It is clear that Myanmar wants to deflect international pressure. The details of the criteria for the return of the Rohingya refugees have not yet been spelt out; nor is there any clarity on the legal status of Rohingyas upon return, or any guarantee that they will not be subjected to further violence.
The Rohingya issue has affected bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Almost a million refugees have fled across the border into Bangladesh. The crisis has drawn in neighbours — China and India — and other major powers. Human rights groups and various countries have accused Myanmar of ‘ethnic cleansing’. While Bangladesh is receiving aid from some countries and global humanitarian organisations, it does not want the refugees to settle permanently in its territory. The recent agreement is the first step towards this objective and is modelled on an earlier agreement in 1992-93, when Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh after a bout of violence against them.
The agreement deals with the terms for the return of the refugees. It has a provision for a joint working group and the repatriation of refugees was expected to begin soon. There is no clarity on timelines; the agreement merely says that repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner. A Myanmar government official has indicated that repatriation can start after Bangladesh completes documentation and begins handing it over to Myanmar.
It is clear that Myanmar wants to deflect international pressure and has opted for the bilateral route. The details of the criteria for the return of the refugees have not yet been spelt out. Nor is there any clarity on the legal status of Rohingyas upon return or any guarantee that they will not be subjected to further violence. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has said that it would be better not to internationalise the issue. Beijing’s mediation effort with the three-step formula is meant to leverage the Rohingya crisis for its own objectives.
The Myanmar military has been accused of atrocities, including mass rape and killings, during counter-insurgency operations against Rohingya militants in northern Rakhine last August. Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, under international pressure and caught between international and domestic opinions, has tried to navigate between them.
Statements by Myanmar’s army chief indicate that the military will restrict the numbers which may eventually be allowed to return. The Rohingyas are referred to as Bengalis in Myanmar and considered illegal immigrants. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law did not give them full citizenship rights. There is opposition from the largely Buddhist population in Rakhine to their return. Myanmar’s official media continue to refer to the Rohingya militants and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as “Bengali terrorists” and Suu Kyi has guardedly referred to unchecked Muslim immigration swamping a largely Buddhist nation. The radical Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, too, backs the military in its defiance of international norms.
China, initially, supported Myanmar but later busied itself in mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar when it realised Bangladesh was unhappy with its partisan posturing. China’s principal strategic objective in Myanmar is to obtain access to the Bay of Bengal. It already has a gas and a separate oil pipeline running from the port of Kyaukpyu to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. It plans to build a special economic zone and a mega port at Kyaukpyu.
India also had to change track from its initial ambivalence after the magnitude of the crisis became apparent and Bangladesh, a friendly neighbour, expressed its anguish at India’s lack of a clear position. Both China and India have interests in Myanmar where the military remains the power centre. This explains the Indian reluctance in condemning the violence. India, however, had to quickly shift policy gears to find ways of assuaging Bangladesh’s feelings. Humanitarian aid to the Rohingya refugees and behind-the-scene engagement with the Myanmar military became the two prongs of this changed policy.
India has engaged the Myanmar military for joint exercises and training. India needs its cooperation in dealing with Indian insurgent groups which have camps in Myanmar and for progress in two connectivity projects — the Kaladan multimodal project, which connects Mizoram with the port at Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine province, and the trilateral highway project, linking India with Myanmar and Thailand. These projects are crucial to the success of India’s Act East Policy.
Western powers did not consider sanctions. Only after the visit of the American secretary of state to Myanmar recently has there been talk of “accountability” and specific sanctions against military authorities involved in the violence. The pope, during his recent visit to Myanmar, avoided using the term, Rohingya, because of the country’s opposition. At the Manila Summit, the statement of the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not refer to the Rohingya issue. The ASEAN is worried about a cleavage developing between its main Muslim majority countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — and largely Buddhist countries — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the flagbearer of Islamic countries, has again proven to be quite incapable of resolving the issue.
The Rohingyas have become the world’s most unwanted people and the future looks quite bleak. Myanmar is unlikely to take back most of the refugees and Bangladesh will have to resettle them in new refugee camps and hope other countries will ease the burden by accepting some refugees.
This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.