On the morning of February 1, Myanmar’s all-powerful Tatmadaw detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior figures from the governing party, National League for Democracy (NLD), seizing power in a coup less than 10 years after it handed over power to a civilian government. Hours after the detention of Suu Kyi, Myanmar's army declared a yearlong state of emergency and said power had been handed to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing.
The worst fears of an army takeover, open talk of which were going around for some time after the elections in November, has come true, spelling doom to the prospect of democracy for the time being and throwing the country into long spell of instability and uncertainty. Even while protesting, demonstrations and open defiance of the military takeover are taking place in major cities of Myanmar together with strongest international condemnation and the threat of sanctions hanging like Damocles sword. Knowing the pathology of Myanmar military, its past records, socio-political orientation, particularly its view as the guardian of the state, it will not cut much ice with Min Hlaing, who, along with the corporate interests of the military, has his own motivation to stay in power. Min Hlaing was to retire in a couple of months with the prospect of going into oblivion as a general without the command of the army.
This is a concern for Bangladesh more than any other country. First of all, the sudden shift in power in Myanmar has pushed its Rohingya repatriation agreement with the country into uncertain grounds. It was recently agreed upon by Myanmar to start repatriation of the Rohingya back to the country in June 2021. Bangladesh wanted the repatriation to start from March 2021, but due to Myanmar's request, it had been delayed to the second quarter of the year. "We pushed [sic] to initiate the repatriation in the first quarter, but Myanmar sought more time for logistical arrangements and some physical arrangements. So we asked to start repatriation in the second quarter, and they agreed on it," Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said with regard to the agreement. In a statement issued late last year, Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation and reaffirmed Myanmar's readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements."
While the response of the Myanmar military was brutal and disproportionate to the attack by the Rohingya insurgents in 2017, the international community's response, particularly the Western and Muslim countries and their intense criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to stand up against the army crackdown and to protect the human rights of the Rohingyas, is also disproportionate. Undoubtedly, the Myanmar government bears the responsibility for mass exodus and dislocation of almost 1 million Rohingyas and they would have to do their utmost to rehabilitate them. Critics, however, fail to understand the military-civilian relations and other complexities of Myanmar politics where issues like ethnicity, history, and cultural identity are key ingredients of legitimacy. Myanmar authorities are loathe to recognize the Rohingyas as a separate ethnic group which would automatically entitle them for a separate state, as Burmes states are formed on the basis of ethnicity. More importantly, given the concentration of the Rohingyas next to Bangladesh, Myanmar - being a Buddhist majority country - will never accept them as an ethnic entity. Let us also not forget that in 1948 at the time of independence of Burma, the Rohingyas wanted to join Pakistan, and tried hard for it.
Bangladesh had reluctantly taken in Rohingya refugees, who now number around 1 million in border camps, but had been in negotiations with Myanmar for their repatriation. In a statement after the coup, the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed hope those negotiations would continue. It was reported on Feb. 3 that the government has tightened border controls to prevent more Rohingya refugees from entering the country. The Bangladesh government began relocating the refugees to a remote island, Bhasan Char, in the Bay of Bengal in December 2020, citing security issues. A total of 5,000 refugees have been sent there so far -- the goal is to transfer a total of 100,000 people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concerns about this move after some Rohingya said they were being forced to migrate.
While the international community has praised Bangladesh's generosity towards the Rohingya refugees, they have done little to ensure their safe repatriation back to their homeland. Now with the military in power, the international community can do even less in this regard. Bangladesh, however, as the host of the Rohingya, must now be more vigilant in its repatriation discussions and processes with the new Myanmar government. While it needs to push for the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingya as per the previous agreement—from the second quarter of 2021—it also needs to make sure that policies and mechanisms are in place to monitor how the Rohingya are treated once they are taken back.
The repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar from camps in neighbouring Bangladesh is becoming increasingly difficult as the military tightens its grip on the country after overthrowing the elected government on Feb. 1. Rohingya Muslims were driven out of Rakhine State in August 2017 by the military, attacked them and torched their villages. Army generals do not consider the persecution of the Rohingya a crime and are opposed to an international tribunal seeking to indict those responsible. Rohingya refugees, who are stateless despite having settled in Rakhine State for many generations, feel their safety will not be guaranteed after repatriation. Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to encourage the Rohingya to return voluntarily, but few refugees are willing to do so. Buddhists are the majority in Myanmar. The International Criminal Court in The Hague announced in November 2019 that it would launch a formal investigation into the persecution of the Rohingya and in September last year, it arrested two soldiers. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander-in-chief, may also be held accountable.
Undoubtedly Myanmar state needs to address the issue with empathy and urgency so that their repatriation back to their home country gets facilitated at the earliest and to see that peace returns to the Rakhine area. If the military ruler is cordial only then situation in Myanmar will be stable and Rohingya repatriation will be easier. The peace loving people in the world do not want no more torture and miseries of homeless Rohingya people. We hope, problem will be solved and it would be revisited and addressed by military administration.
The writer is former DDG of Ansar & VDP.