Can the Rohingya Outcasts Return?

Sat, 11/25/2017 - 12:00am

The announcement of a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh which will allow the repatriation of the Rohingya may sound like good news. Here is why it is not.

In late August, the Myanmar military accompanied by local police units and Buddhist community members burned homes, looted property, and tortured and killed the Rohingya population. They raped and killed their Rohingya women. The pretext given for the outburst of violence was a number of attacks reported on police outposts conducted by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed Rohingya faction. Whatever the scale and nature of these different attacks, all of the evidence I have personally heard from surviving refugees in the camps in Bangladesh point toward a highly organized assault on Rohingya villages, planned well ahead of the ARSA attacks. There had been a build-up of activity over a period of months, and direct religious persecution particularly targeted at Muslim teachers who were hiding in the forests at night.

I have now interviewed survivors from multiple villages across a wide region of the Rakhine State. When the moment came to act against the Rohingya, someone gave an order.  From the order came a plan. The plan was then executed.  It is clear that there were a series of near simultaneous military actions carried across the region using virtually identical methods in each location.  

The attacks conducted on people and property were designed to viciously drive the Rohingya from their homes, property and country as a part of a genocidal program of ethnic cleansing. Many I interviewed describe being directly ordered by the military to leave the country, after family members were killed and homes destroyed. They made clear to them that the Rohingya are not citizens of Myanmar and have no right to be there.   

However attractive the sound of repatriation, without an amendment to the Myanmar Citizenship Laws of 1982, which enshrines their exclusion, the Rohingya people will remain stateless in their own country. Their vulnerable position has led to an outcast society with little or no access to education, economic opportunity or political representation. If that does not change, they are entirely at risk of a repetition of the same violence, or worse.  Should they return to their homes, it will be the same military, same police, and same Buddhist neighbors waiting to receive them. 


The repatriation memorandum signed with Bangladesh is a good outcome for Aung San Suu Kyi, who until now had been conspicuously silent. This way Suu Kyi gets to answer her critics with an act that looks for all the world like a Nobel Peace Prize laureate should do.  Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been hospitable to the refugees, but Bangladesh has no intention of giving permanent refuge to Myanmar’s outcasts.  Repatriation achieves her short-term goals of relieving the strain. Then there are the superpowers who between them did not pass a single resolution at the UN Security Council. They can now all get back to the business with Myanmar, literally.  So, if it seems so good for everyone else why not the Rohingya themselves?

Today, I spoke with refugees I had been interviewing for the USC Shoah Foundation at the Katupalong refugee camp. I told them about the repatriation deal. They had not heard the news, as they have little access to outside information. They looked perplexed. I then asked them whether they would be willing to go back. Without hesitation, they responded with a simultaneous ‘no way!’ which needed no translation. I asked them why.  

Imam Anwar Sadek prevailed over the cacophony that broke out. He explained that unless the Rohingya are given the ability to represent their own community’s interest in the negotiations, and unless citizenship and the assurance of personal human rights and security are given, that there is no way they could take such a risk. 

I heard the words of an eloquent community leader, a potential politician, who like everyone else there is just a voiceless refugee. Far away from Kutupalong camp, political leaders had signed on his behalf. Even further away, leaders of the great economic powers acquiesce hoping the accusations of genocidal ethnic cleansing in Myanmar quickly go away. 

Among the ten men gathered around me sat Abdul. Just a few minutes earlier he had described to me the way in which his two sons, aged 18 and 16, were shot in the back as they fled their village. He was not able to bury them.  He shook his head woefully at the news. Repatriation, however good it may sound, will not provide justice for his sons, restitution for his looted store, security for his surviving family, citizenship in his own country, or a guarantee of a safe return to his burned-out home. 

Stephen Smith