Voters may remind Aung San Suu Kyi of her failure

Collapse of Rohingya repatriation plan comes amid increasing criticism of Myanmar's leader and the country's military
 Voters may remind Aung San Suu Kyi of her failure

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi arrives on stage to pose for a group photo before the start of the ASEAN-Japan summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore on Nov. 14. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

In the latest blow for the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar, it took just three days for the collapse of a half-baked plan to repatriate the Muslim group from refugee camps in Bangladesh to their homeland across the Naf River in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The problem has now been parked until 2019 (at least) as the plan was clearly inadequate in far too many ways and Bangladesh is heading towards its quinquennial general election on Dec. 30.

The central problem was a spectacular lack of consultation — and refusal to listen to —  both refugees and international aid agencies who have been working on the ground in the camps that hold close to 1 million people. That much, as least, has now been admitted by the Bangladeshi side. Its foreign minister has agreed the plan needs a rethink.

The final plan initially agreed between the two governments in January 2018 was finalized in October. Despite opposition from refugee groups, the United Nations and other aid agencies, repatriation was due to start on Nov. 15 for 2,300 refugees, though not to their traditional homeland.

The Rohingya, understandably, refused out of fear for their safety. They remembered the horrific clearance operations carried out by Myanmar military, sometimes in conjunction with civilian anti-Muslim Buddhist groups and verified by multiple eyewitnesses and extensive news agency reports, that involved murder, rape, assault and property destruction.

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This resulted in 720,00 people fleeing from August 2017 to join more than 200,000 Rohingya who had remained in Bangladesh following exoduses in previous decades.

The Rohingya who recently refused to return would have been delivered right back into the hands of the military, which in effect controls northern Rakhine and has been lobbying to have martial law declared in some parts or all of the state. In reality, martial law already exists.

The Rohingya have been given no guarantees of safety. The only thing that will protect them in the long term is citizenship, which Myanmar has denied them for generations.

The lack of consultation, safety guarantees and any clear path toward citizenship and equal rights are head-scratching given the attention on Asia's biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

This inadequate repatriation plan was agreed by the Myanmar government despite the increasing amount of international opprobrium being heaped on the National League of Democracy (NLD) government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the military with whom she shares power and cannot control.

Only days before the stillborn program officially began, human rights watchdog Amnesty International stripped the Myanmar leader of its 2009 Ambassador of Conscience Award, handed out while she was still under house arrest in former capital Yangon, still Myanmar's commercial hub.

Amnesty secretary-general Kumi Naidoo wrote to Suu Kyi on Nov. 10 explaining the organization's reasoning that she had failed to speak out in favor of the Rohingya and shielded Myanmar's military from international scrutiny. Amnesty said it had been "profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defense of human rights." It is the latest in a string of honors that have been withdrawn from her over the past nine months.

The warning signs that the plan would be dead in the water were abundant and previewed by complaints from Rohingya inside Myanmar who the government are attempting to resettle from internally displaced person (IDP) camps that hold about 120,000 people outside state capital Sittwe. They too are being forced to resettle in areas away from their traditional homes.

Any moves to grant significant numbers of Rohingya citizenship or even more rights could cause a political uproar and would be leveraged quickly by Suu Kyi's opponents in the military and its political arm, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Indeed, there has been no outcry from the populous center of Myanmar about the terrible events in Rakhine — indeed there still appears to be widespread support for them — but things are changing in the other six ethnic-based states.

This was highlighted in recent by-elections around the country where the NLD won only 55 percent of 13 seats up for grabs. It was an imperfect sample size but that level of support in a general election would see the NLD forced into a coalition with state-based parties who are picking up seats in by-elections

Suu Kyi's abandonment of Rakhine to the military has spooked the other ethnic states who voted for her, some holding their noses as she has shown next to no interest in anywhere much outside Yangon and Naypyitaw.

She has rewarded their support by almost never visiting the seven ethnic states and showing little interest apart from getting ethnic militia to sign a peace accord that is meaningless in the context of the still unchecked power of the military handed to it by a joke of a constitution whose ratification in 2008 is widely questioned.

The ethnic-based parties have cleverly consolidated. They have been winning back lower house seats at by-elections that were lost in the 2015 landslide. The USDP, demolished in the 2015 poll, is showing some signs of life, which is a good sign of electoral competition and an informed polity.

Politicians like Suu Kyi can be in denial about how badly they are doing. The one thing that tends to rouse them from their somnambulism is the ballot box. Even the thought of governing in coalition with anyone would give her the night sweats as playing with others has never been among her qualities.

The abject failure of the Rohingya repatriation plan is further evidence of Suu Kyi's tin political ear to the wants and needs of ethnic minorities. It is costing her every which way and she needs to find a way to solve it as soon as she can, not just for her sake but the sake of her country.

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