marginalized when the imported Indians became landlords, rose to prominence in government as well as in economic sectors. The situation was too difficult for the Buddhists that they could have to borrow money from the Rohingyas and other economic migrants for daily expenditure. The Rakhine Buddhists could not take this dependency usually.

The relationship between Muslims and Buddhists again worsened during the Second World War where the Rohingya supported Britain and Buddhists put their lot behind Japan in Japan’s occupation of Burma in 1942. Burma got independence in 1948 where Muslims also played crucial role along with Buddhist nationalists.

The Rohingya people were not officially recognized in the constitution of 1947 framed by the majoritarian Buddhists due to the support to the British. In post-independent Burma, decades of predisposition, demonization, discrimination and continuous ‘othering’ have securitized the Rohingya population. Myanmar Buddhists, military and the dominant government seem to believe the Rohingya as their national as well as social security threat. This securitization has branded the Rohingya as foreigners, aliens, settlers and Bengalis. This supposition has created the denial of the basic and fundamental rights of the victim minority group. That is why subsequently Myanmar gradually made the Rohingya people ‘stateless’.

The question of repatriation comes when approximately 700,000 Rohingya people reportedly fled to Bangladesh from August 2017 to December 2017, to avoid persecution by Myanmar’s security forces in the name of “clearance operations” against so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents. The new influx has joined with an additional 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who had arrived after fleeing earlier waves of communal violence taken place in 1978 and 1991-92. The UHHCR termed this crackdown as ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. Others titled it as ‘monstrous crime’, ‘apartheid’, ‘annihilation’, ‘crime against humanity’, ‘genocide’ and ‘scorched-earth campaign’.

Repatriation had been done two times in previous influx with the support of the UN. Operation Nagamin (Operation Dragon King) in 1978 was launched to expel so-called foreigners or settlers before the census. Another crackdown was revealed upon the Rohingya named as ‘Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation’ in 1992. Both operations numbered about 250000 refugees consecutively from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Though the UN helped Bangladesh in both cases to repatriate the refugees but all the exodus were not possible to send back Myanmar due to the lack of good will from the counterpart. Bangladesh tried her best to repatriate the remaining number but could not come into light due to domestic political fluctuation and relative diplomatic failure.

Rapid solution of this crisis is must. If it is not possible, it may arise new types of serious concerns like human trafficking, child abuse, sex workers, relocation of the exodus, health issues including mental health, food- and water-borne diseases, infectious diseases, vaccination and disease prevention, malnutrition, reproductive health and so on.

Why is the repatriation taking too much time? What are the challenges does Bangladesh face? To come to an end of this huge flight, we have to extract the reasons responsible for the delay of the repatriation process. Firstly, Buddhism in Myanmar known regionally as Theravada Buddhism (dominant in Sri Lanka and Thailand which is supposedly associated with inter-communal violence) plays a key role in Myanmar. This religion was given special position in the constitution of the country which is also the key element of Burmese nationalism. The military in Myanmar basically represents to fulfill the wishes of the Buddhist monks. The junta thinks of that if the religious cults become happy, they will not have to face any challenge to run the state. Historically, it is true that the Buddhists were marginalized in Myanmar due to the so-called Bengali settlers as they believe. They even do not care about their ethnic identity such as the Rohingya rather they term them as Bengali settlers, illegal immigrants and so on.

Secondly, securitization of the Rohingya in Myanmar had sowed in the very beginning of the independence of the state that was implemented in near past. For this, they have been made stateless by taking their all basic and fundamental rights by force through series of events such as denial of citizenship rights, restrictions on movement, forced labor, huge taxes on marriage, false accusation, destruction/burning of settlements, displacement from land and villages, torture, threat, fear, denial of education and jobs, insufficient treatment and others. If the repatriation comes in light, the ruling elite has to desecuritize the issue. Desecuritization is to come back in the state of normal behavior. For the Rohingyas, this normal conduct is to provide their citizenship and lands occupied by the state in Rakhine.

Thirdly, Myanmar does not care about the pressures by the international community exert upon it. It does not seem to be worried because it has reliable friends with veto power in the UN Security Council i.e. China and Russia. The Myanmar authority is aware that the already exhausted world community and chaotic Muslim world may not be persistent enough to help the Rohingya in repatriation and rebuilding their houses. They have created such kind of dire and traumatized situation that the Rohingyas are not willing to go back without giving proper guarantee of their citizenship and other rights by the UN and Myanmar. Even the UN has already stated that the repatriation process will not be started unless the population wish to go. Myanmar’s unwillingness to repatriation is one of the striking causes of the delay.

Fourthly, the international community is not functioning properly due to parochial geopolitical interests or lack of unity amongst them. Superpowers like the USA, China and India have individual national interests in the Myanmar as well as the region. The USA’s ‘Pivot to Asia Policy’ to contain China and increase its geostrategic interests in the region is the main impediment not to play any effective role. China needs access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean through Myanmar. China’s deep-sea ports, highways, and energy pipelines in Myanmar provide access to its landlocked south and west to the sea. Myanmar is also very important to China due to the Belt and Road Initiative.

On the other hand, Myanmar is imperative to the regional rising superpower like India for energy pipeline networks, ‘neighborhood first policy’ and ‘Look East Policy’. The OIC, an organization for Muslim nations, cannot function independently for the victim states due to having disunity amongst countries. It is not to be false to say that if international communities function properly, the UN Security Council shall be able to function accordingly.

Finally, Bangladesh, the host country, welcomes the refugees due to the humanitarian grounds. But the issue of repatriation has been got stalemate since the entrance of the influx in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group has arranged four several talks to solve the crisis since the beginning of the present crisis and reached in a bilateral treaty to repatriation. But the effectiveness of the treaty is still a far cry. Bangladesh also seeks assistance from the UN, global superpowers, organizations and all concerned authorities to accelerate the situation.

The Prime Minister of the country, Sheikh Hasina, placed five-point proposal to resolve the crisis in the meeting of the UN general Assembly such as unconditional stop of the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State immediately and forever, sending a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar by the UN, “safe zones” inside Myanmar under UN supervision, sustainable return in Myanmar and implementation of the recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission Report. Bangladesh’s all sorts of move are in vain due to the lack of any guarantee or legal binding from Myanmar and international community.

On the other hand, Bangladesh cannot sustain the pressure of more than one million people for long run as its socio-political aspects are not so stable. The number has been also increasing since 2017. According to the report (2018) of the World Health Organization, every year about 100,000 Rohingya babies are born. In this regard, Bangladesh needs more involvement in multilateral treaty rather than bilateral that will last long to solve the crisis and make Myanmar accountable. Bangladesh can materialize its economic booming in framing diplomatic relations with greater powers hence forward.

The impediments towards the repatriation mentioned above are to be minimized as early as possible to come into a long lasting solution. This is a man-made humanitarian crisis and the Rohingya people are human beings. Durable solutions for the repatriation process, fostering reconciliation, giving back their basic and fundamental rights and offering sense of hope are must. Therefore Myanmar and international community should play effective role to formulate and implement the said durable solutions for bringing an end of the humanitarian catastrophe.

*Amdadul Haque is working as a lecturer in Political Science at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science & Technology University and as a Research Analyst at Microgovernance Research Initiative (MGR) in Bangladesh. E-mail: [email protected]

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