Myanmar Rohingya Repatriation Seen Delayed by Genocide Trial, 2020 Elections

The Myanmar government will not push for the much-delayed repatriation of Rohingya refugees living for more than two years in displacement camps in Bangladesh until the genocide case at the U.N’s top court is over and possibly until Myanmar’s next elections are held in late 2020, in-country observers said Monday.

Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh in November 2017 to repatriate some of the more than 740,000 Rohingya who fled during a military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine state that began in August of that year.

But very few refugees have returned on their own, because most of them fear continued violence and systematic discrimination. They have demanded that Myanmar take action to ensure their safety, give them access to education and healthcare, lift travel restrictions on them, and grant them citizenship.

Now Myanmar is facing genocide charges for its treatment of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where Muslim-majority Gambia brought a lawsuit against the country on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Last week the court held a hearing on provisional measures in the case.

Myanmar faces other lawsuits, including one filed in November in Argentina that names Aung San Suu Kyi herself under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” and an authorization by the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity over the alleged forced deportation of the Rohingya.

A Myanmar government delegation led by a director general from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs meanwhile is traveling to the refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar district this week to brief the refugees about the government’s repatriation plans.

Former information minister Ye Htut said the refugees might make inflexible demands of Myanmar since they have the political upper hand given the current circumstances.

“They will not return until their demands are met,” he said. “They might accuse our government’s efforts at repatriation of not being genuine.”

“Regardless, this issue needs to be discussed and resolved in a long-term scheme, so it is not a bad thing for us that the government’s delegates are discussing it with them. To put it frankly, the conditions give the refugees the upper hand.”

“If these discussions were held in 2017, things would have been different,” Ye Htut added. “For now, there are lawsuits in international courts and international pressure, so they would be making uncompromising demands.”

Ye Htut also said that the government will avoid any issues that make its ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party vulnerable to voters as the 2020 general election approaches.

RFA was unable to reach foreign affairs ministry officials Chan Aye, director general of the International Organizations and Economic Department, and Aung Ko, director general of the Political Department, for comment on the visit to the camps.

The ministry announced that Soe Han, its permanent secretary and spokesman, met Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury, Bangladesh's ambassador to Myanmar, on Dec. 11 to discuss the upcoming visit by top officials, who will be accompanied by members of ASEAN’s Emergency Rapid Assessment team (ERAT).

‘They will not agree to return’

Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar who was a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority to prevent further violence in Rakhine state, suggested that those who visit the refugee camps explain citizenship procedures to the Rohingya and the differences between individuals who can be considered for citizenship based on documents that prove their eligibility and those who cannot.

“Several issues are already covered in the MoU,” he said of the repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh. “If they discussed the issues within the framework that they had agreed upon, there would be no problem between the two countries. They need to explain them thoroughly.”

Myanmar authorities in reception camps have issued returning Rohingya National Verification Cards (NVCs) as a precursor to applying for citizenship for those who qualify.

But the Rohingya who have applied for citizenship with newly issued NVCs report that no progress has been made on their applications, even after a year.

The Myanmar government has not explained the delays in the citizenship applications process for NVC holders.

The cards are highly unpopular with displaced Muslims, who say they identify them as “Bengali,” a term they reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh.

“I think they must have concerns that if they accept the NVCs, they will become stateless,” Aye Lwin said. “Having an NVC is good for people who have no proof. Government officials should also explain that those who have proof can also apply for citizenship. Then, I think it could resolve 70 percent of the problems.”

Mohammad Juhad from the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, said he is aware that the refugees who have proof should apply for national ID cards in line with the 1982 Citizenship Act, and that those who don’t will be issued NVCs, so that they can undergo assessments for citizenship.

He said most refugees do not have any documents since they had to hastily flee their burning villages during the 2017 crackdown and leave behind their possessions, including identification papers.

Mohammed Juhad added that he wants the Myanmar government to issue national ID cards if the refugees can recount the places where they had lived and the number of years they had lived there.

Nearly 170 male and 290 female refugees returned to Myanmar through the Ngakhuya Refugee Welcoming Outpost in Rakhine state between October 2018 and October 2019, according to the government.

Myanmar officials have rejected a recent suggestion by the Chinese government for groups of refugees to visit their former communities in Rakhine state and report back to others still in the camps about whether it is safe for them to follow suit.

Mohammed Juhad said the refugees will consider the repatriation option depending on the ICJ's ruling.

“All the Rohingya from refugee camps are looking forward to the ICJ's court ruling,” he said.

“Whoever is coming [to visit] from the Myanmar government, they [the Rohingya] will not agree to return,” Mohammed Juhad added.

“There are many international courts,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of rulings they will issue. We will decide whether to return or not after they issue their rulings.”

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.