After hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims risked their lives to escape the state-sanctioned genocide, the government of Myanmar is now expressing its desire to take back all those who managed to flee the ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar’s National Security Advisor Thaung Tun recently said the country is willing to take back the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims currently living as asylum seekers in Bangladesh – if they wish to return voluntarily.
The statement came during a regional security conference, called the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore.
During the conference, Tun was asked if he thought the situation in Rakhine state, where most Rohingya lived, could be used to invoke the R2P – "Responsibility to Protect."
The R2P is a United Nations framework that holds nations accountable for protecting their citizens from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
It seems reasonable the R2P be implemented in Rakhine State, which was deemed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the U.N. itself.
The violence specifically targeted the Muslim population.
The Myanmar government, which has been widely accused of being complicit in the war crimes, has repeatedly denied the scope of these atrocities, sometimes denying the victims were Muslims or just watching quietly as armed forces launched crackdowns on the minority community.
The new-found generous spirit of Myanmar is, therefore, unsettling.
For starters, it seems to be anchored not to a genuine concern for the local Rohingya population but a zeal to salvage the public image of Myanmar.
Thaung Tun’s statements at the conference seemed less an honest admission of war crimes and more of a provocation.
“If you can send back 700,000 on a voluntary basis, we are willing to receive them,” he said. “Can this be called ethnic cleansing?
The Burmese official also refused to call the catastrophe in Myanmar "war crime."
“There is no war going on, so it’s not war crimes," he added. "Crimes against humanity, that could be a consideration, but we need clear evidence. These serious charges should be proved and they should not be bandied about lightly.”
This defensive approach rooted in downplaying the genocide of Rohingya does not bid well for the future of refugees who will eventually decide to return.
Just recently, Myanmar signed an agreement with the U.N. aimed at gradually allowing Rohingya to return to the country. It also relented and agreed to form an independent commission to investigate “the violation of human rights and related issues."
Even now, Tun insisted the prevalent narrative of what happened in Myanmar is “misleading," asserting Buddhist and Hindu communities have suffered just as much as their Muslim counterparts.
He also reluctantly agreed to take action against the military if it had acted “illegally," adding the military had the right to defend the country.
The line of reasoning taken up by Myanmar makes it clear that state institutions will not be held accountable for the violence. The military in Myanmar has always justified its actions by terming entire villages of Rohingya “terrorists."
What is needed at this point are institutional mechanisms that give some protection to a population that has been stripped of its citizenship and denied nationality anywhere else.
In January 2018, Rohingya leaders demanded repatriations if they were made to return to Myanmar. Their list of demands included long-denied citizenship, a return of land snatched by the government, and the rebuilding of schools, homes and mosques.
Banner / Thumbnail : REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal