Guest Column

UN Refugee Repatriation Debacle in Myanmar

By David Scott Mathieson 23 March 2023

Just six months after the violent expulsion in August 2017 of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, conditions were conducive for them to return home without delay, according to high-level international experts.

After a visit to northern Rakhine, Roelf Meyer, a former government minister in South Africa, was feeling optimistic. At a Yangon press conference on 25 January, 2018, Myer said: “There’s an honest attempt in creating circumstances that would make it possible for people to come back…(we) believe it’s important to encourage people to come back…I don’t think that people should be scared.”

This was in Meyer’s capacity as a member of the government-appointed Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, following a Potemkin visit orchestrated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and after the Myanmar military had perpetrated one of the worst atrocities of the past decade. Meyer’s cheery comments after his visit to a smoldering crime scene where 700,000 people had been forcibly evicted and an estimated 7,000 murdered, may have seemed out of step with reality then.

But then reality, let alone humanity, has rarely penetrated planning for the return of an estimated one million Rohingya from Bangladesh. There appears to be gathering momentum for a previously moribund repatriation process to be resumed and for some of these refugees to return to northern Rakhine.

A visit from officials of the State Administration Council (SAC) to Cox’s Bazar in recent days was part of a pilot project to verify eligibility of the over one million Rohingya to return, with a list of 1,140 people and 711 already cleared.

This is potentially stage three of a multi-decade mass atrocity see-saw for the Rohingya minority, between violent expulsion and violent repatriation, from 1978, 1991-1995, and first October 2006 and then the largest wave from August 2017.

Twice before, in late 1978 and 1992, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced back by Bangladeshi security forces. The past six years has been a stalled repatriation plan, as the optimism expressed by Mr. Meyer failed to be shared by a million people who actually knew better than to trust the Myanmar military.

In these past atrocities both countries were assisted by the United Nations (UN), the trusty co-conspirator in what was essentially refoulement: the forcible return of refugees to a country where they are likely to be persecuted.

After these historical injustices, there is no way the world will let it happen a third time. Or will it? After a decade of the UN, foreign aid donors, and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) complicity in the prolonged detention of displaced Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the ethnic cleansing of 2017, and six years of no meaningful process for people returning to their homes, has anyone learned any lessons?

Apparently not. Last week, the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Yangon, Rama Ramanathan Balakrishnan, sent a letter to senior UN country team members to explain the allegations of SAC officials using UN speedboats to transport them to Bangladesh. The email was made public soon after by the Myanmar Accountability Project.

In explaining the debacle, Balakrishnan actually raised more potential professional malfeasance than he qualified. He admitted it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. “The request was made at the very short notice – 36 hours before the planned trip was to take place.”

I’m not sure what definition of short notice prevails in the UN, but a day and half seems ample time to consult with relevant actors inside Rakhine State, Yangon, even New York, and furnish the obvious reply: ‘No, you cannot use United Nation’s boats for a planned official trip.’ Balakrishnan did admit that the UN facilitated concealing the boats true ownership: “All UN markings were removed from all boats.” This has the potential to render all known UN and other aid delivery vessels and vehicles as targets for anti-regime attacks if the removal of identifying flags and insignia provides reasonable suspicion that officials or belligerents could be onboard.

Furthermore, Balakrishnan stated that the personnel given a ride were not armed. “To our knowledge, no presence of weapons or armed escort was observed on any of the boats during the journey, as was alleged.” That’s a funny choice of words; “to our knowledge”, when a ‘without doubt there were no guns’ line would have gone further to dispelling fears that there was any armed escort.

Let’s consider the disjuncture in lived experiences of this incident, and the possibility, probability, that armed men were actually involved. There is a gap between the danger or discomfort of UN staff, likely national staff, in Rakhine State, and the offices of the UN country team on Natmauk Road in Yangon making the decisions in a probity vacuum. The foreigners feel the umbrage of an unfair media report, regardless of their obvious wrongdoing. The Myanmar staff experiences the rancid breath of official intimidation and menace.

The UN has betrayed its national staff from the first day of the coup and, as accommodation to the ‘de-facto authorities’ [UN-speak for the murderous military regime] gathers pace, the exposure to risk for local UN officials will immeasurably rise. In the year of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s worth pointing out that the Danger Pay in Myanmar for internationally recruited staff [let’s just say foreigners] is US$1,645 per month and for locally recruited staff [let’s just say Myanmar people] is $449 a month, rounded off at $15 a day, according to the UN’s International Civil Service Commission.

In a tense situation like this words matter, especially when you are seeking clear understanding of an issue. But words are essential when you’re discussing people’s lives. Which is why some of the denials emerging from the UN around this issue of boats and potential repatriation are couched in worryingly diluted terminology. The UN resident coordinator’s letter stated that “the United Nations position on return to Myanmar remains unchanged: while every refugee has a right to return to their home country, in UNHCR’s [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] assessment conditions in Rakhine State are currently not conducive to the safe and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.”

UNHCR Bangladesh issued a statement on 19 March that said, “conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are currently not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees. At the same time, we reiterate that every refugee has a right to return to their home country based on an informed choice, but that no refugee should be forced to do so. Bangladesh has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to voluntary and sustainable repatriation.”

The UN and international system’s usual formulation for the repatriation of refugees is ‘voluntary return in safety and dignity’ according to its own protection handbook on voluntary repatriation. When did it change, and why, to ‘conducive to safe and sustainable?’ The writer sought to clarify the altered terminology via an email to the UNHCR spokesperson on March 21, but received no reply.

The standard wording was also missing from the recent statement from the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General, Noeleen Heyzer, at the UN on 16 March. “Taking advantage of the [SAC and Arakan Army] ceasefire, the State Administration Council is preparing for the return of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). I fully support the General Assembly’s call that the return and relocation of displaced persons is carried out in accordance with international standards and best practices (emphasis added).” Not voluntary, safety, dignity [she used this formulation exactly on a visit to Bangladesh on 25 August, 2022]. So what has changed?

The UN-facilitated visit to Bangladesh followed a high-level visit to Rakhine by SAC Minister for International Cooperation Ko Ko Hlaing, Rakhine Chief Minister U Htein Lin, along with ambassadors and diplomats from China, India, Bangladesh and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, as well as officials of the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management. The delegation visited a vocational training center, IDP camp, a center for issuing National Verification Cards and, like something from a Margaret Atwood dystopia, something called a One Stop Women Support Center.

Ko Ko Hlaing is one of those shape-shifting holdovers from the U Thein Sein administration, equally adept at duping foreigners with fake sincerity [like U Soe Thane and U Khin Yi, now back as the head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party], as he is doing the bidding of military overlords. There can be little likelihood of safety or dignity with such a malevolent figure leading the process, or Min Aung Hlaing’s henchman so easily outmaneuvering the international community.

At the same time as Ko Ko Hlaing’s visit, SAC state media released a sinister interview with a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the working of the Myanmar/Bangladesh ‘Ad Hoc Task Force for Verification of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State’ formed in 2021 after the coup.

A Rohingya refugee family in Bangladesh opens UNHCR supplies. (Photo: UNHCR)

The unidentified official outlined the five criteria of eligibility for Rohingya refugee repatriation, four of which were contained in the bilateral repatriation agreement from 1992: resident of Myanmar; voluntarily wish to return; split families and certified orphans; offspring born in Bangladesh whose parents were resident in Myanmar; and the disturbing point: “Children born out of unwarranted incidents are to be certified by a Court of Bangladesh.”

And the official made it clear that there is a significant difference in how many people are deemed eligible, worth quoting in full. “The number of displaced persons is inaccurately inflated by some foreign media and countries, stating that 1.1 million displaced persons are living in the Cox’s Bazar Camps. However, according to household lists, the number of people who left Rakhine State for Bangladesh after the 2016 and 2017 incidents is just around half a million people. Furthermore, there are just 6,365 verified individuals who remain to be repatriated from Bangladesh under the 1992 repatriation process but no one has returned to Myanmar since 2005 due to their own reasons.…the Myanmar side will only repatriate the verified displaced persons who entered Bangladesh from Rakhine State after 2016 and 2017 including newborn children.” The SAC are willing to take less than half the Rohingya estimated to be in Bangladesh. How will this be reconciled?

Such is the justifiable disquiet around the UN’s casual caving in on a boat ride. What else will they surrender their principles on? History is darkly informative, when eventual pushbacks in 1978 and 1992 were presaged by a reduction in rations to Rohingya refugees to starvation level, with full connivance of the UNHCR. In February, the UN World Food Program announced a cut in monthly food vouchers for refugees in Cox’s Bazar from US$12 to US$10 due to a shortfall in international funding. The United Kingdom, supposedly one of the Rohingya’s staunchest defenders has reduced its support to the camps, as international support has plummeted to dangerously low levels. Will this precipitate premature forced returns? Is the UN’s diluted language preempting less than ideal repatriation projects?

Too alarmist? Read Jeff Crisp’s powerful 2018 indictment of the UN’s role in previous repatriation processes and dare to be optimistic the world body has lifted its game this time around. For the UN doesn’t seem to ever realize that for the Myanmar military, with over forty years of widespread and systematic attacks against its own people nationwide, pace William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just keep doing the same thing over again.

Another factor of concern in this reanimated repatriation scheme is what collation of evidence of progress the SAC is preparing for the next round of hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the hearing to determine potential breaches of the Genocide Convention. The first hearing in 2019 was led by deposed State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now serving 33 years in prison on fabricated charges.

Her place has been taken by none other than Ko Ko Hlaing, the SAC’s handyman for dirty jobs. Part of his recent visits, there have been a number, is to gather evidence to dispute the case, and likely to coach witnesses to support the SAC’s case that Rohingya militants in the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army were to blame

The actions of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) are scarcely much better in all this. The NUG claims to have had a reconciliation with its Rohingya-reviling past in its previous [present] incarnation as the NLD, but this has sparse sincerity. The NUG’s Minister for Human Rights, U Aung Myo Min, said in a recent interview: “We are now working to amend discriminatory laws like the 1982 Citizenship Law, which is one of the root causes behind the matter [of exclusion and violence against Rohingya]…..and are also working to include a Rohingya representative in the government in the near future.”

These are all laws that could have been repealed, albeit symbolically, very quickly after the NUG was formed two years ago. Ideally their repeal would have been put in the context of broader discrimination of other ethnic and religious minorities, including Chinese, South Asian, Gurkha and many Muslim minorities, and not just a Rohingya context. Broad symbolic support from ethnic armed organizations, political parties, civil society organizations, strike committees and other members of the resistance coalition would have made these signals more powerful. So far, the NUG has been incapable of any level of leadership the nationwide conflict requires. The NUG a year ago even considered it a great idea to take over the ICJ case, with some arguing the regime representing Myanmar gave them ‘legitimacy’: further evidence of the NUG being showered in flawed advice from foreign flunkeys.

Instead, we have a series of self-important blunderings from the NUG, who still don’t seem to find problematic the role of their Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement U Win Myat Aye, not just in covering up the 2017 atrocities against the Rohingya, but being complicit in the NLD’s preparations for premature repatriation of the Rohingya from 2018.

U Win Myat Aye and the NLD were pushing for ‘durable solutions’ to hastily resettle Kachin and Shan civilians displaced for over a decade, the fraudulent cover-up of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, and the supposedly impartial Independent Commission of Enquiry, which Suu Kyi cribbed from the ICJ before its report release in early 2020, admitted widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity. As always, on the wings of such a potential windfall, were the salivating UN and their INGO minions looking to facilitate forced relocations, for the right price.

Rama Ramanathan Balakrishnan’s final nod to the frayed notion of UN neutrality in his correspondence was blissfully bereft of self-awareness at how the world body is perceived outside his office window: “As we have all experienced by now, our work here in Myanmar requires a tightrope act if we are to be of service to the people of Myanmar, and this remains guided by the UN’s engagement guidelines and the internationally recognized principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Our reputation and credibility, not to mention our safety and security, depends on how we model these parameters in all our activities.” High words from a hack who gave his boat keys to thugs so easily.

If this is yet another signal that repatriation is looming and the UN will indubitably be involved, then further ride-shares and routine submission will follow. Another question to ask, and something I’m sure was the first thing an accountant at UN headquarters queried: did the SAC officials pay for the petrol? And where is the receipt?

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar