Bangladesh and Myanmar resumed China-brokered talks on Rohingya repatriation for the first time in a year this week (Tuesday, January 19). During the meeting, Bangladesh pushed Myanmar on creating a favourable environment for Rohingya repatriation with an expedited verification process, and later expressed their 'cautious optimism' that it could commence in the second quarter of this year.

It was not immediately clear what guarantees Rohingya would receive about their safety and livelihood under the plan.

"Today we again heavily emphasized on creating a conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation ... The conducive environment is inextricably linked with voluntary repatriation," Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told reporters after the 90-minute virtual meeting.

"Personally, I would say, I am cautiously optimistic. We will keep trying with our hearts and souls," the foreign secretary added.

He also asked Myanmar to expedite its vetting and verification of Rohingya refugees as a prerequisite for their return, amid recent revelations that Myanmar had approved only 42,000 names from a list of 840,000 compiled by Dhaka.

Two earlier attempts to begin repatriation to Myanmar - in November 2018 and August 2019 - failed, with Rohingya leaders saying at the time that refugees would not return until their safety, security, and rights were guaranteed in that country.

"We weren't successful in giving two dates previously. We're taking lessons from that, and looking for ways to succeed," Momen said Tuesday.

Myanmar shot down Bangladesh's proposal for "village-based repatriation," insisting instead on beginning with people from its list of 42,000 verified names, Momen said.

"I had to say two or three times, that number is not important here. It is important to see whether they know each other or not," he said. "We want to send together people who came from the same area, so that they feel comfortable."

After a visit to Rakhine state in August 2018 by then-Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, a ministry official who accompanied him said conditions for the sustainable return of the refugees had yet to be created.

Bangladesh also proposed repatriations in the first three months of 2021, but Myanmar said any attempt would have to wait for the second quarter due to the need for logistical arrangements, according to Momen.

A statement about the meeting issued by Naypyidaw claimed that "Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation" and "reaffirmed Myanmar's readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements."

Hau Do Suan, Myanmar's deputy minister of international cooperation, meanwhile "urged Bangladesh to address the issue of terrorist elements intimidating and posing threats to the displaced persons not to return to Myanmar," the statement said.

He was evidently referring to members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claims to be fighting for the rights of the stateless and oppressed minority in Myanmar.

ARSA attacks on police posts in Myanmar's Rakhine state in August 2017 killed nine and led to a military crackdown on the Rohingya population that led some 740,000 people to flee to Bangladesh over the following months.

"We don't allow any insurgents or terrorist groups on our soil. There are some criminal groups, but they don't have any religious or political identities," Momen said he told the meeting in response to this point.

The Chinese framework

China has been attempting to facilitate Rohingya repatriation in earnest since late 2019, following the 74th UGA in September. China took the initiative to propose the tripartite framework with their presence largely in an overseeing role, that can nevertheless hold both sides to account on their respective commitments to each other. The Bangladesh side had already complained of Myanmar acting in 'bad faith' during negotiations, whereby they never had any intention of taking the Rohingya back, and was only meeting to keep up appearances.

The last such engagement was a mid-level meeting in Dhaka on Jan. 20, 2020. Efforts then ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the two sides agreed to hold a joint working group meeting with bigger teams in the first week of February, Momen said.

Tuesday's meeting was chaired by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui via video link to the three capitals.

In a statement, the Chinese diplomat avoided the word "Rohingya" in stating China's position that "the issue of displaced people from Rakhine is ultimately a bilateral one." As part of its marginalization of the Rohingya, Myanmar refuses to acknowledge their ethnic identity.

"The international community, China included, should play a constructive role instead of further complicating the situation," the statement said.

There is a view that China came on board as it wants Bangladesh to stop putting international pressure on Myanmar through the U.N. and other international bodies. This is borne out by the statement released by the Chinese government following the meeting, where it said the three sides "expressed opposition to making the Rakhine State issue an international and political issue, and called for the international community to create favourable conditions and environment for the repatriation process."

They would thus like to take ownership of the issue - but that also means the success or failure of repatriation efforts would reflect back on them. At least for the moment, they have publicly put their weight behind supporting repatriation - the question really becomes one of how soon, since neither China nor Myanmar referred to the timeframe of the 2nd quarter of 2021 in their statements following the meeting.

Following the meeting, the Chinese government in its statement said the meeting was held in a friendly, candid and constructive atmosphere. It said "the three sides reviewed and summarised the progress of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, and agreed that this critical and timely meeting is an important follow-up to implement the consensus reached between State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterpart of Myanmar during his visit to Myanmar last week. It is conducive to consolidating the political consensus on repatriation and promoting the Pilot Project, so as to achieve initial outcomes and create favourable conditions for sustainable repatriation."

In an attempt to blow its own horn, as is the custom with most countries, the statement also said Myanmar and Bangladesh made positive comments on China's constructive role in promoting the repatriation, and expressed their willingness to reinforce communication and consultation through bilateral and multilateral channels, demonstrate flexibility, bridge differences and work on the early settlement of repatriation. China reaffirmed its support for repatriation, and said it is ready to continue to engage in good offices, support enhanced dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and play an active role in accelerating the repatriation.

The three sides also agreed to maintain consultation and communication at vice foreign minister level, make good preparations for the tripartite ministerial meeting, hold the third meeting of the joint working group in a flexible manner and launch the repatriation of the first batch as soon as possible, according to the Chinese statement.

A ray of hope?

One of the most important issues in getting the repatriation effort off the ground is obviously the provision of condition conducive to the return of the Rohingyas, for which many have advocated the need for a social change in Myanmar. Even in 2018, the International Crisis Group reported that "Ethnic Rakhine political leaders and local communities are staunchly opposed to repatriation, and the government has done little to mitigate their resistance (indeed, its own relations with ethnic Rakhine have soured). Moreover, hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched." Clearly as long as this remained the case, the conditions for voluntary return on the part of the Rohingya would be difficult to ensure.

So it came as a bit of a surprise, when on the eve of this week's tripartite meeting, a statement was released under the banner of a 'Declaration by the Diverse and United Communities pf Arakan'. Arakan is used interchangeably with Rakhine. It said:

Participants from Rakhine, Muslim (Rohingya), and other minority communities have held series of meetings since October 2020. All communities have expressed consent and reached the following consensus:

Whereas all our diverse communities confirm that we are united and belong to the Fatherland of Arakan, we agree to the importance of peaceful coexistence and the building of a new society based on the preservation and promotion of justice, peace, equality and human rights, including freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of religion and worship full respect for each other's diverse identities, cultures, symbols, and languages.

Whereas we are proud and diverse people with an abundance of talents, skills and human capital to ensure our own socio-economic wellbeing and dignity, we pledge to pursue peaceful and democratic solutions for any differences of opinion that may stand in the way of progress, be it in the area of politics, social development, religious freedom or any other area that may give rise to dispute.

Whereas we are committed for peaceful coexistence and are determined for rebuild a just and equal society in a United Arakan based upon secularism, we solely oppose any form of extremism and ideology that may harm our unity, prosperity and rule of law.

Whereas our Arakan is rich in natural resources and has considerable potential for development, including through interaction with other regional nations, we are the sole owner of the land and its resources. The power to decide about responsible use of these resources is vested in us, as is the responsibility to ensure that the people of Arakan are the prime beneficiaries of the land and its resources. We declare that any planned international and domestic investments and projects shall first be considered, consented to and prioritized by the people of Arakan ourselves, and before the Union Government takes action.

Whereas we welcome current developments related to a possible truce, as well as peace negotiations between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw that are helping to reduce civilian casualties and displacement, we stand firm that long-term stability must come through a political settlement leading to greater autonomy and self-determination of the Arakan people.

Whereas we, the people of Arakan, welcome plans for possible elections or mandatory by election in the townships and wards where these were cancelled earlier, we will hold the authorities accountable for the conduct of free, fair and inclusive elections with full participation of not only Rakhine political parties and intra-ethnic parties, but also of Muslim (Rohingya) political parties as well as to reinstate the political party registrations. All voters, including Muslim voters, must have free access to the ballot in any election.

Whereas Muslim Kaman and Muslim (Rohingya) students are banned from attending colleges, universities, and other higher education institutes, we urge the Union and state governments to immediately end discrimination and to allow Muslim students to freely pursue higher education.

Whereas the freedom of movement of Muslims of Arakan is now severely restricted, impeding their travel, livelihoods, access to education and medical services as well as their access to other communities, we firmly believe that enforced segregation based on ethnicity and religion has no place in Arakan. Enforced containment in segregated villages, wards and camps, constitutes inhuman treatment and we urge the authorities to lift all restrictions once and for all.

Whereas Muslims and Khaman people are prevented from exercising their rights as citizens, we agree that use of ethnicity as a decisive factor in the determination of citizenship is not justifiable. It must be rejected. Therefore, we urge the authority to lift the discriminatory policy on citizenship and, more generally, to avoid judging people on the base of race and religion. Speedy process of citizenship shall be implemented by the ministerial levels immediately.

Whereas the communities of the Chin, Dinet, Hindu, Kaman, Khami, Maramargyi, Mro, and Thet face sectarian discrimination within Arakan State, including by decades-long policies of divide-and-rule and lack of much needed attention and sensitivity to our native people identity, culture and language, we shall protect the aspirations of our brothers and sisters and confirm the importance of eliminating all forms of discrimination and group pressure.

Whereas COVID-19 is a global pandemic which indiscriminately affects everyone, the government's virus vaccination should not leave anyone behind. In Rakhine State everyone must get as equal treatment as possible, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and citizenship status.

Whereas, based on our experience and beliefs, we stand on justice and equality, we are convinced that our society finds strength in its diversity. We take great pride in our history and culture and know that by standing united we can move forward towards a dynamic future in which security, development and justice are guaranteed to all. The scope of our challenges is immense but our joint strength and indivisibility are uniting us in the consensus that together we shall live forever in peace, harmony and prosperity and protect our Fatherland of Arakan and His united people.

The statement was signed by representatives of the Rakhine and Muslim (Rohingya) communities.

If the communities can now stay true to their commitments in the statement, that would be the biggest boost possible to aid the refugees' rightful return.

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