Last week, UN International Independent Fact-Finding Mission’s Chris Sidoti, Bangladesh’s high commissioner to the U.K. and prominent experts from Bangladesh, gathered in London to tackle an overlooked, but pressing issue: the challenges of repatriating 1.2 million Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar.
This comes in the back drop of Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen reportedly accusing Myanmar of “lying” about the status of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their places of origin.
Although the two countries signed a repatriation agreement in October 2018, according to the UN and other international observers, the favorable conditions for the returning Rohingya are non-existent.
Of the 800 expected villages promised as a part of the repatriation efforts, only two villages with favorable conditions are believed to be existed.
Herein lies the problem: the long-term, large-scale presence of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh is unsustainable.
The government of Bangladesh has been struggling to address the existential need of the world’s second largest refugee population. Abul Kalam, refugee relief and repatriation commissioner stated: “22% of the fund appeal (out of a total of $920 million annual appeal for the Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis) has been met.”
Bangladesh simply lacks the resources to cope with the burden of having to shelter and feed 1.2 million Rohingya genocide survivors. It is also unfair to Dhaka to be left to handle a huge refugee burden alone without adequate financial support from the international community.
Moreover, allowing the Rohingya to permanently settle in Bangladesh would validate the genocidal regime in Myanmar. Since February 1978, following military dictator Gen. Ne Win’s premeditated campaign to erase western Myanmar of any Rohingya presence, Myanmar has engaged in an atrocious campaign of terror against the residential population of northern Rakhine state.
In doing so, Myanmar’s successive regimes, civilian and military alike, have resorted to all the violent, institutional and legal means at their disposal. Over the last four decades, Myanmar has relentlessly shifted the official justifications for its state-directed persecution of Rohingya.
Long-held fears of Rohingya
Among the evolving justifications are “concerns for Muslims’ demographic dominance” in western Myanmar, “communal conflict”, “terror threat” -- as Aung San Suu Kyi put it to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2017, “security clearance operations”, or “unfinished business from WWII” as put by Suu Kyi’s military partner Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
In the national imagination of the Burmese public, their government’s genocidal project is about restoring Rakhine to its original, purely “Buddhist”, state and ridding the region of "Bengali" interlopers.
The question that the Bangladeshi leadership, and those meeting in London last week, ought to confront is the following: Why would the neighbor that systematically destroyed nearly 400 villages in a matter of weeks, thereby seizing the vast and important western Myanmar region of northern Rakhine, cooperate with Dhaka on the repatriation of almost three quarters of the entire Rohingya population?
With this cultural, political and societal backdrop in mind, recognizing the long-held fears of the Rohingya people for rights and safety will be crucial to understanding why this voluntary scheme has not been successful so far.
As long as Myanmar has done nothing to assuage Rohingya's well-founded fear of renewed state-directed mass-violence and deportation, any plans for repatriation will remain implausible. No Rohingya in their right mind will voluntarily return to Myanmar. Not without international protection, restored citizenship and basic human rights.
So, what are Dhaka’s strategic options? The first is one of three major proposals from Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina -- the creation of the “safe zone” inside northern Rakhine state in Myanmar.
I for one, think the establishment of a safe zone where Rohingya can return, live under the protection of a coalition of international actors, armed or unarmed, is a potentially viable plan to address the needs of returning Rohingya as well as Dhaka’s need to repatriate the vast number of Rohingya refugees.
Needless to say, Myanmar will violently oppose the idea. Some Burmese officials have already publicly dismissed the safe zone proposal on grounds of sovereignty.
Secondly, Dhaka should pursue one interim possibility: Force Myanmar to pay reparations to Bangladesh for hosting the victims of the genocide.
This demand should be part of the set of “immediate measures” that Dhaka, a state party to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, can ask from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Dhaka can make this legal demand unilaterally via the ICJ, or jointly with other state parties such as Malaysia, which also shoulders the burden of hosting an estimated 200,000 Rohingya on its soil.
Alternatively, Dhaka can join the Gambia-led initiative by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to mount a legal challenge to demand justice and accountability for the genocide.
The UN already recommended in 2018 that military leaders should face genocide charges and this month, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has asked judges on the International Criminal Court to open a full investigation into these allegations.
Ultimately, why not find a way for Bangladesh, which has shouldered the financial burden of supporting over 1 million Rohingya refugees, to obtain compensation from Myanmar? Dhaka should include an annual payment of $1 billion from Myanmar in the OIC's move to challenge Myanmar at the ICJ.
Introducing an economic deterrent may yet discourage other states from engaging in ethnic cleansing and forced deportation of minority ethnic groups. The other 150 states -- which are party to the Genocide Convention, still unprepared to participate meaningfully to end Myanmar's ongoing genocide -- should do their part in backing a legal challenge at the ICJ.
On July 1, the Dutch parliament passed with 2/3 majority votes a motion requesting the government to explore possible legal proceedings against Myanmar before the ICJ for violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. Bangladeshi parliamentarians should follow the suit.
Myanmar, as the perpetrating state, must be made to pay for its crimes. Literally.
[Maung Zarni is a Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, an umbrella network of Rohingya refugees and human rights activists, and co-author, with Natalie Brinham, of "Essays on Myanmar Genocide" (2019).]
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