Guest Column

It Takes Two to Tango

By Nyein Maung 23 August 2019

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed ‘arrangements’ for the return of displaced persons from Rakhine State that set out detailed procedures for a smooth repatriation; despite these signed arrangements, repatriation has yet to take place.

Myanmar officials say they’ve undertaken necessary arrangements, including setting up two reception centers and a transit center that can accommodate some 30,000 people, and that village plans were systematically made and housing for the first batch of returnees have already been constructed, include 1,000 pre-fabricated houses donated by China, 400 by Japan has donated 400 houses and India has donated 250 houses.

Myanmar has also involved the ASEAN Secretariat and the AHA Center, the ASEAN intergovernmental humanitarian and disaster assistance body which already completed a preliminary assessment and has verified that Myanmar has made necessary preparations to be able to receive those currently displaced in Bangladesh.

The practical and most effective way to repatriate displaced persons now sheltering in Bangladesh would be to implement a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar for their voluntary, safe and dignified return to their original residences or to the place nearest to it of their choice.

All indications are that Bangladesh has little enthusiasm for doing so.

Bangladesh has provided a list of some thousands of inhabitants of refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. It is apparent that the people on these lists have no knowledge of and have not consented to being included on this list.

Countries friendly to both Myanmar and Bangladesh, including China and Japan, have been stressing Bangladesh’s need to start the repatriation process, a contributing factor to the country finally informing Myanmar that the first round of repatriation would start on Aug. 22, 2019.

Myanmar reception teams, accompanied by ASEAN’s Emergency Response and Assessment Team, waited in vain on that day.

It is unsurprising that no one returned. The list given to Myanmar was not a list of people who have volunteered to return. Myanmar had verified that some 3,500 on the list had actually come from Rakhine State as early as January 2019. The Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs  said that the UN’s refugee agency, tasked with interviewing those displaced in Bangladesh about their willingness to return, was able to start interviewing only two days ahead of the scheduled date of repatriation.

This is not the first time that repatriation has failed to proceed smoothly. On Nov. 15, 2018, the first attempt also failed because Bangladesh did not adhere to the detailed procedures agreed upon by them and Myanmar.

In this first phase, only those who volunteer to return should be included in lists given to Myanmar. Apparently, this has not been the case. Despite the failure of Bangladesh to adhere to set procedures, Myanmar tried their best to verify that the people on the list provided had in fact come from northern Rakhine State.

The situation is compounded by the terrorist group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has gained a foothold in camps in Cox’s Bazar, where independent international sources have identified murder, rape and intimidation committed by ARSA extremists.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs , ARSA has lately been threatening and intimidating the inhabitants of the camps not to take part in the repatriation. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. AK Momen has also informed Bangladeshi media that, while the two countries are ready for repatriation, camp leaders and INGOs are dissuading inhabitants there from taking part in the repatriation process.

It must be assumed that Bangladesh, with its high population density, would not want displaced person residing permanently within its territory. If that is the case, it should learn from the current difficulties and adhere to bilateral agreements they’ve signed with Myanmar. Bilateral arrangements have worked well in the past and should work to address this current impasse.

Bangladesh must also take more effective action to maintain the rule of law in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and not allow them to become breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists that pose a threat to both Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is the duty of all states to prevent terrorism in all its forms and manifestation from thriving within their territory.

Nyein Maung is a freelance researcher on Rakhine issues. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.

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