External Affairs

Bangladesh-Myanmar Rohingya Repatriation Deal Raises More Questions Than It Clarifies

At the official press briefing, Bangladeshi foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali couldn’t come up with a proper justification about the MoU.

Rohingya refugees line up to receive blankets outside Kutupalong refugee settlement near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Reuters

Rohingya refugees line up to receive blankets outside Kutupalong refugee settlement near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Reuters

Dhaka: Bangladeshi foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali on Saturday expressed ‘satisfaction’ on the very same arrangement for Rohingya repatriation which he had termed ‘not realistic’ 47 days ago.

Reminded about this change in stance by a journalist during a press conference at the foreign ministry of Bangladesh, Ali, otherwise known as a soft-spoken diplomat, shot back, “Can you come up with a better solution?”

He said Myanmar wanted the repatriation process to be conducted under the 1992 joint statement and Bangladesh agreed. “There is no point of arguing about what is there in the agreement and what not now,” he added.

Ali, flanked by the foreign secretary Md. Shahidul Haque, attended the press conference to inform reporters about the deal that was struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the repatriation of the Rohingya who have taken shelter in Bangladesh.

The two countries signed an ‘arrangement on the return of displaced Myanmar persons sheltered in Bangladesh’ on November 23, 2017 in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Ali and Myanmar minister U Kyaw Tint Swe signed the instrument on behalf of their respective governments at the state counsellor’s office.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s press briefing has given rise to more questions about the Rohingya refugee issue than clear-cut answers about what truly lies ahead for the million-odd Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter on Bangladesh’s soil to escape what has been called a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing.’

The Bangladeshi foreign minister said that the 1992 deal for Rohingya repatriation can have additional characteristics considering the changed situation, but he couldn’t explain what would be those ‘additional characteristics’.

Ali, on October 9, in a meeting with top diplomats of 27 countries based in Dhaka, had said that the situation in 1992 and the current situation are “entirely different”.

At Saturday’s press conference, in reply to another question about whether the deal has failed to cater Bangladesh’s interest, Ali said, “I am satisfied. You have asked a good question but I think it’s a ludicrous one. The whole world thinks it’s a good deal”.

The Bangladeshi minister said the interest of a country is usually being looked after by its incumbent government and in that context, the present government obviously has looked after Bangladesh’s interest.

When asked whether there is a legal obligation of complying with the latest memorandum of understanding (MoU), Ali said, “Yes, there is. But legal obligations are not always been fulfilled by the parties concerned. So it (legal obligation) matters little here”.

He hoped that the repatriation of the Rohingya would start within two months. About the absence of the possible closing time of the repatriation period, Ali said that framing a closing date at this point is not realistic. “That date is not chalked out because sticking to that deadline might not be possible,” he said.

Ali also said that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be involved in the process of repatriating the forcibly displaced Rohingya to their homeland. He said a joint working group will be established within three weeks of signing the ‘arrangement’.

“A specific bilateral instrument (physical arrangement) for repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner,” he added.

Repatriation ‘unrealistic and impossible’

Foreign policy experts and diplomats told The Wire that repatriating Rohingya refugees based on the 1992 agreement would not only become ‘unrealistic’ but also become ‘impossible’ at some point.

“Only 14-18 thousand Rohingyas out of one million can be repatriated if the 1992 arrangement is followed,” said a former diplomat who preferred to remain unnamed.

The diplomat added that sending back more Rohingya would be unrealistic, primarily because Myanmar is insisting on the clause that these displaced people must have proof of citizenship, i.e., they must produce either citizenship identity cards or national registration cards or other relevant documentation.

“The proposal is ludicrous because people fleeing conflict zones hardly have time to collect their documents and this is what has happened in the case of the more than half a million Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since late August,” said the diplomat.

Professor Delwar Hossain, director of the East Asian Study Centre of Dhaka University told The Wire that Article IV of the 1992 agreement mentioned the criteria on how to verify the Rakhine Rohingya.

“Let me tell you the problem with this,” said Hossain, “Myanmar changed the citizenship law for the Rohingya (especially Muslims) in Rakhine state in 1982, introducing a new law which identified the Rohingya as foreign citizens, i.e., Bengali people. All the relevant documents and identity cards from before 1982 were seized from the Rakhine Rohingya.”

Bangladesh foreign minister AH Mahmood Ali and Union minister of Myanmar U. Kyaw Tint Swe sign the deal on the return of displaced Rohingyas at the state counsellor’s office in Naypyidaw on Thursday, November 23, 2017. Credit: Foreign ministry of Bangladesh

Hossain said that the 1982 law was enacted following a successful diplomatic measure on Bangladesh’s part by which it was able to send back 25,0000 Rohingyas who were forced to take shelter in Bangladesh due to a Burmese government-backed dispersion and eviction from their homeland in 1978.

An agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar on July 9, 1978, for the repatriation of the Rohingya. One of the key points in this agreement was that the Myanmar government had referred to the Rohingya as legally valid citizens. Under this agreement, Myanmar government was forced to take back almost all the Rohingya.

In 1991-92, after a new round of violence and torture were inflicted on the Rohingya by the Burmese junta, another 20,0000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Following that exodus, Bangladesh called for diplomatic action and Myanmar’s foreign minister at the time reluctantly participated in a bilateral meeting organised by Dhaka in April 1992.

A joint statement was signed at that meeting which was later considered as an agreement. Hossain pointed out that the agreement had three key differences with the 1978 agreement.

Firstly, Myanmar added two key words in this agreement; one was ‘Myanmarese lawful citizens’ and the other was ‘Myanmarese society members’. Today, it is evident why these two terms were used.

The second key difference was that in the 1992 joint statement, Myanmar clearly stated that “they would not take back anyone without proper documents. And the third, those who were not willing couldn’t be forced to return to Myanmar,” said Hossain.

“In any case, I am wondering whether the Rohingya refugees who have fled from a pogrom will be interested to go back there,” he said, adding that at this point it is almost unknown what would be the arrangement for them once they return.

In a recently held discussion on the Rohingya at the Dhaka Lit Fest on November 17, Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, said that the repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar faced enormous hurdles.

“According to the World Food Programme (WFP), there are at least 1,40,000 Rohingya in camps that were set up in Myanmar in 2012. These camps have been described as concentration camps from where people aren’t allowed to get out and camps in where the WFP and other aid organisation have been denied access from July 15 this year. Now the model for return that Myanmar is pressing for is based around very similar camps funded by the UN. And you have got to ask what commitment the world community would need to get from Myanmar before it would allow what happened in 2012 to happen all over again,” he said.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist from Bangladesh .