Bangladesh and Myanmar Resume Talks on Rohingya Repatriation

If the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state does not instill confidence in the Rohingya refugees, voluntary repatriation would be impossible.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have resumed talks on repatriating Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.

The first-ever meeting of the recently formed technical level Ad-Hoc Task Force for Verification of the Displaced Persons from Rakhine was held virtually on January 27. During the meeting, “both sides expressed readiness” to continue working closely to address “reasons causing delay in the verification” of the past residency of those displaced from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a statement issued by the Bangladesh Foreign Office said.

Repatriation talks had been in a state of suspension since the Myanmar military staged a coup on February 1 last year.

The resumption of repatriation talks will be welcomed in Bangladesh. The country has been bearing a heavy burden in providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled persecution in Myanmar over the decades. Since August 25, 2017, Bangladesh has been hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas.

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The majority-Muslim Rohingya have lived for centuries in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

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While the flow of Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine region into areas that comprise today’s Bangladesh began in 1942, when nearly 22,000 people crossed the Naf river and entered the Bengal region, the roots of the current crisis can be traced back to 1962. The military coup that year resulted in the Rohingya – like other ethnic groups in Myanmar – being denied the right to vote. The Rohingya, however, were subjected to other restrictions and discrimination as well. The 1982 Citizenship Act of Myanmar formally denied the group citizenship rights, as a result of which the Rohingya are today that largest stateless community in the world.

In the decades since, the Myanmar state has subjected the Rohingya to systematic discrimination, even persecution. In addition to stripping them of their rights, including citizenship rights, it has subjected them to extreme violence. This has triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Many have headed to neighboring Bangladesh. In 1992, for instance, some 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.

Since 1992, the flow of Rohingya escaping persecution in Myanmar into Bangladesh has happened at regular intervals. In 2017-18, a coordinated campaign of military violence, which a United Nations fact-finding mission deemed as genocide, forced over a million Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

After some initial resistance, Bangladesh opened its border to the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds. Camps in Cox’s Bazar, which borders Rakhine state, provided them a temporary home.

Rohingya repatriation has been a challenging problem for Bangladesh, with processes and agreements proving to be still-born.

On November 23, 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement. However, the two sides had not agreed on a concrete process of repatriation or on a deadline for completion of the repatriation. They did not disclose the contents of the agreement either. Rohingya organizations worldwide criticized the agreement as it envisaged moving refugees back to Myanmar when a “congenial atmosphere” for their “safe and voluntary repatriation with dignity and honor” had not been created. They called for the UNHCR’s involvement in the repatriation process and for citizenship to be restored to the Rohingya.

Two subsequent repatriation attempts failed. In November 2018, 2,260 Rohingya were identified for repatriation. The attempt failed as they refused to return to Myanmar without assurances for their safety.

In August 2019, of a list of 55,000 Rohingya 3,450 were cleared for repatriation. However, Rohingya leaders were skeptical about the repatriation process. They were not aware of any repatriation plan of the government, they said, and demanded that safety, security, and citizenship be made preconditions for repatriation.

“We don’t know what is happening… We will only repatriate through dialogues (about the preconditions). Without dialogues, no repatriation,” Rohingya community leader Mohib Ullah, who was subsequently assassinated in 2021, said.

At a tripartite virtual meeting mediated by China in January 2021, Bangladesh put forward a proposal for a village-based repatriation process, so that those returning home would feel safe. But Myanmar said that it would like to start off by repatriating 42,000 refugees who had been verified from a list of some 830,000 Rohingyas living in camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

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At the meeting, Myanmar sought assurances that the Rohingya would abide by Myanmar’s laws, and China and Myanmar responded positively to Dhaka’s suggestion to keep an international community presence in Rakhine when Rohingya repatriation began. The meeting appears to have gone well. “I would say we remain cautiously optimistic,” Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told the Bangladeshi media after the meeting.

A little over a week later, the Myanmar military staged a coup. This put the repatriation process on ice. A tripartite Bangladesh-China-Myanmar working group meeting scheduled for February 4 never happened.

Over the past year, Myanmar has been plunged into chaos and conflict. Military offensives, which include aerial bombing of villages and civilians, have triggered new population flows out of the country. There is no doubt that this civil conflict will hamper peaceful and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya.

The recent virtual meeting was a bilateral meeting, and China was not directly involved in it.

Bangladesh has not been successful in involving its development partners to facilitate the repatriation of the Rohingya back to their homeland. Indeed, some of its development partners have backed the Myanmar state on the Rohingya issue.

This was the case, for instance, when China and Russia supported Myanmar on a United Nations General Assembly resolution on human rights violations against the Rohingya on December 31, 2020. Surprisingly, India abstained from the vote. China and India are influential in Myanmar to some extent as they are Naypyidaw’s development partners.

In the current political situation in Myanmar, China and Russia have the most clout of any foreign governments. While Russia is a major weapons supplier, China is Myanmar’s number one investor. Both are U.N. Security Council veto-wielding powers and hence, in a position to push the Myanmar military to take robust measures to speed up repatriation of the Rohingya.

China and Russia have strong ties with Bangladesh too and Dhaka should use the country’s strategic and rising economic importance to get them to facilitate the repatriation process.

It is time the international community recognized that it is not the responsibility of Bangladesh alone to find a sustainable solution for the Rohingya problem.

The U.N.’s disassociation from the repatriation process, apparently at Myanmar’s insistence, has delayed repatriation. It has resulted in a situation where there is no neutral body to help iron out logistical problems.

Both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have failed to rebuild the broken trust of the Rohingya. If trust is not built among the Rohingya, voluntary repatriation would be impossible. While neither Bangladesh nor the UNHCR have done much with regard to building confidence or trust in the Rohingya refugee camps, Myanmar has done little on the ground in Rakhine state or on the question of Rohingya citizenship to instill confidence in the Rohingya wanting to return home. It hasn’t done much to create an environment for peaceful repatriation.