The Financial Express

Rohingya refugee repatriation, but where to?

Lankabangla and Fianancial Express Lankabangla and Fianancial Express
Rohingya refugee repatriation, but where to?

In July this year, a high level 15-member Myanmar delegation visited refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district in Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees are now located. The delegation was headed by the permanent secretary of the Myanmar foreign ministry. The purpose of the visit was to have discussions with the refugees to convince them to return to their home country. As a public relations exercise, it is reported that the delegation handed out flyers with cartoon figures depicting a smiling bearded man wearing a skullcap flashing a card "I am a resident  of Myanmar'' next to a woman wearing a head scarf holding another card. The operative word is "resident'' not citizen.

The ancient homeland of Rohingyas is Arakan on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal.  The Arakan kingdom stretched as far north as Chittagong now in Bangladesh and as far south as the Irrawaddy Delta. For a thousand year before 1784, Arakan remained politically independent. The territorial heartland of Burmans (largest ethnic group accounting for two-thirds of Myanmar population) lies across the mountains from Arakan, in the Irrawaddy valley. Burmese imperial army conquered Arakan in 1784 but only about 40 years after the conquest, the Biritish  colonised Burma in 1824 and made it a province of British India. Now, Arakan once again became connecting point between British India, more precisely British Bengal and British Burma. In the process of decolonisation of India and Burma in the late 1940s, Arakan was assigned to Burma thus severing the long historical links between Bengal and Arakan.

The present-day  Myanmar (Burma) is essentially a British colonial construct like India lacking any historical precedence conforming to the present-day borders of these two countries they inherited except for their colonial formation. It was a cut and paste job to create new states like Burma and India. That led to Indian state resorting to violence in Kashmir and invasion and occupation of Hyderabad, Goa and Sikkim. In Burma, the army  has been fighting Shan, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic groups almost continually since 1948. Strangely enough, the Burmese army is now also fighting the Arakan Army who are fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state.

To erase the colonial origin of the country bearing the name Burma, the country was renamed Myanmar 1989 and capital was moved from Rangoon (renamed Yangon) to Naypyitaw in 2005. Renaming went further now to assert the Burmese nationalist identity to Arakan which was renamed Rakhine and its capital Akyab became Sittwe. The renaming of Arakan was the clear signal to turn it into a Buddhist Arakan away from its Muslim identity. Myanmar exemplify the crisis of state formation in post-colonial societies.

The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority and a majority of an estimated one million Rohingyas in Myanmar live in Rakhanie state, where they account for a third of the population. They are not migrants, rather Burmans and other ethnic groups are migrants to Arakan. The declaration of Buddhism as state religion has further emboldened Burmese Buddhist nationalists to use it as the national ideology to glue the state together as is happening in India with Hindu nationalist proclaiming Hindutva as the state ideology to glue India together. In the process Buddhist monks have become the militants ideological warriors like the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who spearheaded the violence against Tamils and Muslims in that country.

In Myanmar, Rohingyas who are Muslims and other Muslims in other parts of Myanmar  are also  now  target of violence by Buddhist nationalists led by Buddhist monks. In Myanmar, from the very upper echelon of the Myanmar government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the army, courts, journalists, Buddhist clergy joined together to wage a concerted campaign to  get rid of Rohingyas by whatever means available. In fact, there is a culture of pervasive prejudice against Rohingyas in particular and Muslims in general. Hate, murder and perversity are now woven together to give expression to that prejudice.

Islamophobia is now so deeply entrenched in the Burmese  society that the country's current leader Aung San Suu Kyi, also a Peace Nobel Laureate made a trip to Hungary recently to team up with Victor Orban  to create a common ground on the issue of immigration and Islam.  Both noted that Hungary and Myanmar were facing the issue of co-existence with continuously growing Muslim population. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch  commenting on Suu Kyi's visit to Hungary said "After shamefully helping the Myanmar military cover up their genocide against Rohingya Muslims, now she is glad-handing and making friends with Europe's most xenophobic, anti-democratic leader''.

The generally accepted etymological root of the word Rohingya is derived from Rahang which means "Arakan'' in the Rohingya dialect  ga or gya  which means "from''. This clearly indicates the ethnic identity of Rohingyas is tied to the land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom. Their Kingdom of Arakan dates back to the 8th century. In the centuries that followed the inhabitants of this kingdom came in contact with Arab traders and learned about Islam and in the course of time became a Muslim-majority region. Arakan is now Myanmar's present-day Rakhine state. In fact, some ancestors of Rohingyas lived there even before Burmans settled in central Burma.

It is also important to note that Rakhine was and still is the poorest region in Myanmar with a poverty rate of 78 per cent compared to the national average of 38 per cent. The region's economic activity is completely reliant on agriculture and fishery. The port city of Sittwe is the only urban centre where some degree of industrial activity takes place. Sittwe is also the provincial capital.

Despite the very long history of Rohingyas living what is now called Rakhine state, the Myanmar government refuses to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas effectively making them stateless. This denial of citizenship also goes hand in hand with denial of movement, eviction, violence both physical and sexual, forced labour, expulsion from their home, land and property. The UN has described the Rohingyas as the most persecuted minority in the world. The convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide includes five acts. Any one of them when "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group'' amounts to genocide. With clearly declared purpose of destroying this ethnic group (Rohingyas) four of them have been practised by the Myanmar armed forces.

The purpose of the visit by the Myanmar delegation to talk with Rohingya refugees was to facilitate their return home to Rakhine. But the menu offered was the same old one with no guarantee of the recognition of their ethnicity or full citizenship rights including freedom of movement.  Rohingyas now in Myanmar are confined to concentration camps and definitely that will not encourage the refugees to consider returning to Rakhine.   International Human Rights Lawyer Christopher Sidoti, a member of the UN Fact-finding mission, speaking at an academic conference said that  the decimated Rohingya population in Myanmar remains confined to concentration camps and ghettos  "like the Jews lived in under the Nazi-occupied Europe''.

Furthermore, according to a report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recently said that while Myanmar authorities have promised to resettle the refugees, analysis of satellite imagery showed no sign of reconstruction in the overwhelming majority of Rohingya's former settlements while, in some areas destruction of residential buildings has continued.

In view of the circumstances, any repatriation deal as agreed with Myanmar is not going to resolve the crisis let alone ensure safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees. The Myanmar delegation conducted the discussions with the refugees in bad faith to buy time to soothe the mounting international pressure. This is a regime that can not be trusted on its own words. That requires any deal to repatriate the refugees must have the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a party to the deal.

Also, voluntary repatriation must be preceded by the Myanmar government's total commitment to recognise the ethnicity claim and granting of full citizenship as well as to ensure full respect for Rohingyas' human rights and security. Implementation of those  guarantees also must have to be underwritten  by  the UN. Once those conditions are fulfilled, those who volunteer to return, must return to their homes in their own villages, not to camps even for a day. Many refugees are second or third time refugees and they are anxious that they do have to be refugee again on return to Rakhine.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.

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