The charade of Myanmar's 'political will'
The atmosphere filled with outrage and calls for justice for the Rohingya people a year ago seems to have largely subsided. Even media coverage isn't as extensive now as it was when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas began fleeing Myanmar for their lives last year, eventually taking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Could it be that compassion fatigue has set in? Or that over this long period of time, our collective memory of the urgent humanitarian crisis on our northeastern border has eroded? Both these possibilities are dangerous—and do not bode well for an imminent resolution of the Rohingya crisis. Nearly a million Rohingya refugees remain stranded in overcrowded camps in less-than-humane conditions without the faintest idea about what the future holds for them. The world simply cannot turn a blind eye. Yet that is exactly what many global powers who have the political leverage to bring Myanmar's regime to account have done.
I recall that last year, thanks to unprecedented media coverage of Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar's brutal crackdown sparking a global outcry, a new hope had emerged that at least the state of Myanmar would acknowledge its crimes. The sheer extent of the horror stories coming out of the camps made it seem like a real possibility. And a growing chorus of voices was calling it a genocide. But more than a year into the crisis, after signed deals and broken commitments, we are back to square one.
What is mindboggling is that there seems to be a sudden "air of optimism", going by the statement of our foreign secretary who, at the third Joint Working Group meeting, said: "This repatriation is a complex process. It needs political will. We feel Myanmar has the will." The buzzwords—"political will"—were echoed by the Permanent Secretary of Myanmar Foreign Ministry Myint Thu who said something that seems too good to be true: "We have the political will for repatriation. We will begin the process next month," referring to November 2018. (We'll see how that goes.) He also went on to assure that awareness-raising workshops were being conducted among the Myanmar police so that they don't discriminate against the Rohingyas. Never mind the fact that law enforcers played an instrumental role in carrying out the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingyas.
The visit of a high-powered delegation from Myanmar to the Rohingya camps has also been hailed as positive by some. The team consisted of officials from Myanmar police, Rakhine state government, department of border affairs, and Myanmar's ambassador to Bangladesh, among others, which sure makes for good optics.
The question is: Why are we taking Myanmar's words at face value? We seem to be forgetting that we are dealing with a player that has perfected the game of deception. If Myanmar had the necessary "political will"—a catch-all term which has ironically begun to lose its meaning—the repatriation process would have been underway at full steam ahead. And for that to happen, the conditions on the ground would have had to be such that the Rohingyas would be willing to return to their homeland. Political will means building accommodation for Rohingya returnees whose houses were burnt to the ground. Political will means arresting and punishing officials of the security forces who killed and raped hundreds. Political will means reversing the campaign of repression that has deprived the minority community of education, healthcare and free movement in their own land for decades. So far, Myanmar has done zilch to substantiate its claim that it has the "political will."
An Amnesty International report based on satellite images showed how military bases, helipads, and roads are occupying what once were Rohingya villages. As far as building accommodation is concerned, that too is a lost cause, going by accounts of diplomatic sources who reported on the sorry state of progress in the construction of homes for returnees in Maungdaw village (148 houses were being built in one village, 20 in another for the internally displaced, and 50 more in another village).
What is problematic is the fact that Myanmar's "political will" is being equated with them taking back Rohingyas only, i.e. repatriation—with the prerequisite of the right conditions on the ground taking a back seat, and with Myanmar showing no signs of ending the systematic, institutionalised discrimination against Rohingyas. The deal struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017 was underpinned by the principle of "voluntary return." But countless Rohingya refugees languishing in camps have been scarred for life, and they do not want to go back. They have no faith that the Myanmar regime will change its ways and give them a better life.
Last week, when the news went around that without their consent, 4,355 Rohingyas had been placed on a list approved for return to Myanmar, panic spread throughout the camps. Some even attempted suicide. They'd rather die than go back to Myanmar. One of the refugees, whose father died last week due to a heart attack, perhaps brought on by the endless anxiety over being forcibly returned, said his father told him before he died: "Hide your brothers and sisters and save them from repatriation. Do not return to Myanmar, where you will face the violence again," (The Guardian, November 11).
One cannot blame the host country, Bangladesh, for wanting to quicken the repatriation process. The burden of a million refugees is severely taking its toll on many fronts. But humanitarian crises are never easy to resolve, especially when the country guilty of committing crimes against humanity has powerful friends with veto power in the United Nations Security Council.
Repatriation that is rushed and involuntary must be prevented. And we must realise that Myanmar's public declaration that it has the "political will" is baseless. The focus of the conversation needs to shift from simply insisting Myanmar to take Rohingyas back to pressurising it to create the right conditions so that Rohingya refugees can return safely and voluntarily.
At play are too many conflicting interests: an overpopulated country overwhelmed with the burden of providing for a million more people; a country, with a rich history of a virulent brew of ethnic and religious nationalism against one of its minorities, bent on depopulating Rakhine; world powers prioritising strategic and economic interests over their moral duty to hold a hateful regime to account; and a people whose basic rights have been systematically deprived for way too long. But amidst all these clashing interests, the Rohingyas' right to life and safety must not be the final casualty.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.