By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Following two failed attempts to repatriate the Rohingyas, Bangladesh officials stated, on October 3, 2019, that Bangladesh would not make a third, to begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas sheltered in the Cox’s Bazar District, along the Bangladesh-Myanmar International Border. An unnamed Foreign Ministry official stated, “We are not going to make any attempt before being sure that the repatriation will actually happen. Even if the repatriation starts in a small scale, that will be a good thing.”
Another Foreign Ministry official elaborated, “There is no point in making another attempt to begin the repatriation before knowing of its success. We, with the help of other countries, including China, are trying to convince Myanmar to create a favourable condition for the return of the displaced Rohingyas.”
Both officials also reiterated that the two repatriation attempts of November 15, 2018, and August 22, 2019, did not materialize due to Myanmar’s failure to create the necessary conditions for the return of their own people. Indeed, the Rohingyas have said that they want to go back to their homeland, but only after the Myanmar Government meets their five demands, which, they stressed, are a prerequisite for their return. These demands are: “the right to be called a Rohingya. full citizenship of Myanmar safety and security after repatriation. and justice for the crimes committed against them.”
Interestingly, referring to the use of ‘Rohingya’, U Kyaw Tin, Myanmar’s Union Minister for International Cooperation, speaking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-United Nations (UN) Ministerial Meeting on September 28, 2019, pointed out,
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. They will make use of their political objectives. We are worried about these aims. The Bengalis moved to India and Assam. They were not named as an ethnic group in those places. But they were named as an ethnic group in Myanmar and they would be able to demand the right of secession. For that reason, the government can’t accept the usage of Rohingya.
Not surprisingly, reiterating that Bangladesh is not receiving the response expected from Myanmar over the repatriation of Rohingyas, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated, on October 3, 2019,
The Rohingya problem was created by Myanmar as the conflict is between the Myanmar government and their people. Since, it’s an internal matter of Myanmar and they had created the problem, so, they would have to solve it, rather they should. Tremendous pressure is also being created on Myanmar, but still we’re yet to get such level of response from them in this regard. But, all the heads of state and government want that Myanmar takes necessary steps in this regard and takes back their nationals with safety and security.
According to a bilateral instrument signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar on November 23, 2017, the repatriation was supposed to begin from January 22, 2018, and to be complete by January 22, 2020. But, not a single Rohingya has yet been repatriated.
The first batch of Rohingyas came in 1977 when an estimated 300,000 Rohingyas fled persecution by the Myanmarese Army in the Arakan region. None of them are believed to have returned to Myanmar from their refuge in Bangladesh. The situation worsened in August 2017, when an armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), carried out attacks against Police posts in the northern Rakhine State. These incidents were followed by a massive clearance operation by the Myanmar army, during which Rohingya homes and villages were systematically burnt down and, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), at least 6,700 Rohingyas were killed. These events prompted an unprecedented exodus of an estimated 730,000 Rohingyas to neighboring Bangladesh. Indeed, Bangladesh is presently hosting over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees.
Rohingya militants are active in Bangladeshi refugee camps. The International Crisis Group (ICG) report “Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh” released on April 25, 2019, claimed ARSA militants and gangs mostly control the camps and often commit violence against the residents. Separately, the Deutsche Welle on September 24, 2019, reported that a man claiming to be an ARSA cadre told Deutsche Welle that some 3,500 fighters were sheltering in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and that groups of several hundred fighters secretly crossed to neighboring Myanmar for military training. But, he conceded, there was little scope for any large-scale attacks, given that the group lacked weapons and ammunition.
Urging the international community to understand the gravity of the situation, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while addressing the 74thsession of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on September 27, 2019, observed,
Despite our efforts to contain it, the crisis is now becoming a regional threat. Besides, increasing congestion and environmental degradation it is challenging health and security in the area. The crisis is now lingering into the third year, yet not a single Rohingya could return to Myanmar due to absence of safety and security, freedom of movement and overall conducive environment in Rakhine State of Myanmar.
Uncertainty over Rohingya repatriation is likely persist as conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine has escalated since early January 2019. On July 2, 2019, a United Nations (UN) investigator claimed that Myanmar security forces and insurgents were committing human rights violations against civilians in the restive western states, and that these may amount to fresh war crimes. According to the UN investigator, the remaining 600,000 Rohingya in Rakhine still face the threat of genocide. They are subjected to ongoing discriminatory policies and practices, and systematic violations of basic rights, while tight military controls are in place limiting access to aid agencies and media in Rakhine.
For Bangladesh, the situation creates challenges as tension between the host communities and the Rohingyas and the risk of Rohingyas radicalization rise, amid a fund shortage. No sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis appears possible unless the basic causes of the crisis, including recognition of Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar and of the basic rights of the Rohingya people, are addressed. The culture of impunity under which the Myanmar military operates, as well as the continuing militancy of ARSA and AA are also obstacles to any resolution. In the immediate future, the international community needs to address the humanitarian crisis in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, even as pressure is built on Myanmar to secure a more enduring resolution of the issue.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management