Bangladesh Relying on World Community to Press Myanmar Junta on Rohingya Repatriation

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Sunil Barua
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Bangladesh Relying on World Community to Press Myanmar Junta on Rohingya Repatriation Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement setup in a “no man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018.

Bangladesh is counting on the international community to pressure Myanmar into repatriating more than 1 million Rohingya refugees, after the Burmese junta chief said that Naypyidaw does not recognize them as citizens, a senior lawmaker told BenarNews on Tuesday.

In clips posted on social media a day earlier, Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing was seen telling a Chinese television channel that his country would not repatriate people whom it does not consider as citizens under the law.

Faruk Khan, a Bangladeshi MP who chairs the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he had heard these comments.

“Myanmar will not agree to take the Rohingya back, but if we can mobilize Chinese support and put international pressure through regional groupings such as ASEAN, Myanmar will take back their people,” Khan told BenarNews, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“We have to be bilaterally engaged with Myanmar and work with the international communities to make the Rohingya repatriation a reality. And we are working in line with this plan,” he said.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed concern to the visiting president of the United Nations General Assembly about how the Feb. 1 military coup in the neighboring country and its aftermath had affected the prospect of repatriating the Rohingya.

“The situation has become uncertain due to the recent developments in Myanmar,” she told Volkan Bozkir on the first day of his two-day visit to Bangladesh, which includes a scheduled trip to Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.

In television clips posted on social media Monday, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing said that after Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the census had used the words “Bengali,” “Pakistani,” and “Chittagong” for the ethnic Muslim minority, but never the word “Rohingya.”

“Thus we never accepted it,” Min Aung Hlaing told a Chinese TV station, in what was likely the general’s first publicized interview since he led a coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.

Successive Burmese administrations have referred to the Rohingya as Bangladeshi or Bengali to emphasize that the community did not originally belong to what is now called Myanmar, and is not officially recognized as an ethnic group.

When asked whether the Rohingya could be accepted back to live in Rakhine state with preconditions, Min Aung Hlaing indicated they probably would not be.

“If it [repatriation] doesn’t comply with Myanmar’s laws, what else is there to consider? I don’t believe there is any country in the world that would go beyond their own country’s refugee laws to accept refugees,” he said.

‘No possibility of resuming the tripartite talks’

Bangladesh has had no contact with the Myanmar military – on the repatriation issue or otherwise – since the latter mounted the coup in February, a senior Bangladeshi foreign ministry official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, told BenarNews.

Dhaka’s last engagement with Naypyidaw was on Jan. 19, in Beijing-brokered virtual trilateral talks. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government, elected last November, was in power.

Dhaka then urged Myanmar to create conditions in which refugees would agree to return.

The two sides tentatively discussed a fresh attempt to begin repatriation in the second quarter of this year, though it was not immediately clear what guarantees Rohingya would receive about their safety and livelihood under the plan.

Less than a month later, the NLD government was overthrown.

While Beijing told Dhaka last Friday that it was “appropriately addressing” Bangladesh’s desire to resume Rohingya repatriation talks, China’s ambassador to the South Asian nation earlier this month gave what appeared to be a more realistic assessment.

“We have lost contact in Myanmar on the Rohingya issue as the situation in Myanmar is not normal now. Bangladesh is also unable to communicate,” envoy Li Jiming said on May 10, in a virtual address to diplomatic correspondents in Dhaka.

“There are no signs of improvement in the situation. We have no choice but to be patient. We see no possibility of resuming the tripartite talks in the near future.”

Bangladesh knew this was the case a month after the Myanmar military coup, as the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs urged the foreign ministry to look to other nations to continue with talks about sending the Rohingya back.

The committee said “not to depend on the Myanmar’s military government for Rohingya repatriation, and expedite the diplomatic efforts to put more international pressure on Myanmar,” according to the minutes of its March 10 meeting obtained by BenarNews.

In late 2017, both Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to begin the process of the voluntary Rohingya repatriation but that never took off partly because refugees were reluctant to return to what they described as a hostile environment in their Rakhine state.

‘They never want that the Rohingya return’

The latest developments – especially Min Aung Hlaing’s comments – have not surprised the Rohingya refugees, more than a million of whom live in camps in Cox’s Bazar.

The Rohingya know all too well about violence and persecution by Myanmar’s military. And they are very familiar with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

In August 2017, the Myanmar military under his leadership launched an offensive against the Rohingya that the U.N. later described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“The comments by the Myanmar military chief about Rohingya repatriation are not new. This is a continuation of their previous statements. They never want that the Rohingya return to their homeland in Myanmar,” Md. Rafiq, a camp leader, told BenarNews.

“True repatriation would only begin when the U.N. and the international community remain fully engaged. We would not return to Rakhine unprotected. We will go back once our nationality is returned and safety and security are guaranteed.”

For Master Md. Ilias, another refugee leader, it makes no difference whether Myanmar is military- or civil-controlled.

“We believe neither the Myanmar military nor [Aung San] Suu Kyi – they are two sides of the same coin. They would not protect the interests of the Rohingya; they will not accept the Rohingya. The only option we have is the international community,” Ilias told BenarNews.


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