By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
24 April 2018
Myanmar has announced the repatriation of the first Rohingya family from Bangladesh, in what is supposed to be the beginning of a process which would see more than 700,000 move back across the border to where their property has been seized or destroyed, and where the Myanmar government continues to deny their existence as an ethnic group and their ancestral rights.
Yet this repatriation is not turning out to be quite the PR boon the Myanmar government was hoping for. To begin with, the overwhelming majority of international observers are calling the move premature. None of the conditions which drove the Rohingya out to begin with have been addressed.
There are no new legal protections for them, and they will be just as vulnerable to the arbitrary use of force by the Myanmar army or local vigilante groups as they were before. Except now, unless they all return as entire communities, they will lack even the little protection offered by being part of a sizeable population group.
For their part, the Myanmar army and extremist nationalist-Buddhist groups are continuing to broadcast on social media to the Rohingya that Myanmar is a hostile environment, even as the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi is lethargically going through the motions of looking contrite and eager to address “the Bengali issue” before the international public opinion.
Then, there is the rather awkward fact that the “repatriated” family never actually entered Bangladesh, and therefore, according to UN sources on the ground, this does not in fact constitute a repatriation.
They had only been as far as Myanmar’s side of the no-man’s-land area between the two countries, so at best, this was an internal resettlement. Still potentially significant, but not exactly the same headline – or anything like the headline the Myanmar authorities are trying to push.
Myanmar is simply not a safe place for the Rohingya to be. No more now than it was when they were pushed over the border by the Army assaults on their villages
Somewhat more contentiously, it has even been suggested that the head of the relocated family, an Aftar Alam, may in fact have been working for the Myanmar government all along, monitoring the refugee flows through the no-man’s-land, and reporting back to Naypyidaw.
Foreign-based groups such as the UK’s Burmese Rohingya Organization have claimed that the supposed repatriation was “staged” ahead of a UN Security Council members’ visit to northern Rakhine, and that Mr Alam was being specifically rewarded for rendered services.
In the poor information environment in northern Rakhine, the information regarding Mr Alam’s activities in no-man’s-land is more difficult to verify, though it is obviously the case that the “repatriation” was timed for the UN Security Council members’ visit, and was primarily aimed at generating positive PR. Except that it was ill-thought in theory, and bungled in practice.
As things stand, the repatriation of the 700,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh should not happen. And this remains the advice of the UN and NGO observers. Whatever may be the case with the Alam family, Myanmar is simply not a safe place for the Rohingya to be. No more now than it was when they were pushed over the border by the Army assaults on their villages.
Even if the repatriation could happen safely, nothing of the fundamental problem has been addressed: the fact that the authorities and the Buddhist majority of Myanmar see the Rohingya as a foreign population who does not deserve normal rights and protections, and who can be assaulted with impunity and cleansed from the land whenever it is deemed necessary – or simply convenient.
Much as the civilian authorities of Myanmar are insisting they are sensitive to the concerns of the international community, which they are doing primarily through this official Repatriation policy, nothing about their discourse or their action reveals any shift in their fundamental attitudes towards the Rohingya. In those, they continue to be clear and unapologetic.
They may be keeping an eye on the concerns of the international community, but have no genuine concerns for the needs or the rights of the Rohingya people. And so long as that remains the case, repatriation will do no good. And may in fact make matters worse for those who return.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.