Myanmar is on Thursday set to begin repatriating more than 2,000 Rohingya Muslims from Bangladesh, despite the United Nations refugee agency stressing their return should be voluntary and based on the displaced group’s knowledge of conditions there.
Asean officials have condemned the plan while leaders of the other nine countries in the bloc have urged Myanmar to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
There are now nearly 900,000 refugees from Myanmar living in camps at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, according to the UN.
The UN has called for Myanmar’s senior military leaders to be prosecuted under international law for what the organisation describes as a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The organisation’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plans amid reports of continued violations against the Rohingya.
“Forcibly expelling or returning refugees and asylum seekers to their home country would be a clear violation of the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids repatriation where there are threats of persecution or serious risks to the life and physical integrity or liberty of the individuals,” Bachelet said in a statement.
Earlier on Tuesday, Malaysia’s outspoken Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had castigated Myanmar’s de facto leader for her failure to protect the Rohingya.
UN agency warns against Myanmar’s planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees without first ensuring their safety
“It would seem Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to defend what is indefensible,” Mahathir said, before grimly standing alongside her and other Asean leaders for a photo shoot at the start of the bloc’s summit in Singapore.
But majority-Buddhist Myanmar’s two largest neighbours, India and China, have been quietly supportive of the plan for repatriation.
Last month, China donated 1,000 prefabricated homes worth over US$10 million to house returning refugees in Rakhine State, where the Myanmar military has denied UN allegations of a brutal crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Chinese state media reports show an endorsement of the Myanmar government’s version of events, namely that the houses are for people in Rakhine who were displaced in a conflict started when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police outposts, prompting the military to retaliate.
India last December pledged US$25 million over the next five years to the “restoration of normalcy” in Rakhine, and is currently involved in a project to build 1,500 housing units there.
India and China both have infrastructure projects important to their own domestic interests underway in Rakhine. India late last month signed an operational agreement on a port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, that will allow vital access to its far northeastern states. Just 100km south of that port project, China operates an oil and gas pipeline extending from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming.
Last Friday, China and Myanmar signed an agreement to move forward with the Kyaukpyu port project, a deep water port in Rakhine that connects to an existing 770km oil and gas pipeline. The project, which has drawn controversy over how indebted it will leave Myanmar to China, is part of the proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and China’s broader “Belt and Road Initiative”.
Late last month, as the prefabricated houses arrived in Myanmar, the two countries signed an agreement for a rail line in central Myanmar – part of a network connecting Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to the Kyuakpyu port.
A Chinese low-cost airline, 9 Air, has also started a new Guangzhou-Mandalay route.
Besides the port in Sittwe, India last month also signed off on the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, which will allow India to circumvent a chokepoint known as the “Chicken’s Neck” between Bhutan and Bangladesh and instead access its northeastern states via the Bay of Bengal and overland through Rakhine.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said China believes the cause of the conflict in Rakhine is poverty. An estimated 78 per cent of the state’s residents live below the poverty line, nearly twice as many as the national average in Myanmar.
“We call for the international community to increase support and investment in this area to promote development through poverty alleviation and achieve stability through development,” said Wang during a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi last year following the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis.
In the past three decades, China has invested over US$20 billion in Myanmar.
“The Chinese relationship with Myanmar is dominated by pragmatism. Interventions in Burma’s political arena are considered based on their impact on stability and on wider Chinese interests including security and economic investments,” wrote development analyst Adrienne Joy in a report for the US Institute of Peace.
Besides investments, India has the added consideration of managing its borders. The country has for years conducted training exercises with the Myanmar military and cooperates in maintaining security across their 1,600km shared border.
In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is facing re-election later this year and wants the quick repatriation of refugees. Bangladesh stopped issuing exit permits for resettlement to third countries in 2010, despite offers from nations like Canada to take in vulnerable refugees.
International aid groups and the UN say the conditions that caused the Rohingya to leave Rakhine remain unchanged on the ground. UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said the government had not made any progress in dismantling systematic discrimination in Rakhine.
According to documents seen by Reuters, the UN will not provide humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees repatriated into Myanmar if they are then held in camps.
Social media has played a major role as a vehicle for spreading anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. Last week Facebook acknowledged that its own internal commission found it did not do enough to prevent the spread of violence-inciting hate speech on the platform.
Experts said that while the military should be held accountable, isolating Myanmar was not the answer.
Facebook concedes it failed to address incitement in Myanmar, must now be prepared for 2020 elections
P.S. Ramya, a researcher at South Asia University, said sanctions would isolate Myanmar economically as well as ideologically, and could push the country back into the grip of the military.
Having India and especially China as economic partners could also help shield Myanmar from international legal investigation.
“The Myanmar government does not want the United Nations or International Criminal Court to investigate the issues in Rakhine state at this time,” said Shawlin Chaw, a Singapore-based senior analyst for consultancy Control Risks.
“Getting China’s support indirectly means getting Russia’s support, and being sure the United Nations Security Council will not go forward with an investigation is critical.”