When Bangladesh continues to bear the brunt of sheltering more than a million Rohingyas, Myanmar is doing little for their repatriation amid silence of global powers though the Southeast Asian country faces a genocide case, experts and officials said.
About 750,000 Rohingyas — injured and starved — fled a brutal military crackdown since August 25, 2017, leaving their homes burnt and relatives killed. Bangladesh generously opened the border and sheltered them, but is now facing tremendous financial, ecological and security challenges.
Even before 2017, some 300,000 other Rohingyas, who fled earlier waves of violence in Myanmar since 1978, were sheltered here.
Bangladesh hastily signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar in November 2017. The next year, UNHCR and UNDP signed a tripartite deal with Myanmar on creating conducive conditions for Rohingya return.
However, none of the demands of the refugees — guarantee of their safety, basic rights and citizenship — has been met Myanmar. As a result, two repatriation attempts — one on November 15 in 2018 and the second on August 22 last year — fell flat.
Even, the provisional order issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in January this year has failed to help make any headway. Dozens of Rohingyas, along with hundreds of Rakhines, were killed and thousands were displaced as fighting between Myanmar military and Arakan Army raged in the recent months.
REPATRIATION EFFORTS SLOW
The meeting of Joint Working Group — comprised of officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh — was not held since May last year though two meetings are scheduled a year, officials concerned said.
“The second meeting was due in the last quarter of 2019. Myanmar pushed it forward to February this year but that also did not happen. Now Myanmar is using coronavirus as a pretext for not holding the meeting,” an official told The Daily Star.
In the last three years, Bangladesh sent the information of 6,00,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar, but the latter has provided Bangladesh with verified information of only 30,000.
Again, 30 to 40 percent of the 30,000 names were rejected.
There are cases that one was rejected and others were selected from a family for repatriation, but this proposition is not helpful in any way for the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar, the official said.
Dhaka had proposed Naypyidaw for a bilateral technical committee meeting to sort out these issues, but was responded with indifference, which is indicative of delaying Rohingya repatriation, he said.
Through informal discussion in January this year, the two sides agreed for a targeted approach. The idea is that Myanmar will find out the Rohingya villages least affected and then have a comprehensive plan for repatriation.
Accordingly, all the families of the villages concerned will be repatriated. A meeting was scheduled in February, but Myanmar did not show interest.
“Now Myanmar’s attitude is that you return our people, we will do what’s needed. Myanmar now seems more emboldened. This is because the global powers don’t have any coordinated approach to address the Rohingya issue. So, Myanmar can get away by doing anything,” the official said.
Nay San Lwin, co-founder of Free Rohingya Coalition, said Myanmar also has made no attempt to amend discriminatory laws, including the citizenship, freedom of movement and education, which is very basic reforms required.
Foreign policy experts say though there were sanctions from western countries on some military officials, the global powers are still largely divided over the Rohingya issue because of their geopolitical and business interests.
For example, the UN Security Council has failed to adopt any resolution yet in last three years because of opposition from China and Russia, two veto powers.
Regional powers China, India and Japan — all good friends of Bangladesh and Myanmar — want bilateral solution to the Rohingya issue without putting pressure on Myanmar. The approach has not worked until now, analysts said.
Meanwhile, US imports from Myanmar has increased from $366 million in 2017 to $821 million in 2019. US exports also went up from $211 million in 2017 to $347 million in 2019, according to US Census Bureau.
Myanmar benefits from the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), namely the “Everything But Arms” scheme that grants duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market.
According to the European Commission, Myanmar’s exports increased from €573 million in 2015 to an estimated €2.8 billion in 2019. Also, according to UN Comtrade data, Myanmar’s exports to UK went up from less than $300 million in 2017 to $536 million in 2019.
The businesses between Myanmar and other countries flourish though a UN fact-finding mission last year appealed for targeted sanctions, as well as an embargo on weapons sales to Myanmar, warning that a web of businesses run by Myanmar’s army is financing military operations on the Rohingyas.
The mission’s report identified at least 59 foreign companies — including firms from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Hong Kong and China — that have dealings with army-linked ventures. It also named at least 14 companies that have sold arms to the Myanmar military, including state-owned entities in Israel, India, South Korea, and China.
With no repatriation in sight, Bangladesh is counting losses. A study by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) showed, the estimated cost of hosting the Rohingyas $1.2 billion a year in the first five years if there is no repatriation for sheltering and providing them humanitarian assistance.
“Gradually, the cost will increase given the decline in foreign funding, population growth and inflation,” CDP Executive Director Dr Fahmida Khatun told this correspondent on August 21.
The study also said around 7,000 acres were deforested due to the Rohingya settlement — having long term ecological implications in the region, a tourist district of the country.
A study by COAST Trust, an NGO working in the country’s coastal belt, says transport cost went up by 35 percent and house rent by 60 percent since the Rohingya influx, while wages for laborers went down because of more labour supply from the Rohingya community.
“These issues have given rise to Rohingya-local tension,” said COAST Trust Executive Director Rezaul Karim Chowdhury. Also, lack of any income generating activities and education facilities gave rise to the crimes like drug trafficking, human trafficking and prostitution, he said.
“It is very likely that militant elements will grow in the camps if the provisions of education, income and better housing are not created.”
Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, director of the Centre for Genocide Studies at Dhaka University, said lingering of repatriation means rise of human trafficking through the sea and extremist ideologies — that will ultimately affect the entire region’s development.
China, Japan and India — all have their large investments both in Bangladesh and Myanmar — and they should come forward to creating conditions conducive for Rohingya return at the earliest, he said.
“Myanmar may use fighting between Arakan Army and its military as a pretext. In that case, a combine force of China, Japan, India and ASEAN can help create a safe zone as sought by the Rohingya,” said Prof Imtiaz, who teaches international relations.
LIGHT OF HOPE?
Prof Imtiaz said the good thing is that the ICJ in its verdict acknowledged the ethnic identity of the Rohingya. Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi also used the word “Arakanese Muslims” in the ICJ hearing in December last year — it’s a step towards Rohingya’s recognition.
“Justice at the ICJ may take time, but must happen. Germany paid reparations for genocide against the Jews. Eventually, Bangladesh also should claim reparations from Myanmar for the enormous cost it’s bearing for Rohingya influx,” Prof Imtiaz said.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury said Dhaka must go for creative diplomacy, involving the regional civil societies, academia and media, apart from state actors, to create a broader consensus on the Rohingya repatriation and justice.