IN the aftermath of the violent attacks on the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state by security forces last year, the country’s military has denied access to independent investigators and restricted aid operations. More than 650,000 Rohingya fled, undertaking perilous journeys to neighbouring Bangladesh. Most were escaping what the UN human rights chief has described as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Now these traumatised Rohingya cramped in refugee camps find their lives in peril yet again with the majority fearful of returning to what they perceive as a climate of ongoing persecution in Rakhine. Apprehensions have worsened because of last year’s repatriation deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh that is due to be implemented from next week. Moreover, international observers are concerned that this agreement falls short of protecting the Rohingya population. The Myanmar military is involved in the repatriation process, implying the need for increased clarity on long-term plans — otherwise there would be every reason to believe that such atrocities will continue with impunity. Because of the high civilian death toll in Rakhine (the UN estimates more than 1,000 civilians were killed last year), all repatriations must be entirely voluntary. Also, it is imperative that this agreement is not taken forward without assistance from the UNHCR.
Under this repatriation deal, Bangladesh may want all refugees to leave within two years but it is difficult to envisage how this might happen. It may not be surprising that Bangladesh is desperate to send refugees home due to economic challenges. However, the international community must stress that upholding rights under basic humanitarian protocols is of primary concern. Worse, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are still living in internment camps in Rakhine with restrictions on their movement after having returned in 2012 from Bangladesh. The international community must demand that Myanmar hold accountable those responsible for atrocities termed as genocide by rights observers. The Myanmar military must also release two local Reuters journalists who had been investigating this crisis. When marginalised populations are persecuted relentlessly, it is the responsibility of power-wielding bodies such as the UN and its member states to step in. To end, the real problem is the Myanmar military’s unwillingness to support the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission that include legal citizenship and political inclusion for the Rohingya community — and this should be an obvious part of any repatriation agreement.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2018