Rohingyas are an ethnic minority group with their roots going back hundreds of years in the western State of Rakhine in Myanmar. These people are a Muslim majority ethnic group in Myanmar who are persecuted by the state and their Buddhist neighbours, as they consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas settled in the historical Kingdom of Arakan before Columbus discovered the Americas.
The western part of present day Myanmar, namely the Rakhine State, was once part of the Arakan Kingdom. The Rohingyas lived in the Rakhine State for centuries. Yet approximately one million Rohingyas are denied citizenship rights and forced to live in Myanmar in a situation akin to an apartheid system. For many years, Rohingyas were systematically being driven out of the western belt of the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
200,000 Rohingyas fled Burma for the first time in 1978 and took refuge in newly independent Bangladesh to avoid being killed in their homeland. The then Bangladeshi government wanted them to return back to Burma. The two governments reached an agreement for repatriation. Though most refugees at that time refused to return to an unrepentant Burma, they were forced under UN pressure to return. For the second time 250,000 Rohingyas fled from Burma to Bangladesh in 1992.
We are witnessing the third Rohingya influx from August 2017 onwards. An estimated 624,000 Rohingyas have fled Rakhine to take refuge in Bangladesh till December 2017.
The terror struck people coming through the Teknaf border in the South East of Bangladesh recounted horrifying tales of killings, burnings, rapes in the place they left behind. The Myanmar regime had started an all-out act of violence which included burning down Rohingya villages, killing the men and raping the women to instil terror in them, so that they leave Rakhine in fear for their lives, never to return. The violence of the Myanmar forces against the rural Rohingyas is reminiscent of the Nazi violence against the Jews during Hitler’s reign of terror in Germany. The UN has termed the acts as systematic “ethnic cleansing”. The ideology of preservation of the purity of race is almost an echo of those times of horror long gone by. Most of us rational people thought that those times will never return again, at least in our lifetime.
Compassion versus Inhumanity
Bangladesh could not drive away the terror struck people arriving in droves since August 25, 2017. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recalled how the Bangalis had to flee across the border in 1971 in the face of sudden attack by the Pakistani military regime. The terror driven Rohingyas are being provided temporary shelters in Bangladesh on humanitarian grounds.
Initially the Myanmar regime was in denial of the killings in the Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, kept denying the truth, even calling the Rohingyas as ‘Bengalis’ to deny them their rightful status in Myanmar. But gradually the world media began to uncover the horrifying truth of “ethnic cleansing” being carried out against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s inhuman response to the crisis led to the St. Hugh’s College Oxford, her alma mater, to take down her portrait in protest in September. Strong protests all over the world against the atrocities led to the Myanmar regime ultimately acknowledging the crisis with some reservations. The world response to the atrocities intensified when two Reuters journalists were detained on 12December, 2017 for reporting on the crisis and currently they are facing fourteen years in jail.
Diplomacy versus Strategy
An agreement was signed in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw by Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on behalf of their respective governments on 23rd November, 2017.According to the MOU, the repatriation of the Rohingyas is expected to start in two months from signing date.
The two countries agreed to work together on the matter. The Rohingyas who “wanted” to return to Rakhine State would be repatriated. All the Rohingya refugees would only return if they “wished” it, both countries agreed. How many refugees would actually want to return to a place where they faced genocidal violence and have almost no citizenship rights is questionable. Another question arising would be as to where they’ll return to unless they can get back their ancestral lands in the Rakhine. Although the agreement states that “… the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long period of time …”, but some Rohingya refugees who returned years ago are still living in camps in Myanmar.
Another point to note in the MOU is that the Myanmar authority will verify the returnees and issue ID cards to them on the “evidence of past residence in Myanmar.” Rohingyas who left all possessions behind or whose houses were burned down or looted cannot produce such proof of residence. Under such a binding clause many refugees cannot be repatriated back to Myanmar. Where will these landless and stateless people be resettled will be another major issue in the foreseeable future. A better negotiated agreement could have avoided such scenarios and therefore would have been a major step in the right direction to repatriate the Rohingyas.
Progress versus Process
Bangladesh and Myanmar formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on December 18, 2017 to facilitate the return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar with citizenship rights within two months. Under the JWG, fifteen members from each country, headed by their respective Foreign Secretaries will work together to repatriate the Rohingyas back to their homeland. Two formal agreements now support the repatriation of the Rohingyas to their homeland. But the Washington Post reports on 26 December, 2017 that no effort has been made so far to repatriate the refugees.
The probability of the Rohingyas returning to their homes in the Rakhine any time soon may be hampered due to the following reasons also:
The Rohingyas are a people whose homeland the Rakhine State is a geo-strategically important coastal state of Myanmar.
China wants a deep-sea port in the Rakhine, which will give China an access to the Bay of Bengal and control over the mineral rich region.
China is also planning to build an industrial park and a special economic zone in the Rakhine.
Considering the above facts one wonders if the Rohingyas are just hapless occupants of lands which are being eyed by “Big Powers” and are an inconvenience to them.
Religion versus Geo-Politics
The Rohingyas persecution may not be as religious oriented as it appears though it is being touted as “persecution of predominantly Muslim Rohingyas”. We don’t often hear of “predominantly Muslim Palestinians” when we hear descriptions of the Palestine crisis. But the usurped Rohingyas are being coined as Muslims, although there are Hindus amongst them too.
The Rohingyas are being killed or driven from their homes not only because they are Muslims but perhaps because they inhabit the strategic coastal region of the Rakhine State.
The Myanmar regime which killed hundreds of Rohingyas and drove them out of the country for their land is unlikely to take them back so easily to resettle them in their original place again.
Complacency versus UN Support
Being complacent on doing some successful paperwork and depending on the Myanmar regime to peacefully settle the crisis could saddle Bangladesh with the responsibility of housing the Rohingyas for all times. Bangladesh can ill afford such an outcome, being a land constrained country with one of the highest per square kilometre population in the world. Moreover, it will be a moral defeat of the right of the Rohingyas and all such stateless people to their homeland.
Our success will come only when all the Rohingya refugees are safely back to their own homes with full Myanmar citizenship, as equals in all rights and privileges with respect to the Buddhist population of Myanmar. That the Myanmar regime is honouring their side of the deal cannot be left on to chance or their goodwill. The safety of the returning population must be ensured by the presence of an international force comprising the UN member States. A UN Peace Keeping Force must monitor the condition of the repatriated people and provide them the necessary security in case of any future threat to their existence.
The writer is a columnist