Myanmar’s Disingenuous Activities Regarding Rohingya Repatriation

Three key excerpts from Myanmar State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at 43rd Singapore Lecture in Singapore on 21 August 2018 are as follows:

  1. ‘The returnees have to be sent back by Bangladesh. We can only welcome them at the border.’
  2. ‘Bangladesh would also have to decide how quickly they want the process to be completed.’
  3. ‘We have been ready to receive them [i.e. the Rohingyas] since the 23rd of January [of 2018], in accordance with the MOU that was signed last November [of 2017].’

The aforementioned statements clearly illustrate the diplomatic and rhetorical strategy that Myanmar is employing to shift the blame from itself to Bangladesh for the delay in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, all the while disregarding the pertinent issues of justice for the atrocities, the creation of an atmosphere that would incentivise the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas and guaranteeing the restitution of their rights and properties.

Her statements regarding the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees indicate; albeit quite disingenuously, that Myanmar has always been ready to welcome back the Rohingyas; even though she and the entire State apparatus refuses to call them by their ethnic name, and that the delay in the repatriation process is Bangladesh’s fault, but she does not go into further detail or explanation as to why and how is Bangladesh delaying the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with Myanmar on the issue of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

It seems Myanmar is trying to diplomatically; at least rhetorically, outmanoeuvre Bangladesh on the issue of the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees and trounce the calls for justice of the atrocities committed in Rakhine in and after August 2017. It is high time that Bangladesh toughen its stance on the issue of repatriation and adopt appropriate measures to diplomatically and legally refute Myanmar’s distorting rhetoric and to pressure it to perform its stated obligation vis-à-vis the Rohingyas.

Towards that end, Bangladesh should issue statements refuting and rectifying the claims and facts stated by Aung San Suu Kyi in her speech in Singapore on 21 August 2018; by highlighting the inconsistencies and misrepresentations, and the actual situation regarding the repatriation process. It is feared that Bangladesh’s silence and non-refutation of such false claims and misrepresentations by Myanmar may release Myanmar from international scrutiny and pressure and thereby, transfer the blame for the lack of visible progress on the repatriation front, on Bangladesh.

Silence also renders credibility to Myanmar’s claims that, since 23 January 2018, it has been acting in good faith and is doing or has done everything necessary from its end to initiate the ‘voluntary, safe, and dignified’ repatriation of the Rohingyas; which is not the case as has been evidenced by numerous reports and human rights organisations. Furthermore, it is estimated that, every single day, on average, Bangladesh is spending two million US dollars; discounting the foreign aid, on sheltering the Rohingya refugees. Thus, it is very much in Bangladesh’s interest to speed up the process of repatriation and it further strengthens the argument for Bangladesh’s claim for reparations from Myanmar in the future.

Recently, at the behest of Myanmar, Bangladesh has agreed to change the terminology it is using to describe the Rohingya refugees in the identity cards that are being issued to the refugees from ‘Myanmar nationals’ to ’displaced persons from Rakhine State’. This alteration, though as cosmetic as it may seem, indicates that Myanmar does not intend to recognise the Rohingyas as citizens nor does it intend on granting them citizenship rights. Considering the fact that granting of citizenship rights is a necessary precondition for voluntary repatriation according to the Rohingya refugees. Therefore, by not guaranteeing citizenship rights to the Rohingyas, Myanmar, is in fact, diminishing if not ending the prospect of the Rohingya’s voluntary repatriation. Bangladesh, by agreeing to such an alteration; whatever may have been the reason behind it, may have granted legitimacy to Myanmar’s claims, and impaired its own interests in the quick and voluntary repatriation of the refugees.

Stacking on the pre-existing fears and concerns, the Human Rights Watch has recently published a report alleging that many Rohingya returnees have been tortured and forced to confess that they are or were members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) by the Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP). Nonetheless, Myanmar expects that the international community would deem the State Chancellor’s statements and consequently, the State’s intentions, to be honest, sincere, and founded on good faith. However, the reality may be the exact opposite. It is feared that Myanmar is only playing for time, awaiting the moment the international community loses interest in the Rohingyas and moves on to the next ensuing humanitarian crisis.

A version of this article was originally published in The Diplomat Magazine on 28th August 2018. It is available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/myanmar-remains-disingenuous-when-it-comes-to-rohingya-repatriation/