by Yali Banton-Heath

New discussions have been taking place about the future of the displaced Rohingya population in Bangladesh, and their potential repatriation journey back over the border to Myanmar. The progression of the repatriation process however, as the UN has reiterated, remains frustratingly slow. A lack of guarantees, respect, and honesty on the Burmese government’s part is maintaining a firm unwillingness among Rohingya community leaders to make the decision to return home. But the Rohingya are not the only displaced minority demanding security guarantees and respect for their rights from the Burmese government. Elsewhere in the country, as well as across the Thai and Chinese borders other displaced ethnic groups – such as Kachin and Karen – are being faced with the same dilemma. Either to remain in squalid refugee camps, or make the journey home and risk returning to renewed violence and repression. 

Since military violence in Rakhine state peaked in August 2017 over 725,000 Rohingya refugees were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh where they now reside in a sprawling patchwork of refugee camps under atrocious conditions. Since the  NLD (National League for Democracy) party came into power in 2015, contrary to expectations, fighting in Rakhine state and other ethnic areas of Myanmar has actually increased. Violence has surged particularly in Kachin state, as well as continued sporadic clashes in Karen state, contributing to the decades of displacements of people to China and Thailand as well as to IDP (internally displaced person) camps; yet these crises remain frustratingly under-reported by the media. 

First and foremost these refugees need a security guarantee, and reassurance that fighting and violence will desist. Unfortunately, violence has reportedly intensified since the beginning of this year, with conflict persisting in a number of Rakhine townships, particularly in the Sittwe region of Rakhine state where it has been reported that the Burmese military set eleven houses ablaze in a village last month. In Kachin state too, concerns have been voiced by IDPs regarding landmines which are yet to be cleared from the land to which they are supposed to return. Groups of IDPs in Kachin are speaking out against unsafe repatriation plans that are likely to place their families and communities at risk, with one Kachin refugee cited as saying “I don’t want returns to happen under pressure… We will only return after we have a security guarantee.” 


The Myanmar government continues to refer to Rohingya as ‘Bengalis’…


A specific requirement for the Rohingya, and of utmost importance to their supporting any reparation scheme, is the need for a guarantee of citizenship and political security. The 1982 Citizenship Law introduced by the military dictator General Ne Win’s government stipulated that it was only the official ethnic groups outlined in the Constitution who would be afforded citizenship; however this list makes no mention of the Rohingya. The Myanmar government continues to refer to Rohingya as ‘Bengalis’, strengthening the view that they are actually foreigners in the country and are not considered eligible for Burmese citizenship. As part of the repatriation plan agreed bilaterally by the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments in November 2017, an identity card scheme was proposed for returning Rohingya refugees which proved unsuccessful, as many feared it would jeopardize the possibility of being granted citizenship status in the future. Regarding the most recent discussions in Kutupalong, one refugee stated “if they recognise us as Rohingya and give us citizenship cards we’ll go back there in one second” with a Rohingya leader clarifying that “we (Rohingya refugees) won’t return unless we are recognised as Rohingya in Myanmar”.

Additionally, without official citizenship it is impossible for the Rohingya to legally lease land (all land is owned by the government in Myanmar, however citizens possess the right lease land on a  long-term basis). However, this is not the only thing compromising the return of Rohingya to their original land and homes. The insurgencies and counter-insurgencies that have taken place over the past two years have led to the mass destruction of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state. Burmese military tactics included burning homes and crops, as well as ‘scraping’ the land with heavy machinery. There has been some speculation that the methods employed by the military were strategic, leaving the land legally available to government appropriation. Indeed new military bases have been erected on the cleared land, and plans for industrial and economic zones are also starting to materialise in some areas. 


Conflict in Kachin State (Image credit: Allyson Neville-Morgan, Flickr)

This is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar, as the military have seized land during conflict for decades, and continue to do so in many parts of the country that have experienced violent clashes and mass displacement over the years. A very recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group has described how ethnic Karen refugees have returned to Karen state in the east of Myanmar from refugee camps in Thailand, only to find that their land has been appropriated by the Burmese military and converted to military bases. Having no agricultural land to work on, these communities’ livelihoods have been severely impacted as they are now forced to turn to intermittent and unreliable casual labour. Security of land rights is a salient issue in Myanmar, and should be of crucial importance to any repatriation process that is to take place.


The UN report of last September made it clear that a genocide had taken place in Rakhine state.


Finally, refugees who have experienced countless horrors at the hands of the Burmese military need the truth to be told if there is any hope for fostering trust and reconciliation. The UN report of last September made it clear that a genocide had taken place in Rakhine state. It also addressed the human rights violations ongoing on Kachin state, shining a light on the under-reported atrocities that are taking place here. Despite having a staunch principle of non-interference, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has come under international pressure to express concern about the Rohingya crisis. It has tried to encourage dialogue between Rohingya leaders and the Burmese government, and sent a small delegation to accompany new repatriation talks last month. They have, however, faced criticism from rights groups as a recent report published by their Emergency Response and Assessment Team failed to honour in the truth behind the crisis, making no mention of the human rights violations committed against the Rohingya, as well as legitimising a flawed repatriation plan without consulting the very people it would affect. 

Prospects for the welfare of refugees wanting to return home in Myanmar seem bleak, with the government failing to provide the guarantees needed for safe repatriation. These concerns speak to wider issues of post-conflict remedial strategy, and how diplomatic bilateral agreements are insufficient in ensuring the protection and welfare of displaced people. It is more than just about allowing people to return home; it’s about about truth, respect, reconciliation, and guarantees of security and non-recurrence. The international community as well as NGOs are doing important work in refugee camps both within Myanmar and across its borders, but ultimately, until the political and security climate improves drastically in Myanmar we cannot expect people to want to return home.


Featured image credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (Flickr).


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