As world leaders from South Asia gather for the final day of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore on Thursday, Myanmar and Bangladesh are slated to commence repatriation of Rohingya refugees, in a controversial move that raises concerns over the safety and security of returnees.
Over half a million Rohingya- a Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar-poured into Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, fleeing brutal scorched-earth campaigns waged by the Myanmar military in the wake of attacks by Rohingya insurgents. Hundreds of villages were razed.
Repatriations efforts are expected to begin on Thursday but the move has been widely decried by rights groups, INGOs and the UN as premature and dangerous, and contrary to the principle of a ‘safe, voluntary and dignified’ return. Under international law governing the treatment of refugees, returns must be voluntary, safe and dignified.
A senior US administration official told The National on Wednesday that Washington does not want to speculate as to whether such reparations would constitute refoulment. The US, however, is “anxious” to see a safe return, he said.
Myanmar is preparing to receive 2260 Rohingya refugees, who are among 8032, 2260 people eligible for return according to a list drafted by Bangladesh.
Myanmar has said that not all the names on the Bangladesh list are eligible for repatriation. The government says it has only been able to verify around 6,000.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information has indicated they plan to process around 150 people per day, placing them in temporary housing near the border with Bangladesh.
Sources say that for many Rohingya whose names appeared on the initial list, the prospect of returning at this point — with no guarantees of security and scant details on how the process will be conducted — has sent them into hiding amidst the sprawling tent cities that have cropped up along the border.
A visible increase in the presence of Bangladeshi security forces was reported at the teeming camps inside Bangladesh on Wednesday, prompting fears that potential returnees may face pressure to leave.
The plight of the Rohingya- a beleaguered stateless minority- grabbed the spotlight at this year’s ASEAN summit, after a UN Fact Finding Mission said that Myanmar security forces should be tried in International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
A unified regional call for justice and accountability may well prove elusive, with the ASEAN chair’s leaked draft speech indicating the bloc would endorse Myanmar’s internally appointed investigation commission.
In a brief meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the summit on Wednesday, Pence said the “violence and persecution by military and vigilantes” that resulted in the exodus of 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh was “without excuse.”
Pence asked a question about progress on accountability for atrocities, as well as the preparations for repatriation.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s responded to the harsh rebuke by saying that people must “learn to understand each other better.”
“We can say that we understand our country better than any other country does. And I'm sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your own country better than anybody else does,” she said. “We welcome all friends to help us and support us in everything that we are doing to make our country a safer and more prosperous place for everybody concerned.”
Former MP for the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party U Shwe Maung, a Rohingya who now lives in exile, told The National that he feels as though history is repeating itself, referring to two previous waves of mass displacement.
“This so-called repatriation is not genuine. [Myanmar is] still clearly denying fundamental rights of Rohingyas,” he said. “We learned lessons from 1978 and 1994 repatriations. I think this is to puncture international pressure and detour the UN’s path to finding a sustainable solution for Rohingyas.”
The UNHCR this week issued a statement saying it would not condone or support a protracted internment in northern Rakhine, a poor and densely populated state in Myanmar that contains the highest concentration of Rohingya in the country.
Elsewhere in Rakhine State, over 100,000 Rohingya remain interned in camps, six years after a wave of violence led to their mass displacement. Tens of thousands more are confined to their villages.
“As it stands, returning Rohingya to Rakhine State means returning them to a situation where their rights will be routinely violated,” says Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International.
“Movement restrictions mean they can't travel freely, and as a result [they] struggle to access schools, hospitals and markets. What’s more, the security forces responsible for atrocities have yet to be held to account. Returns, in this context, would not be safe, dignified or sustainable,” she said.
One civil servant in northern Rakhine State told The National on condition of anonymity that Myanmar is facing dual pressure- to commence repatriations but also to ensure that returns aren’t premature.
Small-scale demonstrations have taken place in northern Rakhine State in protest against the prospect of a mass return. State media reported that informal discussions were held with recognised ethnic minorities about the repatriation process.
For Maung Soe, a Rohingya inside northern Rakhine State, for whom fleeing was not a viable option, conditions remain dire.
“Hunger, no healthcare, innocents [being arrested], extortion, no free movement, no access to work, to go anywhere, no education ... no justice,” he said, summing up the situation faced by villagers in the locked-down northwest.
For John Quinley, a researcher with Fortify Rights on the ground in Cox’s Bazaar on Wednesday, the situation was clear: “Repatriation at this time is refoulement.”