The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance
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Little hope for Rohingya repatriation

Prof. Syed Munir Khasru

Bangkok Post
June 19, 2019



After some 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State to live in camps in Bangladesh following the start of the 2017 military campaign against them, the Rohingya crisis today still shows no signs of abating.

A leaked report by the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management’s (AHA Centre) Emergency Response and Assessment Team (Erat), which has evaluated Myanmar’s efforts to entice Rohingya refugees to return from Bangladesh, offers more factual failures than any objective framework for repatriation.

The report not only downplays the severity of the persecution faced by the Rohingya community, but also fails to recognise them as Rohingya, thus infringing on their ethnic status and putting a misplaced focus on their religious identity as Muslims.

The report, criticised by human rights groups, conveniently omits information that may paint Myanmar in an undesirable light.

Immediately following the report that was leaked earlier this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, where the two exchanged their common and rather controversial views on both Muslims and migration.

These talks reflect how the tables have turned for Ms Suu Kyi, once an icon of democracy, who views her meeting with Europe’s most xenophobic leader as an important accomplishment.

This meeting, close on the heels of the report, renders Myanmar’s assertion that they can safely repatriate the Rohingya, the majority of whom are Muslims, somewhat obsolete.

Following the outcry from international organisations and human rights agencies, Erat has tried in vain to paint a polished picture of a complex exercise in what the UNHCR has dubbed “ethnic cleansing”.

Queries about why the term Muslim was used instead of “Rohingya” were batted away by the AHA Centre’s executive director Adelina Kamal, as she tried to divert attention to coming up with constructive solutions to the matter and helping Myanmar.

Indeed, Erat does not have the autonomy to focus on issues not delegated by Myanmar or Asean, including investigating allegations of human rights atrocities committed by the Myanmar army.

This obviously raises questions on the report’s objectivity and reliability, as well as the motives behind the timing.

If it is the case that Erat is unable to fulfil its obligations to offer unbiased and unrestricted recommendations, this begs the question of why they had to undertake this exercise and offer a limited and inaccurate analysis of the ongoing crisis.

The report has, instead, shed light on the failure of Asean to play an effective role in resolving the crisis.

The report, titled the “Preliminary Needs Assessment for Repatriation in Rakhine State, Myanmar”, avoids mentioning the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya during the military crackdown of 2017.

There is no recognition that the refugees have been enclosed in fetid, cramped camps in Bangladesh, nor of the reality in Rakhine State, where an estimated 400,000 Rohingya still live with meagre access to basic necessities such as health care and education, and which Amnesty International has dubbed “open-air prisons”.

In a travesty of truth, the report claims that the local communities felt safe around the Border Guard Police units that have been accused of committing the violent atrocities that drove the Rohingya into Bangladesh.

The Rohingya crisis has escalated to such a level that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres paid a rare visit, along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, to the Bangladeshi Rohingya camps.

Ironically, the report praises Myanmar’s scant efforts to ensure “smooth and orderly” returns, and faults the Bangladeshi bureaucracy and complicated paperwork for the delay in Rohingya repatriation.

There is no mention of Myanmar’s consistent failure to address the preconditions of repatriation, including a guarantee of citizenship and freedom of movement and safety once back in their homeland.

It underestimates the barriers that Myanmar has set up to frustrate the safe and equitable repatriation of the Rohingya.

Praising Myanmar’s “efforts” to facilitate repatriation, the report forecasts a timeline of two years for half a million refugees to return, with the number cited well below UN estimates, making the premise of the report imprecise and invalid.

Amnesty International heavily criticised the report, terming it “ludicrous to think that returns in this context could be safe, voluntary or dignified”.

The reality is that even though the plan was for the first refugees to return in November last year, Myanmar has yet to take any concrete steps to meet the refugees’ demands, which is fuelling the consistent refusal by the Rohingya to return.

Rather than offering constructive recommendations and a resolution framework, the report seems to be more focused on whitewashing the accusations of genocide faced by the Myanmar army.

While it has covered important aspects of the Rohingya after they are repatriated, including physical and material safety, it has overlooked critical factors like citizenship, equal rights, education and healthcare facilities that are essential to ensuring successful repatriation and rehabilitation.

Following the AHA Centre report, the ironic transformation of Ms Suu Kyi, once the embodiment of human rights advocacy and a former Nobel Peace Prize winner heightened when she bonded with Hungary’s openly anti-immigrant prime minister.

Once considered the “darling of the EU and the US”, Ms Suu Kyi today finds a common bond with Europe’s most controversial anti-migrant leader. Today, Mr Orban and Ms Suu Kyi are advocates of the growing cross-continental political faith movement that views Islam as a major threat. Both leaders agreed that they were facing challenges on how to “co-exist” with “continuously growing Muslim populations”.

They also pinpointed one of the common challenges facing their nations: migration. Human Rights Watch termed Ms Suu Kyi’s meeting as “glad-handing and making friends with Europe’s most xenophobic, anti-democratic leader”.

In light of these talks, Ms Suu Kyi’s insistence that Myanmar is taking steps to integrate the Rohingya falls miles too short and portrays a nationalist propaganda. One thing is for sure: The Rohingya refugee crisis is far from over and the sign that are emerging give very little hope to the world’s most persecuted minority.

As Asean’s image suffers because of this indefensible report, the Rohingya can only see a future of despondency as their hopes dwindle while the Myanmar military procrastinates and deceives.

As far as the Nobel laureate is concerned, her image is now that of an opportunistic politician who is the public face of a brutal regime, and a leader who represents values contrary to what she used to stand for in her golden days.

These politicians do indeed make strange bedfellows from whom misery often summons very little sympathy or support, as is the case with the Rohingya.