In early March, Myanmar’s military junta took diplomats from Bangladesh, India, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to Maungdaw and Sittwe in Rakhine state, on the country’s western coast, to show apparent preparations to begin repatriation of the Rohingya. The diplomats were told that the Myanmar authorities want to start piloting the repatriation process soon, but without any clear date given.
One may recall that in November 2017, months after a military crackdown on the Rohingya drove vast numbers of them out of Rakhine, Myanmar’s civilian government of the time, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh for repatriating what it called “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals”. Bangladesh was then grappling with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who had poured in across the border from Rakhine; their number in Bangladesh now is more than one million. China mediated that bilateral deal to help Myanmar, an ally, temper the immediate global backlash to the crackdown. Since then, China has been arguing at the United Nations and other international fora that, instead of sanctions and accountability mechanisms to discipline Myanmar officials for their actions, the Rohingya issue should be left to the bilateral level. According to the 2017 accord, the deadline stipulated by Bangladesh and Myanmar to complete the first phase of the repatriation process was within 2018 – but that passed without any progress. In 2019, another Chinese attempt to persuade Myanmar to resume Rohingya repatriation ended in failure.
Six years after the failed bilateral deal, it seems China has now made a third bid at mediating repatriation. This time, however, Myanmar is under the full control of its powerful military, which has removed the civilian administration. The military seized power in February 2021 and nullified a democratic election, setting the country on a course of internal strife and armed rebellion that has left thousands dead and displaced over 1.5 million people. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the victor of the nullified election, formed a government in exile – named the National Unity Government (NUG) – that has been recognised by many Western governments. These developments, somehow, have changed the priorities of the international community, making the restoration of democracy in Myanmar supersede resolving the plight of the Rohingya. But there is a silver lining to all of this. The NLD, which bears significant responsibility for pursuing discriminatory policies against the Rohingya, has admitted its mistake and promised full citizenship rights to them. A UN fact-finding mission in 2019, when the NLD was in power, concluded that the evidence pointed to “genocidal intent” on the part of the Myanmar state.
A path home
The latest show of the Myanmar junta’s willingness to start Rohingya repatriation comes at a time when the United States has stepped up its push for stronger and coordinated global action against the military regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces. Some analysts suggest that the junta’s pilot scheme for repatriation might be an attempt to deflect the US-led initiative for restoration of democracy. On 1 February, marking the second anniversary of the junta’s seizure of power, Washington expanded its sanctions list to include six individuals and three entities linked to the regime’s efforts to generate revenue and procure arms. The list now includes the senior leadership of the country’s ministry of energy, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, the Myanmar air force and its election commission. In March, the United States announced further sanctions on three private businesses linked to the junta, and a ban on supplying jet fuel to the regime. Similar punitive action, at varying levels, has been imposed by Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
According to the EU, a total of 93 individuals and 18 entities currently face restrictive measures. These include asset freezes and travel bans that prevent entry to or transit through EU territory. In addition, EU citizens and entities are prohibited from making funds available to those listed. Besides an embargo on providing arms and equipment – including equipment for monitoring communications, which might be used for internal repression – there is also an export ban on dual-use goods, meaning those that can be used by the Myanmar military and border police.
These developments, somehow, have changed the priorities of the international community, making the restoration of democracy in Myanmar supersede resolving the plight of the Rohingya.
This renewed pressure from Western countries followed a UN Security Council resolution, adopted on 21 December 2022, denouncing the Myanmar military’s rights violations since the 2021 coup. Until this, there had not been a Security Council resolution on Myanmar since it gained independence in 1948. It was also the first Security Council resolution that did not face a veto from either China or Russia, which had until now resisted any harsh criticism of Myanmar, even for its genocidal campaign against the minority Rohingya. India, then part of the Security Council as an elected non-permanent member, abstained, like on previous occasions. Many observers welcomed the resolution, saying it reflected the Myanmar junta’s growing isolation as a result of the abuses by its security force, amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Expressing “deep concern” at the continuing state of emergency since the military seized power and the “grave impact” of the coup on Myanmar’s people, the resolution urged “concrete and immediate actions” towards implementing a peace plan put forward by the ASEAN countries. The resolution followed a call by ASEAN a month earlier, at a summit in Phnom Penh, for support in its efforts to implement the Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar agreed by the organisation in April 2021. That consensus called for an immediate cessation of violence, dialogue between all parties concerned to seek a peaceful resolution, a special ASEAN envoy to mediate this dialogue, a visit to Myanmar by the envoy and a delegation, and humanitarian assistance for Myanmar’s population. The junta had initially endorsed the consensus but then quickly backtracked, stating that it would consider “suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability.”
At the Phnom Penh summit, ASEAN delegates expressed frustration over Myanmar’s failure in implementing the consensus. Reaffirming a commitment to find “a peaceful and durable solution”, it issued an unusually strong message to the Myanmar junta by saying “it is therefore incumbent on the Myanmar Armed Forces to comply with its commitments to the ASEAN Leaders.”
The consensus was drawn up with the aim of resolving the violent power struggle between the junta and the NUG, and did not specifically address the Rohingya crisis. But at the same meeting where the consensus was signed, the summit chair’s statement separately mentioned the Rohingya – described as “displaced people of Rakhine” – and emphasised implementing Myanmar’s bilateral agreement with Bangladesh for commencing the repatriation process.
It is evident that a new wave of sanctions and diplomatic actions against the junta was choreographed after US President Joe Biden signed into law the BURMA Act in December 2022. This act – the full form reads “Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability” – calls for the US government’s support for those opposing the military junta, and explicitly mentions the National Unity Government. It also authorises non-lethal assistance to Myanmar’s ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which have been actively fighting the military regime. Michael Martin, an adjunct fellow with the Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has written that the act’s “authorization of ‘non-lethal assistance’ provides the Biden administration with the opportunity to adopt a more liberal interpretation of what forms of military aid it can provide to the EAOs and PDFs. In Syria and Ukraine, for example, ‘non-lethal assistance’ allowed the provision of uniforms, protective armor, armored military vehicles, radar equipment and medical equipment and supplies.”
The BURMA Act has been widely welcomed by Myanmar’s dissident groups, and a senior representative of the NUG, Zaw Wai Soe, expressed the government-in-exile’s gratitude at a recent colloquium in Dhaka on the impacts of the act on Bangladesh-Myanmar border and the surrounding region. Soon after its formation, the NUG pledged official recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Myanmar and promised their peaceful and full repatriation.
But the BURMA Act seems to have unnerved Myanmar’s neighbours, including Bangladesh. Some security experts have expressed concerns over the likelihood that Myanmar’s conflicts will spill over into bordering areas of Bangladesh as emboldened anti-junta groups expand their footprint and operations. Bangladesh officially raised the issue with the United States when a senior US official visited Dhaka in February, and was assured that the BURMA Act would not contribute to any regional violence affecting Bangladesh.
The latest show of the Myanmar junta’s willingness to start Rohingya repatriation comes at a time when the United States has stepped up its push for stronger and coordinated global action against the military regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces.
It seems that while the main priority of the United States and its allies is the restoration of democracy and ensuring accountability of the military regime’s leaders, a sense of abandonment is growing among Rohingya refugees and their host community and government in Bangladesh. As several other conflicts and calamities across the world demand aid – in particular, Russian aggression in Ukraine – there is dwindling international assistance for the Rohingya. In February, the World Food Programme announced reduced aid for the Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, down to USD 10 per person per month from USD 12 earlier. The WFP has said it faces a shortfall of USD 125 million in funds to support the Rohingya. Separately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its partners have appealed for USD 876 million this year, warning that almost half of the Rohingya families are not eating a sufficient diet due to reduced rations, and that malnutrition is rampant among the refugees.
Due to restrictions on movement and local employment, working-age Rohingya are becoming increasingly restless. Lack of opportunity and uncertain futures have led many Rohingya to fall prey to human traffickers. Recent UNHCR data shows that more than 3500 Rohingya took to sea in 2022, making risky journeys in search of better lives. This represents a rise of approximately 360 percent compared to 2021 of the numbers taking this desperate measure. About 350 of those who took to sea in 2022 either died or went missing. It should be noted that not all those making these journeys are from the camps in Bangladesh – some of them are also taking to sea from Myanmar. Boats filled with fleeing Rohingya have caused headaches for India, Sri Lanka and many ASEAN countries, which have been facing increased criticism from humanitarian groups for not allowing them to land on their shores or detaining them on arrival.
Reports in the media suggest some Rohingya youth have been drawn either to armed groups like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, or to the crossborder drug trade. Myanmar is a major source of illegal narcotics, and the area around Chittagong in Bangladesh, which is also home to the Rohingya camps, has allegedly become a drug hub. Some militant groups are also accused of profiting from this illegal trade. Rivalries among these groups, which often turn deadly, have become a serious problem for Bangladesh authorities. An official investigation into a recent blaze which devastated part of the largest refugee camp concluded that it was a “planned and purposeful act of sabotage” to take control of the camp.
While the main priority of the United States and its allies is the restoration of democracy and ensuring accountability of the military regime’s leaders, a sense of abandonment is growing among Rohingya refugees.
Meanwhile, some observers have pointed out signs of cooperation and increased coordination between Myanmar’s military and Bangladesh’s armed forces in recent times. Quoting leaked meeting minutes of the Myanmar home ministry’s Central Committee for Counter-Terrorism, Shafiur Rahman, an analyst on Rohingya affairs, wrote that the document revealed previously undisclosed collaboration between Bangladesh and Myanmar in dealing with ARSA. One plausible explanation for such cooperation on Bangladesh’s part would be to encourage the Rohingya to agree to return to Myanmar without resolving the citizenship question. Even a symbolic resumption of repatriation would certainly help Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in the country’s next general election, due around the turn of the year. Diplomatic sources say a start to repatriation would also help China consolidate its influence in the region.
Despite the military junta’s sudden display of preparations for piloting the repatriation process, there’s little sign that the Rohingya will be so easily persuaded to return. There are more than 600,000 Rohingya still living in Rakhine in oppressive conditions, without free movement or basic amenities. Casting serious doubt over the junta’s sincerity, many Myanmar watchers say that this is a desperate attempt by the military regime to ease some of the pressure it is facing. It should be noted that Myanmar has until 24 April to submit its counter-memorial in an ongoing case mounted by the Gambia at the International Court of Justice, accusing it of committing genocide. At previous hearings, Myanmar has cited the bilateral agreement with Bangladesh for the possible resumption of repatriation as a reason for not entertaining the Gambia’s application. Could this be another attempt to prepare such a legal cover?
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.