Rohingya Repatriation: Is Bangladesh falling for Myanmar's ploy?
While for Bangladesh the Rohingya problem started back in 1978, for the Rohingyas,it started as early as the 17th and 18th centuries and became worse after 1940. For decades Myanmar have kept this problem alive,and Bangladesh, being geographically closest to Myanmar and Rohingya people, is constantly facing the aftermath.Yet it has never had a proper strategy to handle this issue. And thelack ofspeedy and precise decision has become more evident with every passing day. Myanmar, on the other hand, has been very consistent in moving its agenda, a scheme that is gaining momentum along the way, and they have an action plan for their final goal.
In 1978, two hundred and fifty thousand Rohingyas were forced to take shelter in Bangladesh due to government backed dispersion and eviction from their homeland. Bangladeshi authorities at the time initially sought to solve the problem by taking bilateral diplomatic initiatives, but Myanmar did not heed any diplomatic call. However, after China's mediation and a "special counter-measure" by Bangladesh government, they could not but negotiate.
An agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the July 9, 1978, for the repatriation of Rohingyas. One of the key points in this agreement was that the Myanmargovernment had referred to the Rohingya as a legally valid citizen. Under this agreement, Myanmargovernment was forced to take back almost allRohingyas.
Soon after this, with this in mind, Myanmar changed the citizenship law for Rohingyas (especially Muslims) in Rakhine State in 1982, introducing a strange law which identified Rohingyas as foreign citizens, i.e. Bengali people. All the relevant documents and identity cards from before 1982, were seized from the Rakhine Rohingyas. Then three types of citizenship were introduced represented by pink, blue and green ID cards. Only people who had lived in Rakhine for at least five generations received full citizenship. The year 1823 was set as the benchmark, which favoured the Rakhine Buddhists. People who started living in the region after 1823, received associate citizenship. And those who did not receive full or associate citizenship before 1948 were dubbed as naturalised citizens. This last group of people are Rohingya Muslims who have been facing discrimination for generations. Thenew citizenship law was an obvious scheme by the Myanmargovernment to push out all the Rohingyas from their homeland where they have been living for several centuries.
In 1991-92 another round of violence and torture were inflicted on Rohingyas and this time two hundred thousand of them fled to Bangladesh. Following the exodus, Bangladesh again called for diplomatic action and Myanmar's foreign minister at that time reluctantly participated in a bilateral meeting organised by Dhaka in April, 1992. A joint statement was signed at that meeting which was later considered as an agreement. This agreement had several differences withthe 1978 agreement. Firstly, Myanmar addedtwo key words in this agreement, one was "Myanmareselawful citizens" and other was "Myanmaresesociety members". Today it is very evident why these two termswere used.
The second key difference was that, in the 1992 joint statement Myanmar clearly stated that they would not take back anyone without proper documents. Third, those who were not willing couldn't be forced to return to Myanmar.With these three key differences lie the shortcomings inour farsighted planning. Policy makers at that time failed to realise the reason why Myanmar changed their citizenship law in 1982 and introduced new terms and conditions in the 1992 joint statement. All these are relevant to today's problem.
Myanmar is still referencing to the 1992 agreement. Bangladesh must realise why they keep impressing on 1992 and what the significance of 1982 citizenship law in the matter is. Without grasping the full extension of Myanmar's ploy of only taking "legitimate citizens" back, Bangladesh will always keep struggling with any sort of decision on Rohingya issue.
Since the latest influx of Rohingya from August 25 of this year, the 1992 Agreement keep coming back and at one-point Bangladesh even stated that Myanmar must take back Rohingyas according to the 1992 agreement. One has to wonder whether our policy makers comprehended exactly the implications of what they were saying.They ultimately did, but it is now too late.
Recently, one of the union minister of MyanmareseState Councillor's Office completed a three-day visit to Dhaka.After a joint meeting with the Myanmar representative, the Bangladeshforeign minister said that they were ready to oblige to the 1992 treaty for Rohingya repatriation. On the very next day (October4), the office of the Myanmar State Councillor said that according to the joint statement of 1992, legitimate citizens can return to Myanmar and they will gladly rehabilitate them.
Here is the catch, if this process starts, only 14 to 18 thousand Rohingyas out of 9 lakh can be repatriated. Finally realising the mistake, Bangladesh arranged a briefing with foreign diplomats on October 9.Even with the realisation one can still doubt whether Bangladeshi policy makers are able to see through Myanmar's intention or their 1982 citizenship law.
In the October 9 briefing, Bangladesh foreign minister stated that repatriation based on valid citizenship credentials will not work and it is Myanmar's trick of not taking back Rohingyas and not implementing the Kofi Annan Commission's resolution. This realisation should have come much earlier.
It is important to mention two things here. First, when the problem arrived barging at the doors, Bangladesh was caught unaware. Secondly, Dhaka was hoping for leverage on Myanmar from common friends forgetting the basic rule of foreign policy—every nation prioritises themselves first.
Another important thing to note is that the joint working group (JWG) which Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed upon might be completely powerless as no one knows how they will work, when will they work and what will they work for. Moreover, many believe, JWG itself is a Myanmaresetacticto buy time ultimately aiming at befoolingthe international community. The Bangladesh home ministervisited Myanmar with a draft outline, hoping to sign a suitable agreement. However,both sides agreed to form a joint working group within November 30. The Myanmar Times on October25 in a report said, "It's too early to accept ['Bengalis' back from Bangladesh]," Colonel Aung HtayMyint head of the Transnational Crime Division, told reporters at a news conference after the ministerial meeting. Myanmar officials have also said they will accept the terms and conditions of the agreement that was signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in 1992.Aung San Suu Kyi' and her office have been repeatedly saying that the joint statement of 1992 will be the basis of all negotiations.
Interestingly, right after the announcement of the formation of the joint working group, the State Councillor's Office of Myanmar made it public that the arrangement would be based on 1992 joint statement but no one from Bangladesh has opposed that. Not to mention, UN wasn't made aware of the joint working group nor will they have an observer status. Myanmar also has a long history of ignoring UN and itsother organisations. So many are speculating that the joint working group is nothing but smoke and mirrors to waste time.
What happens now is the question. Should we accept that we are trapped by Myanmar's long weaved scheme. Will the Rohingyas end up being stateless forever? One can only hope that this is not the case.
Amir Khasru is a senior journalist.