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The Ruse of Repatriation: Why the Current Efforts to Repatriate the Rohingya back to Myanmar Will Fail
By Nikita Taniparti is a research fellow at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“Rohingya Muslims have been killed, tortured, raped, burnt alive [,] and humiliated, solely because of who they are.” The United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide issued this assessment of the Rohingya Muslims after visiting them in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh in early 2018. More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya fled here from Myanmar’s Rakhine state after the state military launched the crackdown “in response to insurgent attacks on security forces” in mid-2017. This is in addition to the roughly 300,000 refugees who left their homes prior to this due to the decades-long tension between communities in the region. Nearly 1 million Rohingya, representing 90 percent of the state’s Muslim population, have been displaced. The United Nations calls them “the most persecuted minority in the world.” While the Myanmar government calls it a “clearance operation,” the United States and the United Nations have other words for it: ethnic cleansing and genocide, respectively.
The international community faces a two-pronged challenge regarding the resolution of the Myanmar humanitarian crisis. First, there is a need for immediate and comprehensive relief for the displaced Rohingya outside of Myanmar in refugee camps, primarily in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Second, there should be a long-term strategy to focus on the internal social, economic, and political plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, especially in the state of Rakhine.
Reconciliation efforts—in particular, the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar—are vague and superficial because they ignore social institutions and lack any multilateral consensus. Inaccurate and inequitable social narratives in Myanmar serve to prevent a sustainable solution to the tensions and allow the government of Myanmar to circumvent culpability and accountability.
The Advisory Commission Report released in 2016 was met with mixed reviews. Those who criticized it bemoaned it as yet another 88-point list of vague, haphazard, and sweeping recommendations that doesn’t hold anyone accountable or responsible for the fate of the stateless. “Five-point plans” that call for the killings to stop, repatriating the refugees, granting humanitarian access to the affected areas, holding entities accountable for the atrocities, and ending anti-Rohingya discrimination don’t do justice to the fragility of the conflict and the scale of atrocities.] Recent political negotiations have centered on repatriation exclusively. In reality, “Myanmar was never sincere about returning the Rohingya.” The implementation challenges of repatriation seem insurmountable in light of current political and social uncertainty.
Yet, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 to repatriate the refugees in a “voluntary, safe, dignified[,] and sustainable” manner. Under the deal, it was agreed that, initially, 1,500 “eligible” Rohingyas would be returned each week, and somehow, 700,000 Rohingya refugees would be repatriated to Myanmar within the next two years.
At first glance, this plan seems reasonable. Bangladesh has borne the burden of almost 1 million refugees despite dwindling aid and infrastructure support, and it is only natural that they are eager to expedite repatriation. Meanwhile, Myanmar stands to be politically rewarded by the international community if they display an interest in welcoming the Rohingya. The international community also might support this plan in an attempt to restore a semblance of normalcy and find a quick resolution to an urgent problem.
But repatriation will not result in any “real” normalcy. Sending the Rohingya back to Rakhine has several obvious flaws. At the most basic level, the minority Rohingya and the majority Buddhist groups are not any closer to living in harmony than they were a few years ago. Social barriers, as well as the lack of any legal protection that would legitimize the Rohingya in Myanmar, predict the failure of repatriation plans.