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2017: Year of the Rohingya

Jesmin Papri and Rohit Wadhwaney
Dhaka and New Delhi
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A Rohingya Muslim refugee stands outside a shelter inside the Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, Nov. 25, 2017.

Abdul Masood, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, worries that he may soon be forced to return to Myanmar, where, he alleges, the military killed his relatives and burned his entire village a few months ago.

Masood joined a massive influx of Rohingya Muslims who crossed into southeastern Bangladesh in 2017. They were fleeing violence and atrocities allegedly committed by the military and Buddhist militiamen in the neighboring Myanmar state of Rakhine, in a campaign that U.N. and U.S. officials branded as “ethnic cleansing.”

“If we are sent back, there is no hope for us. We will all be killed, or worse, tortured to death. Ask any Rohingya, and they will tell you they don’t want to go back, no matter the promises the Myanmar government makes regarding our safety,” Masood, 28, told BenarNews.

He and his wife and three children were among at least 655,000 Rohingya who escaped from Myanmar since late August as part of a refugee crisis that Bangladesh had never seen, although some 400,000 Rohingya were already sheltering in the southeast after having fled previous spasms of violence in Rakhine.

“We were certainly not ready for such an influx, but we have taken measures to the best of our ability,” Md. Shah Kamal, the secretary of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Management and Relief, told BenarNews. “But it would be unbearable for us it we had to continue this for long.”

The scale and pace of the latest influx led United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to describe it as the “world’s fastest developing refugee emergency, ” as he urged U.N. member-states in September to help avert a humanitarian disaster in Bangladesh, while he called on Myanmar to end its military crackdown in Rakhine.

The crackdown was provoked by raids against Myanmar police and army posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents on Aug. 25.

At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed during the first month of the crackdown in Myanmar, including 730 children under the age of 5, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

The victims died from being shot, burned inside their homes, beaten and other grisly causes between Aug. 25 and Sept. 24, the Geneva-based international NGO reported earlier this month.

“The numbers of deaths are likely to be an underestimation as we have not surveyed all refugee settlements in Bangladesh and because the surveys don’t account for the families who never made it out of Myanmar. We have heard reports of entire families who perished after they were locked inside their homes, while they were set alight,” Sidney Wong, MSF’s medical director, said.

Myanmar government officials have repeatedly denied such allegations and have blamed the violence on ARSA.

“In early September, [Myanmar] soldiers entered our village and ordered us to leave or get killed. They began firing indiscriminately, killing my mother, my father and two brothers, and several other villagers,” said Masood, who lives with his family in a makeshift hut at the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district.

“They then started setting each house on fire. Nothing was left of our village.”

Francis: ‘I ask for your forgiveness’

Such accounts from newly arrived refugees about alleged abuses carried out against Rohingya incensed Muslims and precipitated massive anti-Myanmar street demonstrations this year in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Islamic-majority countries.

The Rohingya, a stateless minority group, have for decades faced discrimination and persecution in Myanmar. The country has refused to grant them citizenship and its Buddhist majority refers to them pejoratively as “Bengalis,” or illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

In 2017, the plight of the Rohingya caught the attention of Pope Francis, who travelled to Myanmar and Bangladesh, where he had an emotional encounter in Dhaka with a group of Rohingya refugees.

“In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness,” the pontiff told the refugees during an interfaith gathering on Dec. 1. “I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”

BenarNews interviewed Masood two days after Bangladesh Health Minister Mohammed Nasim confirmed that, starting in January 2018, Myanmar would take back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees as part of a bilateral repatriation agreement that the two countries signed in November.

On Dec. 19, Bangladesh and Myanmar formed a joint working group (JWG) to oversee the voluntary repatriation of the displaced Muslim community.

But refugees like Masood said that they and their families would not feel safe, should they opt to go back.

“What is the guarantee that this will not happen again once we go back? After all, this violence against our community has gone on for several years. Suddenly, Myanmar is assuring us that we can return safely. It’s hard to believe,” Masood said.

Dead bodies of Rohingya Muslim refugees lie on the shore of Inani beach, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 28, 2017. [AFP]


Skepticism about repatriation deal

The repatriation deal inked between Bangladesh and Myanmar “looks more like a public relations effort by Burma to quickly close this ugly chapter,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report.

“Burma has yet to end its military abuses against the Rohingyas, let alone create conditions that would allow them to return home safely,” Frelick said.

Ajai Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), which has documented the repatriation of Rohingya since the early 1990s, agreed.

“Myanmar’s announcement to take back Rohingya is merely a stunt to ease mounting global pressure. Myanmar has never been serious about letting the Rohingya community settle on its soil,” Sahni told BenarNews

It was “highly unlikely” that the refugees would agree to return to Myanmar, where their villages had been reduced to ashes, he said.

A total of 236,495 Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar between 1992 and 2005, according to information on the website of the Myanmar State Counsellor’s website.

“Despite the repatriation and several assurances of keeping Rohingya safe, the violence and persecution against the community has never stopped,” Sahni said.

According to another analyst, a large majority of Rohingya would refuse to go back to Myanmar.

“But the reality is that Bangladesh has to maintain bilateral discussions with Myanmar, and at the same time maintain international relations to pressure Myanmar into ensuring the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya community,” Tarek Shamsur Rahman, professor of international relations at Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University, told BenarNews.

A former Bangladeshi foreign secretary, Mohiuddin Ahmed, predicted that the repatriation process would fail.

“Right since 1992, Myanmar’s conduct regarding the repatriation indicates they are not interested in it at all. This latest agreement was made only to avoid international pressure,” he told BenarNews.

Amin Masoodi in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.

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