Repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine state will be on the table when Asean leaders meet later this month in Bangkok. Also in their hands wil be a report on the positive prospects for repatriation, written by an assessment team that spent months in Rakhine earlier this year. However, any leader convinced that the process will go smoothly would be succumbing to false hope.
The regional grouping, of which Myanmar is also a member, agreed last November in Singapore to help facilitate the return of the Rohingya, who fled a campaign of violence by Myanmar troops and vigilantes beginning in August 2017. Bangladesh and Myanmar last year signed a pact to repatriate hundreds of thousands of the victims. The first batch was supposed to leave camps on the Bangladesh border on the day Asean made its resolution, but the refugees refused to budge, fearing for their safety in Rakhine.
In December, Asean sent Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi along with a team to assess Rakhine’s readiness to receive the refugees. Their final report will be submitted at the Bangkok Asean summit on June 22-23.
Foreign minister Don Pramudwinai insists that Asean, currently chaired by Thailand, is prioritising humanitarian assistance in Rakhine. Don met his Bangladesh and Myanmar counterparts early this year and reported positive responses from both regarding the safe return of displaced residents to Rakhine.
Yet that optimism clashes sharply with the bleaker picture emerging from information delivered by Asean officials and reporters in Rakhine in the past few months. The regional grouping appears to be ignoring the big picture of the Rakhine crisis, instead seeking the hasty and potentially disastrous return of its victims.
While Asean officials acknowledge the complexity of the crisis, their analysis is blinkered by the narrow humanitarian view they have taken. Crucially, the Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team’s leaked report focuses on just 500,000 refugees, when the international community and United Nations Refugee Commission recognise 741,000 as having fled the violence since 2017.
In fact, more than 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees live in crowded camps and settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
While Asean estimates that 500,000 will return home within two years, Myanmar authorities are more realistic. A Myanmar minister told The Nation recently that about 300 refugees per day could be repatriated, or just over 100,000 per year if things go smoothly.
Asean has refused the United Nations’ conclusion that the Muslim Rohingya were driven from Rakhine by a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The UN accuses Myanmar military leaders of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity when they enforced a “clearance operation” against the ethnic minority. To save the face of leaders in Nay Pyi Taw, Asean has refrained from addressing the crisis at its root cause – the statelessness of Rohingya and their persecution in Rakhine. The grouping will maintain that stance at the coming Bangkok summit, so as to accommodate Myanmar and ease discussion.
The repatriation process will not go smoothly, however, unless Asean, Myanmar and other stakeholders address the Rakhine crisis in all its complexity.
Nay Pyi Taw has pledged to take back the Rohingya, though the green light must first be given by Dhaka. Not being consulted are the Rohingya themselves, who are reluctant to return to a homeland where nobody can guarantee their safety. Would they be welcomed back by their neighbours in Rakhine? The Rohingya need an answer before they can make a move.