Bangladesh once again noted with hope a pledge of Myanmar when the latter recently apprised the former to take back all registered and unregistered Rohingya Muslim refugees from the country. The pledge came through Myanmar’s newly appointed envoy to Dhaka, who in contrast to his country’s president said all Rohingya now staying in Bangladesh would be taken back after proper verification.
A few days back Myanmar President Thein Sein while talking to Mr Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Yangon said his country was unwilling to take back the Rohingyas ousted over the past decades. “We have noted the pledge, but wondering how we can believe it, when Myanmar had failed to verify particulars of some 21,000 Rohingya refugees since 1998,” a senior official of the Bangladesh foreign ministry said.
The number of these registered refugees in two camps at Kutupalang and Nayapara under Cox’s Bazar district swelled to more than 30,000 early this year as Myanmar did not take them back despite of repeated pledges and promises. The registered Rohingya refugees at the camps are the remnants of 250,000 Rohingya who had fled into Bangladesh in late 1991 following persecution under the then military regime in Myanmar. Most of the refugees that had crossed into Bangladesh in late 1991 and early 1992 were repatriated from some 20 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district until 1998.
Meanwhile the Rohingyas alleging communal persecution continued to cross into Bangladesh and so far nearly 400,000 of them, dubbed as local people as economic refugees, have anchored in squalid shanties scattered in Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts. Had Bangladesh authorities not taken adequate steps to seal border during the communal riot in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state in June hundreds of thousands more would have been fled into the country – a traditional safe haven for the Rohingya Muslims. Though the stance of Bangladesh is a bit harsh in humanitarian view, impoverished Bangladesh is really unable to take the burden of more Rohingyas.
The newly appointed Myanmar Ambassador Myo Myint Than while meeting Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on Wednesday once again pledged like his predecessors that all registered and unregistered Rohingya refugees would be taken back after proper verification. A couple of days ago officials said Bangladesh was likely to seek intervention of the United Nations to get rid of the burden of refugees if Myanmar continued to delay in taking back Rohingyas from the country.
The relevant authorities started mulling for the UN intervention as a recent statement of Myanmar President Thein Sein suggested that his country was not willing to take back the Rohingyas ousted over the past decades. Bangladesh hoped that the UN would find a solution acceptable to both the countries and the relevant communities in the restive Rakhine state. Officials further said Bangladesh wanted to live in harmony with all its neighbours and at the same time also wanted that no issues having roots in another country should continue to harm it.
Herding Rohingya Muslims into refugee camps or their deportation to another country could be the only solution for the violence hit Rakhine state, the Myanmar President told the UNHCR in Yangon on June 12, according to a website of Myanmar presidential house. “We will send them (Rohingyas) away if any third country would accept them. This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue,” President Thein Sein told UNHCR Antonio Guterres.
Communal violence between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and local Muslims, including the Rohingyas, swept the state in June, forcing tens of thousands to flee as homes were torched and communities ripped apart. Some 80 people, mostly Rohingyas, were killed in the violence. Among the Muslims, Rohingyas are majority, while there are a smaller number of Muslims who were converted from Buddhism and other religious groups.
“The statement has shocked us, because following the observation of the head of the state of Myanmar, there may not be any scope left to send back hundreds and thousands of Rohingya refugees to their ancestral home from Bangladesh,” said a senior official of the foreign ministry. The statement of Myanmar president not only exposed Myanmar’s intentions not only to repatriate Rohingya refugees from abroad, but also to expel those still residing inside the country, according to a political analyst. Despite repeated pledges there was virtually no repatriation of more over tens of thousands of Rohingyas who had been pushed in to Bangladesh over the past years, another official of the home affairs ministry said.
If the expulsion of Rohingyas continues, it will keep on harming Bangladesh, as it is linked with Rakhine state along a 300-km long porous border through hills, rivers and maritime boundary, the official said. President Thein Sein, who had previously favoured a reconciliation between the communities during the riot between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists in the Rakhine state told the UNHCR that the Rohingyas were not welcome in Myanmar. “We will take responsibility for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas, who are not our ethnicity,” he told Antonio Guterres.
The former junta general said the “only solution” was to send the Rohingyas — which number around 800,000 in Myanmar and are considered to be some of the world’s most persecuted minorities — to refugee camps run by UNHCR, western media reports said. During the June mayhem Bangladesh sealed its border and pushed back hundreds of Rohingyas who sought shelter fleeing Rakine state. The June violence sparked early in the month after a Buddhist woman had allegedly been raped and murdered in Taungup of Rakhine state, formerly Arakan until 1989.
Subsequently on June 3, a mob of hundreds of people attacked a bus, believing the perpetrators were on board, and beat 10 Muslims to death. The violence further escalated when police shot dead two Rohingya youths during a Friday protest at Maungdaw near Bangladesh bordrer on June 8. Although security forces have quelled the worst of the unrest, tens of thousands of people still remain in government-run relief camps with the UN’s World Food Programme reporting that it has provided food to some 100,000 people.
According to Chittagong-based Arakan Historical Society (AHS), Myanmar has been cleansing Rohingyas from Arakan since 1948, when Muslims were in majority. “Even in 1960s the Rohingya population in Arakan was around 2.0 million and now they have reduced to some 800,000, after most or the Rohingyas migrated to different countries including in the Middle East,” said Mohammad Rais, a leader of AHS. Meanwhile, following the June violence and floods in Myanmar, President Thein Sein cancelled his scheduled July 15 visit to Bangladesh.
However, he is expected visit Bangladesh after Ramadan. But the date has not been fixed yet. Bangladesh won a verdict of International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS) over a maritime dispute with Myanmar in March this year. The verdict ensured Bangladesh’s sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal.