By Jim Della-Giacoma*
In signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Bangladesh on the return of Rohingya refugees, Myanmar portrayed the agreement as “a win-win situation for both countries” and a victory for neighbours resolving their differences without the interference of outsiders. But the deal may also reveal that wider conflicts are brewing.
Myanmar is on the defensive. The deal came one day after the US Secretary of State belatedly agreed it was “clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya”. The agreement is a diplomatic feint rather than a serious step forward in resolving this crisis that has seen more 700,000 refugees flee to Bangladesh since October 2016.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have a fractious relationship. The bonhomie of the text of the MOU (Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State) signed on 23 November is at odds with the decades of misunderstandings, mistrust, ill will and conflict on their border.
The displacement is driven by seven decades of discrimination. In the same week, Amnesty International accused Myanmar of creating a “system of discrimination (that) amounts to the crime against humanity of apartheid”. It is hard to believe that Myanmar will now “refrain from conceiving and implementing any policy which is discriminatory to any particular community” [MOU para 16]. Especially since Buddhist communities in Rakhine State are still allowed to blockade those Rohingya who remain.
The Rohingya are absent in the agreement. Their ethnic identity is at the core of this conflict. They need to be recognized not just as victims, but political actors too. It covers “returnees” as if the refugees were on a voluntary journey and did not flee in fear from violence and intimidation from the Tatmadaw and Rakhine Buddhist community. Those “who voluntarily wish to return to Myanmar themselves” [Para 6. (a) (ii)] will be hard to find. It also sets verification standards that many Rohingya, who have been kept deliberately undocumented for decades by Myanmar’s authorities, may find hard to meet.
The MOU rewrites history. By evoking the spirit of a 1992 agreement in its preamble, it forgets how more than 250,000 Rohingya were starved out of Bangladesh and forcefully repatriated with minimal international supervision once they returned. The pattern is set to repeat, as the MOU is vague on the role of the international community. Bangladesh wants UNHCR involved; Myanmar does not.
But times have changed. This repatriation will take place on Facebook. Resistance to it will be organized by short message. The insurgency is being led via WhatsApp. Every camp activist has a mobile phone with a camera and internet connection in their hand. When things get worse, the plight of the Rohingya will harder to ignore. Every action, reaction, and provocation will be transmitted at viral speed.
No rush to go home
The Rohingya cannot be forced to return. They have good reasons not to and need to be actively consulted. They are best placed to judge when Rakhine State is safe and secure. In the 1970s and 1990s, houses were left intact and some community members stayed behind. In 2017, the expulsion has been carried out with a brutality and deliberate thoroughness; whole villages have been cleared. Abandoned houses are still being burnt to the ground.
The MOU’s urgency is unrealistic. It proscribes a Joint Working Group will be established within three weeks [Para 11], arrangements for repatriation will be made in a “speedy” manner [Para 12], with returns within two months of signing [Para 13]. All this, as Rohingya refugees continue to cross the border.
The Agreement also hides new problems. The gravitational centre of the Rohingya community is now in Bangladesh, with more than one million Rohingya estimated within its borders. Community leaders guess that less than 200,000 may be left in northern Rakhine State. Dhaka is now managing a much more complex political and policy challenge.
Radical groups are setting the agenda. Islamist groups, such as Hefazat-e-Islam, have mobilized public opinion and pushed the Awami League to be more sympathetic to the plight of the persecuted Rohingya. They have taken with them mainstream thinking, which supports prioritizing keeping the Rohingya safe in Bangladesh rather than insecure in Myanmar. Host communities in the southeast, including the non-Muslim minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, resent the sudden surge of refugees on their doorstep and tensions are rising.
Rakhine State remains a hostile environment. It will remain so while Buddhist nationalists aligned with radical monks in Myanmar are adamant they do not want the Rohingya back. By prioritizing the wish of the local people as “the real citizens of Myanmar”, they have veto power over repatriation.
More conflict to come
The Arakan Rohinyga Salvation Army (ARSA) has not gone away. There is no ceasefire and no plan to surrender. They have not renounced violence as a means to achieve their twenty political aims. They may be, for now, the least well-armed on Asia’s many rebel armies, but the reflex of the Tatmadaw to over-react will amplify the impact of the next ARSA attack giving it added significance.
The insurgency is now based in Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw estimates ARSA membership is up to 10,000 strong and most have fled to the camps. They have already asked Bangladesh to hand over suspected “terrorists”, something radical and populist opinion will not allow. As they conduct cross border guerrilla warfare and use their support base in the camps, then this will ignite a more violent bilateral conflict. Bangladesh security forces already anticipate border clashes; worse may follow. Bangladeshis are riled and want to stand up to Myanmar.
In the past, the Rohingya have waited, integrated, or migrated. More than 30,000 registered refugees never went back after fleeing in the 1990s, preferring life in a “hellhole” with the slim prospect third country resettlement than return. Another 300,000 “unregistered Myanmar nationals” were thought to have also stayed in Bangladesh, but a recent census found less than half that number. They balance had bought ID cards and integrated; illegally procured passports or passage to seek jobs abroad.
Radicalism is close at hand rather than far away. The refugees will be targets for influence and control. ARSA will not have trouble recruiting supporters and neither will Hefazat-e-Islam, based in the southeast. As Bangladesh heads towards the polls before January 2019, the Rohingya’s plight will be an election issue. While the fears of outside extremists are not irrational, there is not yet any evidence of significant involvement of regional or international groups in this ethno-religious insurgency.
What can middle powers do? With Bangladesh’s neighbours picking sides, there is a role for other friends to mitigate bilateral conflict and keep Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw talking in tense times. On the Bangladesh side, conflict mitigation might look like increased support for host communities and better living condition for refugees, including housing stock that could survive the annual monsoon. In the camps, the Rohingya need an organized voice and non-violent political options, something they have been denied in Myanmar. Sustained international pressure needs to make the Tatmadaw think twice about again using excessive force against all its ethnic armed groups. In Myanmar, support for the established peace process is the best route to make the country begin to respect all ethnicities and religions. If this difficult goal starts to succeed, then one day the Rohingya may return to benefit from a truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious Myanmar.
*Jim Della-Giacoma is a member of Abt Associates PGF Technical Assistance Panel, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at NYU, and a former South-East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group.