ANGLADESH and Myanmar recently signed a bilateral deal to return in phases the more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees languishing in the former’s border camps.
While this move may release some of the swelling international pressure on both states to uphold basic human rights, it does little to improve the future prospects of the Rohingya. And, with the United Nations (UN) kept out of this deal, there will be no neutral oversight to ensure the process goes smoothly and without bloodshed.
Some media sources, including the BBC, have oxymoronically termed the negotiated return a “repatriation”, which is facetious. Repatriation implies the Rohingya will return to their country of citizenship. They won’t.
The reality is they are South Asia’s equivalent of the Roma gypsies: a people persecuted for their very existence and having no legal claim to the land they have inhabited for centuries.
Myanmar’s military for years has systematically killed, raped and pillaged the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Consequently, there is fear that barring a UN Security Council resolution that compels Myanmar to seek non-military solutions to the crisis, the Rohingya, upon their return, will again fall prey to the genocidal campaign that made them flee in the first place. That said, Myanmar must realise the costs of ethnic cleansing could far outweigh its perceived benefits.
In 2016, when the self-styled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army began ambushing military outposts as payback for the massacres, the junta ordered entire villages in Rakhine State to be razed to drive the Rohingya out and discourage their return.
This forced the mass exodus of nearly 1.1 million members of this hapless ethnic group to various corners of the world, including Malaysia, that hosts about 60,000 of them.
With Myanmar’s military owning up to the mass graves containing the remains of executed Rohingya “militants”, and insurgents escalating the frequency and scope of their attacks, notions that the order will somehow return the Rohingya to Rakhine State as a result of the bilateral deal are exceedingly naïve. Disappointing also is the UN’s next to non-existent role in resolving the conflict beyond blanket condemnations.
This state of affairs is largely due to United States President Donald Trump’s blinkered foreign policy that exaggerates the sins of Iran and North Korea, while turning a blind eye to Myanmar’s state-sponsored butchery. Shockingly, even the much-feted civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship and refuses to recognise their language and nativity.
Myanmar treats the Rohingya as unwanted foreigners to be expelled or exterminated, while Suu Kyi — in the past celebrated as the Asian Nelson Mandela — maintains an eerie silence that has sparked calls to strip her of the peace prize. Myanmar claims the Rohingya are, in fact, ethnic Bengalis who were ferried to the country as cheap labour during the British Empire, and hence, must go back. Bangladesh rejects this claim.
At its root, the crisis may be about simple economics, of scarcity and choice. Myanmar is an underdeveloped country that has witnessed repressive military dictatorships for most of its post-independence existence.
Consequently, the Rohingya are not only a drain on resources, but also squatting on land that is rumoured to be mineral rich. Moreover, we must remember that any form of dictatorship necessitates crystallising and maintaining an antagonistic “other”, which in Myanmar’s case regrettably happens to be the Rohingya.
Bangladesh, conversely, is buckling under the weight of a young, rapidly growing and densely packed population. In such circumstances, the last thing it needs is to legalise more people that would further strain resources and arguably trigger mass social unrest in a country where political differences routinely turn violent.
Yet, it is important to stress here that the status quo in Rakhine State is unsustainable. Without a pathway to citizenship or the UN designating the state a protectorate, the Rohingya may well be driven to extinction over the next decade, or resort to a bloody and protracted civil war not unlike the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
If this deal is not caveated by a framework that provides the Rohingya freedom of movement, legal status and enhanced employment prospects, Myanmar risks up-scaling the limited insurgency to multi-pronged, countrywide terrorism. We must not forget that despite the recent diminution in their global appeal after being routed in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is always on the lookout for opportunities to rebound.
Put another way, Myanmar could lose far more by sustaining its military operations against the Rohingya than by finding means to ameliorate the situation. For one, if they’re not legalised and consequently remain outside the justice system, Rohingya will have no compulsion to hand over the insurgents who they view as heroes. Also, without legalising their ownership of land, Myanmar continues to deprive itself of tax revenues the Rohingya would otherwise pay, and which would incentivise them to protect the local ecology.
Additionally, if they cannot access adequate healthcare facilities, the Rohingya may unwittingly incubate and spread deadly contagions that could activate nationwide epidemics. And finally, if they are deprived of education and employment opportunities, then future generations will inevitably embrace organised crime or the violent extremism of the IS and al-Qaeda.
When saner heads prevail in Myanmar, it will realise the potential cost in blood and treasure required to tame the large-scale insurgency that looms near is best avoided by appeasement. Before the Rohingya are forced to pick up arms en masse to protect themselves, it behooves Su Kyi to broker an armistice and explore means to mainstream them into society. It’s time for her to re-earn that prize.
The writer is an Ipoh-based independent journalist