Rohingya repatriation plan spells further suffering

What awaits the returnees, who lack citizenship, land and assurances that they will be safe?

Rohingya Muslims women wait outside a food distribution center at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Myanmar officials say a camp to house Rohingya Muslim and Hindu refugees who return from Bangladesh will be ready by its promised deadline next week. Myanmar and Bangladesh are discussing the logistics of how many Rohingya will be allowed into Myanmar and how they will be scrutinized to be placed in the camps. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled violence that has been described as ethnic cleansing. Observers doubt Rohingya will return to Myanmar willing unless their safety is guaranteed.(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
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Two months after the plan was first mooted, details have finally emerged about the cynical scheme to repatriate the estimated 740,000 Rohingya trapped in makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh. The upshot: more suffering for a community that has lost thousands of its members to the butchery of Myanmar's army. The plan – to return 1,500 Rohingya a week from next Tuesday – is both pitiful and unworkable and shows ongoing contempt for the persecuted minority. Quite apart from the very real safety concerns facing the Rohingya on arrival, the scale of the planned repatriation is risible.

In what the UN has described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing", troops backed by local Buddhist mobs launched an offensive against the minority in Rakhine province last August following scuffles with Rohingya militants at police posts. Since then, rape, arson and murder have become gory hallmarks of the army's approach, sending hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims spilling over the border into Bangladesh. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, of the 6,700 Rohingya slaughtered within the campaign's first month, 730 children were shot, beaten to death or burned alive. These estimates are conservative, as they fail to include those unable to flee Myanmar and families butchered in their entirety.

Nevertheless, the callous military – which excluded the Rohingya from the country's 2014 census – continues to deny that it targets civilians. And with 288 villages burned down to date, its assertion that "clearance operations" ended on September 5 are palpably untrue. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is complicit in her silence. Corrupted by power, her legacy of principled struggle for dignity, peace and liberty in the country is now tainted. Further afield, the UN Security Council has pleaded for an end to the violence, but has imposed no sanctions. In a baffling statement, China encouraged the international community to "support the efforts of Myanmar in safeguarding the stability of its national development". Devoid of support and choices, the Rohingya now face a plan conceived in their absence that is likely to intensify their misery.

Myanmar supposedly aims to return all Rohingya within two years, but it would take almost a decade at the agreed rate to bring back all those who have fled since the first wave of violence in October 2016. The Bangladeshi government – keen to shift the burden – retracted its initial demand of returning 15,000 a week. But what awaits the returnees who lack citizenship, land and assurances that they will be safe? The unrepentant army still controls Rakhine state, while some of the country's non-Muslims plan to challenge any comprehensive repatriation. With the cruelty that has characterised the crisis, Rakhine's state secretary declared that returnees will need to build their own homes in a cash-for-work project. This plan does nothing to assuage the fears of the Rohingya. And the world should not stomach the repatriation by force that it implies.