More than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to neighboring Bangladesh after Myanmar’s army launched an atrocious attack on Rohingya villages in August. Although Myanmar claimed it was a crackdown against terrorists, the United Nations said the operation amounted to “ethnic cleansing” to remove the minority from the Western Rakhine state.
However, the Rohingya people did not find relief in Cox’s Bazar, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, either. Diseases like cholera spread through the camp like wildfire. Babies were born out in the open on beaches. The Bangladesh government refused to issue birth certificates to Rohingya babies who are born into refugee camps, so technically, they do not exist. Without an identity card, the plight of the Rohignya is only exacerbated.
However, the situation quickly worsened when after just two or three months of escape from Myanmar, the Burmese civilian government, led by controversial Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, struck a deal with Bangladesh not just to stop the influx of Rohingya refugees but also to take back those who had made their way — through great peril — to Cox’s Bazar.
A top Myanmar official said Monday that a camp to host the Rohingya will be ready by next week. The repatriation process is expected to start from Jan. 23.
Win Myat Aye, the Burmese minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, said Myanmar will hold a meeting with Bangladeshi officials to decide the number of Rohingya and how they will be scrutinized to be placed in the 124-acre Hla Po Khaung camp.
Currently, the camp will be able to accommodate 300,000 people in 625 building structures.
However, the agreement by the two neighboring countries has raised grave questions about the well-being of the Rohingya refugees and the feasibility of repatriation in the absence of a path to social and political integration — without which it will be tantamount to murder to send the refugees back to Myanmar where burning villages, throwing babies in fire and rape remain the prime oppression techniques by the Burmese army.
The United Nations and human rights groups have urged the Myanmar government to ensure safe and voluntary return of the refugees, while many are concerned whether the Rohingya would want to return to Myanmar in the first place. However, even if some refugees do choose to repatriate, there is little proof that appropriate measures will be placed to secure their basic human rights, citizenship or protection from further persecution.
“There are previous episodes of displacement and return of the Rohingya, and other ethnic minorities, in Burma over the last 20 years which do not inspire confidence,” a report by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan stated.
The Commons International Development Committee said it was “clear” that sexual violence remain weapons of war used by the Myanmar military. It also warned of the “chilling prospect” of the area becoming a “powder keg of radicalization.”
The committee also called the atrocities against Rohingya a “huge human tragedy.”
“Burma's actions have imposed human suffering on hundreds of thousands of people and presented the world with a huge bill for humanitarian relief estimated to amount to a billion pounds per year,” it said.
The fear of reprisal from the international community in response to these reported war crimes has forced Myanmar to repatriate 50-100 people per day. Apart from the fact that at this rate repatriation could take around a decade to complete, Myanmar’s army — which has control over Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Border Affairs — still seems unwilling to clear a path to citizenship and political inclusion for the people of Rohingya.
Even if repatriation can provide safety for refugee, proving prior residency in Myanmar will be difficult for the minority community who were either never issued residency documents or who lost them while fleeing the violence.
These questions raise serious questions about the viability of the entire process.
Banner/Thumbnail credit: Reuters, Mohammad Ponir Hossain