Last week, the United Nations and the Myanmar government inked a deal that will supposedly begin the long process of repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees back to their homes. The UN hailed it as “the first step to address the root causes of the conflict in Rakhine.” Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto political leader, said it will “hasten” refugee returns.
The rest of the world, however, was kept guessing. The full text of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) — signed between the Myanmar government, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Development Program (UNDP) — has not been released to the public. Media outlets, NGOs, donor governments, and even other UN agencies have all been kept in the dark.
This lack of transparency is far from the only red flag raised by the deal.
Admittedly, from official UN statements, it is possible to glean some positive aspects, mainly around increased access for UN agencies across Rakhine state. These are areas that have been largely sealed off to the outside world since August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched its murderous “clearance operation,” killing thousands of Rohingya and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee across the border into Bangladesh. Aid and reconstruction are badly needed for those who remain, something an increased UN presence would benefit.
But the deal raises far more questions than answers. For one, it was negotiated behind closed doors entirely without involving Rohingya representatives. How can it possibly ensure a safe and dignified repatriation process without involving the very community it concerns? By excluding us Rohingya and dealing only with Naypyidaw, the international community is again sending the message that we are not worthy to be masters of our own destiny.
The timing of the deal also makes it difficult not to suspect Myanmar’s motives. The MOU was announced on the same day as Myanmar said it will establish a new commission to “investigate the violation of human rights and related issues” in Rakhine state since 2017. The fact that Myanmar did not even mention its own military’s abuses speaks volumes of how credible this investigation will be. Myanmar has a track record of establishing similar commissions at politically opportune times, which have never led to any genuine accountability. The MOU and the commission are likely both attempts to buy some time and goodwill from the international community.
The bigger picture, of course, is that conditions are nowhere near ready for Rohingya to return in safety and dignity as long as the root causes of the crisis remain in place. The risk of violence against Rohingya remains a constant threat, particularly as no one has been held to account for the well-documented atrocities carried out by the security forces and their proxies. Not only have Myanmar’s leaders refused to genuinely investigate these human rights violations, but they have even flat-out denied that they have taken place.
At the same time, the Myanmar authorities are keeping in place a dehumanizing system of repression and segregation against Rohingya across large parts of Rakhine State. Not only are Rohingya essentially denied citizenship under Burmese law, we are also kept separate from other communities. We need special permission to travel, to attend hospitals, and to gain an education – if we are even allowed into schools in the first place.
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, much of what remains of the Rohingya community is kept in ghetto-like neighborhoods, sealed off from the rest of the town with barbed wire. This discrimination was what drove me to flee Rakhine State in the early 1990s to gain an education, since the authorities would not allow me to attend university simply because I was Rohingya. It has only gotten worse since.
It is also important to remember that the latest crisis is just the latest chapter in a long cycle of abuse. In the late 1970s, my parents were forced to flee into Bangladesh along with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya after the Myanmar army launched the brutal “Operation Dragon King,” ostensibly to root out “illegal immigrants.” In the early 1990s, I witnessed similar abuses myself in Rakhine state when yet another military campaign forced another exodus of refugees.
Myanmar has clung to the same genocidal policies for decades. The only thing that has changed in recent years is that the efforts to eradicate us Rohingya as a people have become more intense than ever before.
Unless the Myanmar authorities are pressured into a fundamental policy shift, any MOUs – no matter how well-intended by the international community – will accomplish nothing in the long run. If the repatriation process starts without addressing the fundamental issues plaguing the Rohingya community, the only winner will be the Myanmar authorities who, once again, will have gotten away with their genocidal policies.
The international community should insist that Myanmar ends all forms of discrimination against the Rohingya. Those responsible for human rights violations must be held to account as a first step to ensure that there is no return to violence. Finally, Rohingya in Rakhine State – both those living there now and future returnees – need a protection guarantee from the international community so that they are not left at the mercy of the Myanmar security forces. What form this take will need to be negotiated with Rohingya representatives present at the table.
These demands are non-negotiable – the very future of the Rohingya as a people is at stake.
Tun Khin is President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition.