Voluntary, Safe and Dignified Return Requires More than Infrastructure
In recent weeks, the Myanmar Government has engaged in a charm offensive, leading diplomatic delegations on tours to inspect newly-built “repatriation centers” and to demonstrate the process of issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs). These tours appear to be an attempt to convince the international community of Myanmar’s preparedness to accept returning Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. The formal repatriation process continues to move slowly forward, as Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan presented his Myanmar counterpart with a list of 8,032 Rohingya names to be verified on 15 February, 2018, for the first set of returns.
Most Rohingya interviewed in international media and by human rights groups have clearly stated that they will not agree to return without full citizenship, better guarantees for their security, legal redress for the abuses they suffered, and the restitution of their land and property, when possible, and compensation where not possible. Preparations for return thus far in Myanmar have not addressed any of those conditions, leading Rohingya community leaders to protest in January 2018 against the commencement of repatriation under the Myanmar-Bangladesh 2017 agreement. Echoing these concerns in his briefing to the UN Security Council in February 2018, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees summarized the current situation: “Conditions are not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. … The construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation.”
Despite diplomatic efforts through tours and bilateral meetings with Bangladeshi officials, the Myanmar Government has been unable to cover up the scale of the destruction, violence and underlying hostility toward Rohingya that will make sustainable return and reintegration almost impossible as currently conceived. Commenting after a visit to northern Rakhine State, Bob Rae, Canadian Special Envoy to Myanmar, said “It will take a much more sustained approach on the part of the government of Myanmar, and a demonstrated willingness to take on extremist elements that are clearly opposed to the return of the Rohingya and their integration with full citizenship and human rights in Myanmar.” Without addressing this rejection of Rohingya citizenship, and overall dehumanization of Rohingya, no repatriation can be safe or sustainable.
Of particular concern is continued impunity for and denial of international crimes committed by security forces who are still present in Rakhine State and who remain a serious risk. Furthermore, any returning Rohingya will also face a local population increasingly radicalized by incendiary reporting, speeches and statements by the Myanmar Army, political and religious leaders, risking further attacks and discrimination.
National Verification Cards (NVCs) are another sticking point in the repatriation process. The Myanmar Government holds them up as a quick, relatively simple documentation process that the government claims will lead to citizenship in the future for those eligible. On the other hand, many Rohingya doubt the intentions of the government in providing this temporary identification, which does not indicate the duration of its validity, and that comes with few rights, strict restrictions on movement and other essential freedoms, and no guarantees of future citizenship. The cards also do not specify ethnicity or religion, leading many Rohingya to see this form of the NVC as another way to erase their identity. It is also important to note that many Rohingya had official identification before fleeing, despite decades-long institutionalized discrimination that deprived them of citizenship, and that many qualify for citizenship even under the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, making NVCs a redundant and discriminatory step in repatriation. White cards, similar temporary documentation granted by the government in the past, were rescinded in 2015 in exchange for another “citizenship verification process” that in practice has resulted in citizenship for very few people, contributing to a lack of trust in promises of future recognition of citizenship.
In addition to physical safety, return of Rohingya property seems unlikely at this point, at least in the near future. Photos taken from the air by EU Ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt rendered visible the extent of the physical devastation to the Rohingya population, showing that recently-burned villages had now been completely bulldozed. Erasing all traces of Rohingya from their ancestral lands, including destruction of mosques, schools and other community sites, can easily be interpreted as an attempt to remove them entirely from the landscape, which forms an important part of Rohingya identity. Meanwhile, the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State, the government’s main focal point for addressing the repatriation process, is a public-private partnership with the presence of many formerly-sanctioned business tycoons closely linked to military elites. This raises concerns that business interests will take precedence over the rights of Rohingya and other affected civilians.
On 26 February 2018, the EU Foreign Affairs Council will meet to discuss Myanmar. This is a chance for the EU to take a step in the right direction and take concrete action that will provide accountability for those most responsible for such crimes against humanity. In a statement after its recent visit to Rakhine State, a delegation from the European Parliament led by the Subcommittee on Human Rights called for “an independent international investigation into the mass atrocities” in Rakhine State, “in order to ensure accountability and end impunity.” The EU Foreign Affairs Council should build on this push for accountability by imposing individual financial sanctions and visa bans, as called for in an open letter by 21 civil society organizations inside and outside Myanmar. These measures would demonstrate that, despite enormous challenges to criminal accountability in the short-term, the world will not let such serious crimes pass without consequence. Individual sanctions and visa bans from the EU would build on efforts from other states, such as following the recent example of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which announced sanctions against Maj-Gen Maung Maung Soe, the same individual targeted by US sanctions in December 2017, shortly after Special Envoy Rae’s visit to Rakhine State. While a welcome first step toward accountability, imposing sanctions on one person, especially one who has already been discharged from duty by the same institution continuing to commit crimes with impunity will be merely a token measure and will not stop the violence on the ground, let alone hold accountable those most responsible.
Furthermore, the abuses and violence suffered by the Rohingya are part of a decades-long institutionalized pattern of abuses that cannot be solved through a solely technical approach to repatriation logistics. The EU and its counterparts must look past physical infrastructure and pressure the Myanmar government to take substantial steps to resolve the legitimate concerns of Rohingya refugees and ensure carefully calculated conditions are in place before commencing repatriation. This must include addressing the deeply-entrenched trauma the Rohingya population has endured, and taking other measures to build trust. Most important of all is for the Myanmar Government to listen to the voices of the Rohingya refugees, treating them with respect and dignity as equal human beings. Until the Myanmar Government and security forces can earn the trust of Rohingya refugees, voluntary return will not be possible.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
NCA လက္မွတ္ေရးထုိးေရးႏွင့္ပတ္သက္၍ သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Arakan National Council
Statement by the Children of Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan on the 10th Anniversary of his Assassination by Agents of the Burmese Military Government
By Children of Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan
Myanmar: EP Delegation Calls for Enquiry into Human Rights Violations
By European Parliament
U.N. Security Council: Refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court
By Fortify Rights
Security Council Briefing on the Situation in Myanmar, Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča
By Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča
Briefing on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council
By Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”