Rohingya return deal


MYANMAR and Bangladesh have signed a three-phase agreement under which Rohingya Muslims who have taken shelter in Bangladesh can return to their homes in Rakhine state in the Buddhist-majority country.

Over 6,00,000 people have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since August when the military intensified crackdown against alleged militant outfits of Muslims. According to Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China who played a mediatory role to resolve the crisis, a ceasefire will be implemented in the first phase so that Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state will not be displaced.

The agreement does not say anything about those who had to flee in earlier waves of violence. That is a minor problem when we consider how the agreement was worked out and the conditions under which the Rohingya will be allowed to return.

For one thing, the UN, which brought the sad plight of the Rohingya to the attention of the world, did not have any role in crafting the agreement and as such can’t guarantee if the terms of the agreement are implemented strictly. Neither was the US a party to the deal. And no international agencies will be allowed to monitor the planned repatriation.

In short, Myanmar that was always against internationalizing the issue seems to have got everything it wanted. It has succeeded in converting a great humanitarian issue into a minor dispute with neighboring Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is worried over overstretched refugee camps becoming a permanent part of Cox’s Bazar region’s landscape. Given the conditions the refugees must fulfill to return and the statements coming from Myanmar, Dhaka’s relief over the agreement may prove premature.

Myanmar said the deal was based on the 1992-1993 repatriation pact between the two countries. This means only those who could present identity documents issued to the Rohingya by governments in the past will be allowed to return. Acceptable identity documents include the currently distributed national verification cards, the now-withdrawn “white cards”, and receipts the Rohingya received for the return of “white cards.”

The refugees have to provide names of family members, previous addresses in Myanmar, birthdates and a statement of voluntary return in the forms they fill out. The 1982 law ties Myanmar citizenship to membership of recognized ethnic groups, an official list that excludes the Rohingya.

The requirements for identification documents has been a contentious issue for the Rohingya. Amnesty International released a report this week accusing Myanmar of effectively denying citizenship to Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity, including engaging “in an active policy of depriving Rohingya of vital identity and residency documentation”. This includes blocking newborn babies from household lists.

A statement by Myanmar’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, last week gives an idea of the shape of things to come. “The situation must be acceptable for both local Rakhine ethnic people and Bengalis, and emphasis must be placed on wish of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens,” he said. His use of the term Bengali for the Rohingya means that in the eyes of Myanmar authorities, they are still illegal immigrants. Then there is the so-called friction between the civilian government and the army in Myanmar. The signing took place on Thursday after a meeting between Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in Naypyitaw. But when things go wrong, Suu Kyi can very well play the role of someone paralyzed into inaction by an all-powerful military’s intimidating tactics.

Surprisingly, China, the mediator, has no idea of the real nature of the peril facing the Rohingya. Wang Yi thinks poverty, not the blind hatred of Myanmar’s Buddhists toward Muslims, is the root cause of the problem. According to this reasoning, all that is needed for harmony and peace to reign in Rakhine state are poverty alleviation efforts supported by the international community. If only the problems were that simple!