In early May, 20 Rohingya Muslims and government officials from Bangladesh recently visited Myanmar’s Rakhine State in an effort to urge their voluntary homecoming, which can be regarded as a major development in terms of the long-stalled Rohingya repatriation. The Rohingya delegation traveled across the transboundary Naf River to visit a community in Rakhine State.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims live in camps in Bangladesh’s border town of Cox’s Bazar, the bulk of whom fled a military-led crackdown in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2017. Until recently, Myanmar’s military has shown reluctance to accept the return of any Rohingya, who have been treated as foreign intruders in Myanmar, refused citizenship, and subjected to maltreatment. The current effort would involve the repatriation of around 1,100 refugees, but no timeframe has been established.
Attempts to start repatriation in 2018 and 2019 failed since the refugees refused to return due to fear of violence. The matter remained stalled, and Bangladesh needs Myanmar’s initiative to regain momentum. Then, on March 15, a 17-member team from Myanmar arrived in Bangladesh to look through the list of Rohingya refugees obtained as part of the repatriation program. In another sign of progress, on May 5, a delegation of 20 Rohingya, accompanied by seven Bangladesh government officials, visited two of Rakhine State’s 15 villages at the request of the Myanmar government.
A Major Breakthrough?
One of the 20 refugees who joined the delegation said the Rohingya wanted to return home with “all our rights and security.” However, given the violence the community has repeatedly suffered, the Rohingya have questioned the repatriation plans, insisting that they will only return permanently if their safety is assured and they are awarded citizenship.
In that context, the May visit was viewed as a “confidence-building measure” for Rohingya’s willing repatriation. This is the first time a Rohingya refugee team has visited Rakhine to investigate the situation there.
Bangladesh has been housing over 1.2 million Rohingya refugees for the past six years. However, its socioeconomic and security situation is deteriorating as a result of the large refugee issue. There appears to be no other option than repatriation, which has been a hanging case for the previous six years.
Previously, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to return a large number of Rohingya to Myanmar between 2017 and 2019, but these efforts at repatriation ended in smoke because the Rohingya refused to return to their country for fear of more persecution. Refugees and human rights advocates alike cited a lack of a conducive climate for repatriation.
With the cooperation of several countries, Bangladesh has highlighted the matter at every international conference. However, Myanmar has remained oblivious to international rules and conventions. Finally, the military government took the symbolic action of inviting a Rohingya delegation for an inspection tour – most likely to appear in a better light ahead of its upcoming submission to the International Court of Justice on the Rohingya genocide case.
This time, Bangladesh and the international community are optimistic about Rohingya repatriation. A “pilot repatriation initiative” where both nations gain historical experience and references to repatriate Rohingya is the first step.
Catalyzing the Junta’s Response to the Repatriation
Myanmar’s military has previously shown little willingness to accept any Rohingya, who had been denied citizenship and subjected to persecution for years. But Myanmar is now more proactive than before, thanks to Chinese intervention.
As part of the Dhaka-Naypyidaw discussions, a conference between Bangladesh and Myanmar was conducted on April 18 in Kunming, mediated by China. A committee from Myanmar visited the world’s biggest refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region to assess possible candidates for their repatriation. It was determined that the pilot program will begin with the repatriation of 1,076 Rohingya in May of this year. The Rohingya delegation that recently visited Rakhine State is part of that plan.
Why have China and Myanmar abruptly implemented collaborative repatriation efforts after such a long time?
First, Myanmar’s military junta has increasingly come under fire for human rights abuses since seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Members of Myanmar’s deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic organizations have founded the National United Government (NUG), a government-in-exile that claims to be the rightful ruler of the country. The military’s control is under stress as NUG-affiliated militias, as well as the usual array of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fight against military control.
Against that backdrop, Europe and the United States have upped their pressure on the junta, as has ASEAN, the grouping of Southeast Asian states. The exclusion of the Myanmar junta from ASEAN summits, as well as mounting international pressure following a U.N. Security Council resolution and sanctions from various countries, are acting as catalysts to project the initiative for Rohingya repatriation. By starting the long-stalled project, the Myanmar junta may hope to soften international attitudes.
Finally, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued temporary measures to safeguard the Rohingya as part of the still-pending case accusing Myanmar of genocide. According to the ICJ’s interim ruling, Myanmar must provide all relevant material every six months until the matter is resolved. On May 24, this year, the military regime must advise the ICJ of the actions they have taken and the country’s objectives. It’s in the junta’s interest to have some progress to show before then.
Is Myanmar’s Military Sincere?
Despite two efforts in 2018 and 2019, repatriation did not begin due to Myanmar’s insincerity and the Rohingya’s resulting objections to the lack of a conducive atmosphere in Rakhine. To address these concerns, Bangladesh is attempting to include the U.N. Refugee Agency in the repatriation process. However, Myanmar’s military government is showing reluctance to do this. As a result, the Rohingya’s lack of confidence remains unresolved.
After all, the United Nations recommended that army head Min Aung Hlaing and other generals “should be investigated and prosecuted… for genocide” in a 2018 report – and the top general is now the country’s de factor ruler following the 2021 coup.
It appears that the agreement to repatriate just over 1,000 Rohingya was nothing more than a decoy by Myanmar’s military regime to relieve itself of pressure and accountability. The decision to return only 1,000 refugees appears to be an attempt to alleviate pressure from China and other countries.
The country’s military administration said in April that it will begin repatriating Rohingya from Bangladesh. They further claim that Myanmar is undertaking a trial operation to repatriate 1,500 Rohingya and that as part of that, a Myanmar representative team visited Bangladesh and accomplished the duty of inspection. However, Myanmar’s government might have initiated this eyewash campaign solely in order to gain an edge before the ICJ opens hearings in the Gambia’s case accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya.
This also occurred in February 2022. Back then, all of a sudden, Myanmar expressed strong interest in the joint working group meeting with Bangladesh. They also spoke about how this kickstarted repatriation and presented it to the court as evidence in their favor.
The latest gambit may have worked. On May 12, the ICJ awarded Myanmar’s military regime an extension until August 24, 2023, to submit its arguments in the case, despite the Gambia’s objections. Before the end of August, then, Myanmar will want to start repatriating Rohingya to keep the attitude of the court in their favor.
Bangladesh, in turn, will want to seize this opportunity to begin the process of repatriating the Rohingya. Myanmar’s junta is now experiencing a legitimacy problem both at home and abroad, as well as conducting various battles with rebel factions within the nation. Now is the time to push the military rulers – with help from China – to take real action to bring the Rohingya back home. To achieve this, Bangladesh must keep pressuring China and the international community for their continuous involvement so that any nefarious intentions on Myanmar’s part can be nipped in the bud.