Myanmar political analysts on Tuesday expressed doubts about the success of an agreement between the government and two United Nations agencies that lays out the responsibilities of the parties in the return and resettlement of Rohingya refugees to violence-ridden Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population signed a confidential MoU with the United Nations development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies on June 6.
RFA’s Myanmar Service obtained a copy of the draft document outlining the general principles and the scope of the parties’ cooperation in returning and reintegrating some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled northern Rakhine state after brutal crackdowns by security forces in October 2016 and August 2017.
The U.N., United States, and rights groups have said the latter crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, and the International Criminal Court is weighing whether it can exercise jurisdiction over the country’s “alleged deportation” of Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.
Ba Shein, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party, which represents the interest of Rakhine ethnics in multiethnic Rakhine state, criticized the MoU for not taking into account input from Buddhist Rakhine communities.
“This MoU is not in accordance with what the Myanmar people want, especially the needs of the ethnic Rakhine people,” he told RFA, adding that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government signed the MoU out of fear of reprisal by Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries.
In May, the world’s top Islamic intergovernmental body condemned Myanmar’s military for targeting Rohingya Muslims in what it called “systematic ethnic cleansing” during the crackdown that began in August 2017, which forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, and called on its 57 member-states to exert pressure on Naypyidaw over this.
The OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers also formed a special committee to handle allegations of human rights violations carried out against the Rohingya.
“It seems Myanmar’s government has signed several MoUs and memorandums of action because it is afraid of the OIC countries’ interference along with that of Western countries and the U.N.,” he said.
Ba Shein also cautioned that there would likely be disagreements and difficulties over the places where the returning Rohingya refugees want to live in Rakhine state and where the governments wants to resettle them.
According to the MoU, refugees who voluntarily return to the country from neighboring Bangladesh will be sent to their original places of residence or to a secure place of their choice nearest to those locations.
Rakhine ethnics, however, fear that the returning refugees will encroach upon their territory.
“We Rakhine ethnics don’t have sovereignty; the Myanmar government and Myanmar leaders have it,” Ba Shein said. “When we lose our land, livelihoods, and our cultural and religious heritage because of these MoUs, the one who will lose its sovereignty is the Myanmar government.”
No solution to the crisis
Tun Khin, chairman of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, also cast doubt upon the MoU.
“We welcome the MoU, but I don’t think it will work because it is not transparent and doesn’t contain a solution [to the crisis],” he told RFA.
“These refugees want to return home as citizens under the protection of international organizations,” he said. “The Myanmar government must give them rights equal to those of other ethnic groups, such as the rights to education, travel, marriage, doing business, and working in government departments.”
“The Rohingya will trust the Myanmar government only if they get these rights,” he said.
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminates against them by denying them citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to educations, jobs, and health care.
The MoU says the returning refugees will have the same freedom of movement as other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, but makes no mention of the possibility of granting them citizenship or of the government providing them access to basic services.
Nanda Hla Myint, spokesman for the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said that despite pressure from the international community on Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis, his party has always suggested that the government handle the repatriation process according to existing laws and signed MoUs.
The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an MoU in November 2017 to repatriate Rohingya refugees, though the start of the program has been beset by delays.
Nanda Hla Myint also noted that the government should adhere to Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law when dealing with the returning refugees.
The law sets out a citizenship verification process but does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic minorities, so that members of the group cannot obtain government documentation by identifying themselves as such.
“We have suggested this because there can be terrorists among the returned refugees, and they can threaten local people’s lives and livelihood,” he said.
Deadly attacks on border guard stations and police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group, in October 2016 and November 2017 sparked the crackdowns on Rohingya communities by Myanmar security forces.
Living simply and freely
Maung Maung Ohn, the ethnic Burman former chief minister of Rakhine state from 2014 to 2016, told RFA that the resettlement plan for the returning Rohingya must have the support of ethnic Rakhine communities in order to succeed.
“The Rakhine people want to live simply and freely in their territory, but at least they have to get along with other people, even though they don’t want to live together,” he said.
“When we are trying to choose a compatible way, the Rakhine ethnics have to accept it, the government has to control them, and the international community has to operate within this framework,” he said.
The comments come as Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali wrapped up a four-day visit to Rakhine state to discuss issues related to the repatriation of the Rohingya. Ali and a Bangladeshi delegation also visited resettlement villages in Rakhine to verify Myanmar’s preparation for the planned repatriation of the refugees.
“Bangladesh wants the refugees to return, and Myanmar wants to receive them,” Maung Maung Ohn said. “The two countries have no problems with it, but the refugees must have the willingness to return home and must pass through the repatriation process step by step.”
“If they agree to do it step by step, then I believe the Myanmar government is ready to receive them and will work for them accordingly,” he said. “The important thing is that they need to return. If they don’t start coming, the move will not work.”
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.