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Repatriation of the Rohingya: Real deal or mind game?

Muslim minority have become pawns in diplomatic game between Myanmar and Bangladesh
Repatriation of the Rohingya: Real deal or mind game?

Rohingya Muslims enter Shahporir Dwip Island in Bangladesh after crossing the Naf River on Sept. 13, 2017 to escape a military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The Rohingya issue remains a thorny political and diplomatic problem between the neighboring countries. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)         

Published: November 26, 2018 04:05 AM GMT
Updated: November 26, 2018 04:17 AM GMT

The failed attempt to send 150 refugees out of over one million currently residing in overcrowded camps in Cox's Bazar back to Rakhine State in Myanmar was the first concrete step for their repatriation.

The problem is that none of those in the first batch of 2,260 refugees due to be sent home were willing to go. Most of them responded by fleeing their temporary shelters and going into hiding. Others held daylong protests opposing the repatriation move.

Dhaka has been working enthusiastically to return the Rohingya to Myanmar but the deal has been delayed several times after a repatriation deal was signed in January of this year.

The first deal, inked without any third party involvement, sparked an international outcry.

Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated and impoverished nations, was forced to sign the deal as it creaks under the weight of domestic pressures including a shortage of resources. Finding more resources to feed some one million refugees has invited a backlash from many Bangladeshis.

Yet the deal failed to defuse the mounting international criticism of Myanmar's handling of the crisis. It did not include third party oversight and, importantly, lacked any input from those at the center of the crisis — the Rohingya.

That being said, none of the deals signed so far have taken into account the key concerns and demands of the Rohingya, including calls for justice over the atrocities they have suffered, the return of their property, reparations for the damage done, and the right to citizenship in Myanmar.

While Buddhists in Rakhine have strongly opposed any return of the Rohingya, Myanmar decided to accommodate the returnees in camps, much to their consternation.

Moreover, it will take years to rebuild the hundreds of Rohingya villages that were razed and fully resettle the returnees.

Yet it pressed ahead with the repatriation plan to spare itself more global criticism, looming sanctions, a faltering economy, and also to reduce pressure from its longtime ally and backer, China.

China and India have reportedly promised to pay for hundreds of houses for the refugees. The two regional rivals both have huge investments in Bangladesh that they are unlikely to let go of.

China also has a lot of financial sway over Myanmar's economy. China needs Myanmar to help realize the completion of its much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative, and it also cannot ignore an emerging regional economy like Bangladesh.

It is worth noting here that the first list of refugees to be repatriated only included Muslims, not the 500 or so Hindu refugees who are eager to get back to Myanmar.

Given the political and diplomatic dimensions of the deal, it was unlikely to be implemented in such a tense political atmosphere ahead of the polls.

The problem is that successive military rulers in Myanmar, and now its civilian government and hard-line Buddhists, have repeatedly made it known that the Rohingya are not welcome and they don't want the refugees to return.

Without a consensus-based deal, the repatriation of the Rohingya will remain elusive and unrealistic, leaving them as pawns in a diplomatic game being played out between two neighboring nations, and ultimately prolonging their misery and hardship.  

Rock Ronald Rozario is a Dhaka-based journalist, writer and Bangladesh Bureau Chief for ucanews.com

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