Will the Rohingya ever return to Myanmar?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The idea that the Rohingya may yet return to Myanmar when the offensive against them in Rakhine state by the Myanmar military stops is being kept alive by at least some. The authorities in Bangladesh certainly seem to hope this will happen, and they use this hope to avoid giving full refugee status to many of those coming across the border from Myanmar.

And Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government in Myanmar also like to assert that the Rohingya may return: just so long as they can prove ancestry in Myanmar going back to before 1824.

Yes, you read that right: they mean two hundred years ago. The civilian government of Myanmar has long fully embraced the rhetoric, which is used to justify the ongoing ethnic cleansing. Namely, the notion that the Rohingya are a “foreign” population from Bangladesh, illegitimately imported into Burmese lands during the dominion of the British empire in the region.

But if some in this community just happen to have a paper trail proving their ancestry in the region traces back to before the first British-Burmese war, Myanmar is happy to provide them with accommodation in specially built camps.

For all the “earnestness” with which Ms Suu Kyi protests that the Rohingya can return to Myanmar, I have been unable to find any reference to the scale of these proposed resettlement camps

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Genealogy and ancestry

Needless to say, most Rohingya do not have documentation for their own lifetimes, let alone genealogies tracing back their ancestry. And this is mostly courtesy of the Myanmar authorities themselves, who have done their best to seize and destroy Rohingya residency documents every time there has been a flaring up of violence and a consequent crackdown. The “judicious” offer is worthless in practice.

Or, to be precise, worse than worthless. You might think that if a people are driven out of their homes and their lands, they might be entitled to at least get their property back – to say nothing of compensation. But no, the land has largely already been seized and redistributed, as have the livestock and property left behind by the refugees.

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Instead, the “lucky” few Rohingya who are entitled to return to the country of their birth can look forward to leaving the refugee camps in Bangladesh to return to camps in Myanmar.

Why they might want to do that is the real mystery. Why would anyone chose to go from being dispossessed in a refugee camp in a country that is wearily welcoming to being dispossessed in a camp run by the very people who were trying to kill you and your family in the first place, in a country that has made you stateless from birth?

Serious proposition

Other aspects of this story illuminate just how serious a proposition this is coming from Myanmar. So far, well over 600,000 people have been displaced just since August.

A reasonable question might be: how many people will these proposed camps be able to accommodate? Is the government of Myanmar seriously proposing to build accommodation for all the people who have been dispossessed by their assault on Rakhine state? Or is this just a token gesture, of no practical significance? Clearly there is a difference between proposing to build accommodation for half a million people and to build for a few thousand.

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For all the “earnestness” with which Ms Suu Kyi protests that the Rohingya can return to Myanmar, I have been unable to find any reference to the scale of these proposed resettlement camps. None of my contacts on the ground have the faintest idea. Nor does anyone in the international diplomatic circles, which would be an odd omission if this were a serious policy proposal.

But it is not. It is an empty rhetorical gesture from a morally bankrupt leader and government. They know the truth: the Rohingya will not return to Myanmar. And that suits them just fine.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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