Myanmar and Bangladesh Agrees on Repatriation Timeline
On Tuesday, the Myanmar government and the Bangladesh government agreed on a repatriation timeframe to return 1,500 refugees every week. Bangladesh hopes to return all of the refugees in two years. However, it will take ten years with this quota.
A number of refugees and aid group officials express concern over the repatriation. Sirajul Mostofa, a Rohingya community leader said in a BBC interview: “Our first priority is, they have to grant us citizenship as Rohingyas. Secondly, they have to give back our lands. Thirdly, our security must be ensured internationally.” UN High Commissioner for Refugees stressed that refugees must only return when they feel that it is safe to return. Non-Muslim population in the Rakhine state have vowed to fight against such large-scale refugee return.
In the Rakhine state, two transit camps are under construction, which will accommodate 30,000 people returning from Bangladesh—mostly the non-Muslim population. From 2016 to 2017, more than 740,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh, majority of them Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine state secretary U Tin Maung Swe commented, “the returnees will build their home by themselves.”
Many Rohingyas’ homes were burned down during the military crackdowns that the United Nations called, “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Among the militants were Buddhist nationalist mobs who torched their homes in the villages.
In the Rakhine state, there are social tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority. On the same day the repatriation agreement was signed, 5,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists clashed with police authorities after a celebration of ancient Buddhist Arakan kingdom. Seven protesters were shot dead by the police, and 13 were injured. The ethnic Rakhine called Rohingyas illegal “Bengali” immigrants to a Buddhist land. There is also tension between ethnic Rakhine and the ethnic Bamar majority in Myanmar.
Violence by the ethnic Rakhine became more radical after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked three police outposts in Oct 2016. ARSA is a militant group that consists of Rohingya Muslims. ARSA says they are serving the interest of Rohingyas. The group’s leader said in a video that their purpose is “to send a message that if the violence is not stopped, we have the right to defend ourselves” because “for seventy five years, there have been various crimes and atrocities committed against the Rohingyas.” Rohingyas have refrained from such violence in the past, and many blame ARSA’s actions that incited the military crackdown.
The Myanmar government classifies ARSA as a terrorist organization who wants to spread Islamic rule. However, there is no evidence that the group is linked to local or international extremists. According to Maung Zarni, an adviser to the European Center for the Study Extremism, “systematic abuses of genocidal proportions” by the authorities in the past had given birth to the group.
Foreign secretary U Myint Thu says repatriation will begin on Jan. 23, 2018. The current agreement only addresses refugees who fled Myanmar after Oct. 2016 and August 2017 militant attack on police outposts, and does not mention Rohingyas who fled the country before these events.