The dynamics of Rohingya repatriation today
The safe repatriation of the Rohingya peoples has been much talked for a while; but during the pandemic, the relevant stakeholders have lightly taken the efforts to initiate the said repatriation. The progress regarding implementation of a bilateral agreement has not received enough momentum in the last two years. As a result, the endeavours to facilitate their repatriation have bit the dust. In fact, as the last nail in the coffin, Muhibullah, an acclaimed leader of the Rohingyas, was allegedly killed by some anti-repatriation forces. Based in makeshift camps of Cox's Bazar, Muhibullah was leading Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH). He was the celebrated Rohingya leader due largely to his commitment on convincing the Rohingyas to go back to their lands.
As a linchpin, the military junta has taken over the power in Myanmar after staging a coup d'état in February this year accusing the national election as fraudulent. The authoritarian regime is yet to make any solid commitment regarding the repatriation either. On the other hand, the National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed in exile by a cohort of elected lawmakers and members of parliament immediately after the coup, has outlined the Rohingya repatriation and recognition as one of their main agenda. In these agendas, the NUG intimated that it is willing to take back the Rohingyas, provide the same with national identity, job and education, and punish the individuals responsible for committing 'ethnic cleansing'. As a matter of fact, the NUG has even accepted the jurisdiction of International Criminal Court over Myanmar. Unfortunately, the coup has taken away the NUG's power of functioning as a government in Myanmar. Some experts opine that the NUG has used the issue of Rohingya repatriation as an ace to accumulate international support and recognition as a member and representative of Myanmar government at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). To that effect, the NUG is successful in establishing its stance at the UNGA and it has achieved popular acceptance and approval to continue the seat through its ambassador at the General Assembly. The UN credentials according to their nine members' panel, decided to retain the earlier appointed ambassador by the NUG at the UNGA by rejecting the plea of new ambassador nominated by the military junta.
The plea was rejected after a report from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M). The report states that for a state administration council's recognition, an administration must pass a three-prong test: (a) whether the council has effective control over the territory, (b) whether its government is of democratic legacy, and (c) whether it concurs to international laws. Myanmar's military junta fails the test arguably. On the other hand, the NUG has a good democratic legacy, is composed of elected parliamentarians, and prima facie respects the principles of international laws. Hence, the SAC-M advises not to accord recognition to military junta.
But in practice, Myanmar is in the control of military junta government. Repatriation under the military junta is neither feasible nor practicable under the present UNHCR practice. The UNHCR handbook discourages repatriation during the militarised regime or when the country is going through political unrest. According to the UNHCR handbook,a safe and dignified repatriation during conflict requires:(a) informed decision by the refugees, (b) the country of origin's support, (c) the country of origin's assured non-militarised, peaceful and non-political return of the refugees, and (d) the parties' respect to humanitarian mandate. The military junta fulfils none of these above stated attributes. Moreover, the leader who was trying to accelerate the repatriation has been shot dead. The murder serves the purposes of both entities, the military junta and the NUG. The junta government may quite well utilise the UNGA's non-recognition as well as the fact of this murder for not initiating the repatriation process. Amidst huge international support, the NUG may use this murder as a backlash to implement the repatriation. It might press on the brutality of the Rohingya against its own people since the murder was allegedly committed by the armed group of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
On a different aspect, Muhibullah's leadership and negotiation has brought the US and China in the same conclusion of not recognising the military junta at the UN credentials of nine countries. In the absence of strong leadership from and within the Rohingya community, the repatriation which would have been executed after the affirmation of Myanmar's seat at the UNGA, will not see light of implementation in the forthcoming days. Also, it will be very challenging for the Bangladesh government to convince the unorganised Rohingyas on the issue of repatriation. Lastly, Muhibullah was the voice against armed groups, drug and human traffickers in the camps and a voice for repatriation. His assassination might give birth to fear and trauma among the Rohingyas in the alleged presence of ARSA and other armed groups. This incident will – in no way – have positive impact on the prospect of Rohingya repatriation.
The writer is lecturer in law, feni university.