The world's most unloved people, the most persecuted, the godforsaken — call the Rohingya Muslims
by whatever name you prefer. Those born in Rakhine State in Buddhist-majority Myanmar are unwanted in their place of birth and equally unwelcome in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. They seem like left-out pages of history
, as they cannot call the place they were born "home" in any true sense of the word despite their historical presence there being enshrined in the 2,000-year-old Arakan kingdom (located where Rakhine now lies) as early as the 8th century. Before the military takeover of Burma — the former name of Myanmar — in 1962, the Rohingya have lived in relative peace and harmony in Rakhine. Since then, they have endured persecution at the hands of successive military governments as well as by extremist Rakhine Buddhists, forcing them to go back and forth between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the decades.
Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Act effectively excluded the Rohingya and officially made them a stateless people. The deadly military crackdown in October 2016 and August 2017 in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security forces in Rakhine triggered the worst refugee crisis that Asia has seen since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. More than 770,000 Rohingya have been forced to attempt a perilous exodus in crossing the border into Bangladesh as they fled for their lives. Most headed there after the violence erupted last August. Initially, impoverished Bangladesh was reluctant to open its doors to these people fleeing bullets and machetes. But as the ripple of refugees turned into a tidal wave, the nation was emotionally won over by the tales of their plight and the deaths of refugees, especially women, children and the elderly. Bangladesh didn't just open its border for the Rohingya but the people there also opened their hearts and helped them in any way their could. It has now been over six months since the crisis started and many things have changed. Once considered an icon of democracy and a champion of human rights, Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi
has fallen from international grace over her mishandling of the Rohingya crisis. By keeping silent and pretending nothing serious has happened, she has shown her latent Burmese and Buddhist supremacist stripes as the crisis unfolded. The crisis has also highlighted the Myanmar military's thirst for the blood of ethnic minorities and religious communities as conflicts with and between these groups continue to rage on in Myanmar. Amid massive media and diplomatic pressure, the country, which is effectively controlled by its military, has been forced to sign a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate the refugees. Bangladesh was more than ready to get the deal inked as the nation's capacity to offer support to the refugees dissipate fast, while public support for the Rohingya is also waning due to socio-economic and environmental difficulties. It's a mammoth task to get nearly one million old and new refugees registered in such a short span of time, so it was expected that the actual repatriation would not start on Jan. 23 as outlined in the deal. As the refugees swarm into Bangladesh the prices of daily necessities there have spiked, sparking concerns about the local economy. (ucanews.com photo)
Bangladesh's eagerness to send them home is driven by economic, social and environmental pressure. The price of daily essentials in Bangladesh has soared since the refugees flooded in; forests and hills have been destroyed; and in Cox's Bazar, where large refugee camps have sprung up, antisocial criminal behavior like drug use, prostitution and even human trafficking are reportedly booming. But there is also hidden a political agenda. A national election is looming large at the end of this year. Both the ruling Awami League and its rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) will no doubt try to exploit the Rohingya crisis in their favor to win voters' hearts. If the Awami League run by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina fails to start repatriating them as promised, the party can expect to pay the price come election time. The BNP would no doubt exploit such a turnaround as the government again failing to honor its pledges, giving its rival much political mileage. Furthermore, the Awami League would risk tarnishing the nation's good image if it fails to send the Rohingya home in line with international standards. All in all, whether they return to Myanmar or stay in Bangladesh, the crises stands as a double-edged sword for Dhaka. Lack of foresight
The two neighbors signed a bilateral agreement to repatriate the Rohingya on Nov. 23
of last year. The deal was a refined version of a 1992 agreement between them following a deadly bout of violence that forced about 250,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh previously. That first agreement saw more than 200,000 refugees repatriated to Myanmar through the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Some 30,000 refugees who were unable to prove their residency in Myanmar decided to stay put and the UNHCR granted them refugee status, which allowed them to live in two official camps in Nayapara and Kutupalong of Cox's Bazar. However, the existing agreement has some serious loopholes that could hinder the successful repatriation of the refugees. First, it requires they prove their residency in Rakhine State. This is problematic given that the brutal military crackdown carried out there in 2016 and 2017 saw hundreds of Rohingya villages razed to the ground. As such, how can they be expected to prove residency when their homes and all of their belongings have either perished in fire or been damaged or lost during the perilous exodus by road and sea to Bangladesh? Second, Myanmar has the right to refuse the repatriation of individuals. This means authorities there can pick and choose who and how and when they repatriate the refugees, giving them the freedom to deny anyone they want. The ball is clearly in Myanmar's court, giving the Rohingya little to be optimistic about. Third, the refugees will be repatriated to temporary shelters, not to their ancestral land. There is no time frame by which they will be allowed to return home, or whether this will ever even be possible. Most importantly, no one has apparently thought of consulting the Rohingya on what they want and how they would like to go home. They are like pawns on a chessboard, and their fate lies in the hands to two reluctant, bitter rivals. The Rohingya have spoken out on several occasions, however, putting forward some prerequisites and even protesting against the existing deal. They have called for the UN to be included in the agreement. They have urged the arrest and punishment of those who committed the atrocities against them. They have sought compensation for their lost homes and belongings. They have asked that their property be returned to them. And they have begged the UN to deploy a peacekeeping force in Rakhine to ensure peace and stability upon their return. Most of all, they have called on Myanmar to grant them full citizenship as recommended by an international advisory commission led by Kofi Annan, who served as secretary-general of the UN from 1997-2006. These are the core issues that must be addressed when the Rohingya are allowed back into Myanmar, otherwise the repatriation effort will fall flat on its face and their lives will be no better than they were in the past. The Rohingya continue to flee to Bangladesh everyday, which suggests Rakhine is still not a safe place for them to be. International media continue to reveal how the authorities in Myanmar are razing their villages, in order to hide evidence of past and present massacres. It is a long-cherished pipe dream of the establishment in Myanmar to erase the Rohingya from their history books. That is why they refer to them as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh, and errantly claim the Rohingya have never existed or officially been recognized in Myanmar as a group throughout the country's history. But before we point a finger of blame at the Rohingya militants for having caused the plight their broader community has had to endure in recent months, let us not forget who and what radicalized those militants. Even an earthworm tries to bite back after a series of attacks, and the Rohingya can hardly be blamed for defending themselves. All of which makes this one of the most complex refugee crises in modern history. It's probably fair to say most people in Myanmar have little sympathy for or interest in the Rohingya, and care little where they live — or if they die. Many people who belong to this persecuted minority have fled the country in recent decades, dying at sea or ending up in mass graves in foreign lands. Meanwhile, those who live in the unsanitary, overcrowded camps of Cox's Bazar
face a life akin to an open-air prison, although in relative peace and safety. The Rohingya crisis is a complex issue that will require meticulous planning, enthusiasm and sincerity to solve. The current repatriation plan does not offer the Rohingya much hope. For those who love and care for them, and want to see them live like real human beings, a new chapter needs to be written in this story. Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist, writer and bureau chief for ucanews.com in Bangladesh based in the capital Dhaka.
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