On November 23, the civilian government of Myanmar and the government of Bangladesh signed a well advertised agreement to begin the resettlement of Rohingya refugees who have fled over the border to Bangladesh in the wake of the Myanmar army assaults on their villages since August. I have argued before that this was nothing more than a PR ploy by the government of Myanmar, and one with potentially dangerous consequences if the Bangladeshi authorities get over-zealous and start actively pushing individual refugees to accept the offer of resettlement.
Now, Human Rights Watch has obtained satellite footage indicating that the Myanmar Army was destroying villages as late as 2 December. It is as many of us in the international community have suspected: there was no serious intent to the resettlement offer from Myanmar.
In the most generous interpretation of events, this contradiction between the offer of resettlement extended to the Rohingya by the Myanmar government in the agreement, and the subsequent behaviour of Myanmar authorities in Rakhine state can be explained by the ongoing conflict between the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army establishment which maintains full autonomy from the government and claims a great proportion of the sovereignty of the ostensibly “democratic” state.
Agreements such as that signed with the civilian government of Myanmar allows Bangladesh to cling on to the “hope” that the Rohingya will one day stop being its problem.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But even under this most generous assumption, the civilian government must know it has no power to protect any of the Rohingya that still remain in Rakhine state, let alone any of the returning refugees. My contacts in Myanmar tell me that there is hardly any contact between them and the military leadership. They cannot possibly entertain the notion that they hold any sway over how the generals will conduct themselves towards the Rohingya. Their agreement with the government of Bangladesh is of no substance. So if they had any concern for the lives of the Rohingya, Ms Suu Kyi’s government would tell them to keep safely away in Bangladesh. Maybe even give Bangladesh financial compensation to help with providing facilities for the refugees.
Unfortunately, not only the conduct of the Myanmar military, but also the conduct of its civilian government do not support the generous interpretation. The casual way in which the civilian government is making grand offers of resettlement even as the military continues its assault on Rohingya settlements, shows that they have no real regard for Rohingya lives and safety. The rather more likely scenario is that the agreement signed with the government of Bangladesh was not intended for the Rohingya themselves: it was intended for the consumption of the local electorate in Bangladesh – which, of course, excludes the Rohingya –, and the consumption of the international media. Here are Aung San Suu Kyi, hero of Burmese democracy, and Sheikh Hasina, hero of this crisis, “sorting out” this humanitarian mess. Or so they would have us believe.
Doing damage to the Rohingya
The only saving grace of the agreement is that any resettlement is supposed to be voluntary. And the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazaar are sufficiently politically aware to know better than to take the offer of resettlement at its face value. They are not queuing up to fill in the resettlement forms offered by the Bangladesh authorities.
But the agreement nevertheless does damage to the Rohingya. In the wake of the massive influx of refugees since August – 655,000 and counting –, attitudes towards the Rohingya have hardened in Bangladesh. Increasing numbers of native people and certainly increasing numbers of politicians are loath to accept that the roughly 1 million Rohingya now in the country are no longer a “temporary problem”. That instead they are going to be a permanent part of Bangladesh and must start to be integrated into Bangladeshi society.
Agreements such as that signed with the civilian government of Myanmar allows Bangladesh to cling on to the “hope” that the Rohingya will one day stop being its problem. And this allows them to keep the Rohingya as a marginalised population. This is not good for the Rohingya. Hopefully, the leaders of Bangladesh will soon realise that both morality and pragmatism requires that they start embracing the Rohingya in their midst. Even if they do not seem to be there quite yet.
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
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