The United Nations has rightly expressed fears that the recent military coup in Myanmar would exacerbate the plight of the Rohingya still remaining in the country. "There are about 600,000 Rohingya those that remain in Rakhine State, including 120,000 people who are effectively confined to camps; they cannot move freely and have extremely limited access to basic health and education services," said UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
While the recent episode of Rohingya genocide was unleashed during the regime of the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017, which led to the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh after having endured unspeakable horrors, the seizing of power by the military—who will have no accountability either to the people or to the international community—is likely to make life worse for those who had remained behind.
The Myanmar military, which ruled over the country for fifty years till 2011, has a track record of taking brutal and atrocious measures to suppress dissent and public calls for democratic rule. One may recall that in 1998, it carried out a massacre of thousands of people—including students, Buddhist monks, community leaders and civilians in general—who had called for a transition to democracy, in a stark reminder of the ruthlessness that the military is capable of. During the massacre, the military not only killed the protesters but also healthcare professionals—doctors and nurses—who had been treating the wounded at the Rangoon General Hospital, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
And this time, although Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, in anticipation of a coup (since trouble had been brewing between NLD and the military for some time), called for the nation to resist it, the Myanmar people have not come out on the streets to rise up against the autocratic usurpers of power.
Given the history of the Myanmar military against their own people, one can only wonder how things would turn out for the already persecuted Rohingya minority.
This is a concern for Bangladesh more than any other country. First of all, the sudden shift in power in Myanmar has pushed its Rohingya repatriation agreement with the country into uncertain grounds. It was recently agreed upon by Myanmar to start repatriation of the Rohingya back to the country in June 2021. Bangladesh wanted the repatriation to start from March 2021, but due to Myanmar's request, it had been delayed to the second quarter of the year. "We pushed [sic] to initiate the repatriation in the first quarter, but Myanmar sought more time for logistical arrangements and some physical arrangements. So we asked to start repatriation in the second quarter, and they agreed on it," Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said with regard to the agreement.
In a statement issued late last year, Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs added, "Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation and reaffirmed Myanmar's readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements."
Now with the hardline Myanmar military taking full control of the power, one wonders if Myanmar would keep its part of the commitment. Even if the military agrees to take the Rohingya refugees back, Bangladesh will have to be more watchful to make sure that the Rohingya being taken back, if at all, are given their due rights and the protection they deserve.
Even under the NLD, swathes of land in Rakhine State and many Rohingya villages had been demolished to erase the existence of any Rohingya settlement there, and of course, to make space for the special economic zones. And many of the Rohingya still in Myanmar are being detained in camps in Rakhine State under inhumane conditions.
In view of the current realities and the history of Myanmar military's torture of the Rohingya and pro-democratic civilians, Bangladesh's responsibility in the repatriation process has only increased manifold. Bangladesh has embraced with open arms the hundreds and thousands of desperate Rohingya fleeing into the country since 2017, and has sheltered and hosted them ever since. Even in the face of waning donor support over the years, Bangladesh has been proactive in providing shelter to these refugees.
While the international community has praised Bangladesh's generosity towards the Rohingya refugees, they have done little to ensure their safe repatriation back to their homeland. Now with the military in power, the international community can do even less in this regard. Bangladesh, however, as the host of the Rohingya, must now be more vigilant in its repatriation discussions and processes with the new Myanmar government. While it needs to push for the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingya as per the previous agreement—from the second quarter of 2021—it also needs to make sure that policies and mechanisms are in place to monitor how the Rohingya are treated once they are taken back.
Myanmar taking the Rohingya back only to detain them in squalid camps remains a possibility, one that Bangladesh must ensure does not happen once the new government there starts the repatriation process.
The United Nations and the greater international community must support Bangladesh in this. China and Russia are unlikely to allow the UN to take any proactive measures against Myanmar. Given India's economic ties with Myanmar and their joint military efforts to counter insurgency in the shared border regions, India is also unlikely to come to Bangladesh's aid in this regard. The new Biden administration now needs to step up and take leadership in pushing the Myanmar government to not only take back its own people but also to ensure that they can return to their homes in a safe environment and that their rights as citizens are ensured.
The Rohingya have suffered the pain and trauma of genocide. The least we can do is to make sure they go back to their homeland with dignity and safety.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem