The November 15 attempt to repatriate Rohingyas to Myanmar has failed. And that was destined too, despite wholehearted efforts from Bangladesh. Although Myanmar officials were quick to blame their Bangladesh counterparts for the “failure”, the ground reality provided a different picture.
Not a single Rohingya, listed in the first batch of 2,251 verified refugees supposed to return to their country on November 15, volunteered to go home. On the contrary, many of them staged demonstrations against the move while some tried to flee the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.
The fear of brutality they were subjected to by the Myanmar military when they were displaced from their homes in the Rakhine state understandably gripped them. Interviewed, they asked some burning questions, “Why should we return? Do you want us to return to a death camp? Do you want us to commit suicide? Can you guarantee that we would survive once we return?”
The Rohingyas also demand that for a voluntary return, the Myanmar government should reinstate them in their original homes, guarantee citizenship, safety and basic rights, including health, education and freedom of movement.
Until now, Myanmar has done little to fulfil those demands or made a sincere effort to remove the fears through a reconciliation campaign between people of different faiths. Therefore, the tactic of blaming Bangladesh now is as baseless as it was when the repatriation did not start on January 23 under a bilateral agreement, when there was no arrangement for determining the voluntariness.
This time the UN Refugee Agency, through individual interviews, concluded that the refugees are not volunteering to return. It is an essential procedure for refugee repatriation. The agency, which is also assessing the situation in Rakhine state, said the conditions there were not conducive for the return of the refugees.
Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali, after a meeting with foreign diplomats in Dhaka on November 15, confirmed that Bangladesh in no way wants forced repatriation. Japan, meanwhile, proposed that a group of Rohingya be allowed to visit the arrangements in Rakhine—a proposal that goes in line with that of UNHCR—to see for themselves the conditions there and decide if they would return. Bangladesh is likely to take up the issue with Myanmar soon.
But how fruitful that attempt from Bangladesh—sincere in all its efforts for voluntary, sustainable and dignified Rohingya repatriation—would be with a country in complete denial is a big question.
The world has lauded Bangladesh's efforts in accommodating over a million Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is also braving immense socio-economic, environmental and diplomatic challenges because of a problem created by Myanmar since 1982 when it curtailed citizenship of the Rohingya and many basic rights though they have been living there for generations.
Myanmar argues that the Rohingya militant attack triggered the military campaign in August last year, but its argument is weak as there is a greater question why Myanmar's military junta curtailed Rohingya citizenship in 1982. That's the root of all the subsequent problems—communal tension between the Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine and low level of development works in Rakhine state. It left the population there in sheer poverty. If militancy grows out of that deprivation, it is the Myanmar government that has to take the responsibility for that.
UN investigators and other independent researchers have concluded that citizenship, basic rights, including education, health and movement of freedom, recognising the Muslims there as Rohingya, repatriating them in their original places of homes and returning their properties are the fundamentals for a sustainable repatriation.
Myanmar, however, is only assuring them of providing national verification cards (NVC), which it says, is a pathway to citizenship. It says the refugees would be sheltered in transit camps and eventually taken to their original homes. Rohingyas, however, disbelieve the proposition.
They say accepting NVCs means they are migrants from Bangladesh. Rohingyas also argue that the 124,000 Rohingyas displaced in a communal violence in 2012 are still living in the camps. They too would be put in similar camps if they return to Rakhine under present conditions.
The Rohingya crisis has become a major global issue, which prompted big powers including the US, EU, and Australia, to impose sanctions against several high-ranking army officials. They are also weighing trade sanctions. The International Criminal Court has issued ruling that it can prosecute Myanmar for its “genocidal intent”.
These actions mean Myanmar is being isolated in the global arena. Also, the Association of South East Asian Nations, which maintains the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, is speaking louder against Myanmar now.
Myanmar now has only one option—accept the demands of the Rohingyas and take them back to their homes where they can live a life without any discrimination.
The ball is now in Myanmar's court.
Porimol Palma is senior reporter, The Daily Star.