Despite the horrific violence, institutionalized discrimination, and curtailment of many basic human rights, the repatriation of Rohingya to Rakhine State is due to start this week, as decreed by the Joint Working Group that consists of officials from the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar. This is an extremely premature and dangerous move, as nothing has been done to address the violence and persecution that forced nearly 800,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. Furthermore, with their homes burned to the ground, the living reality of returnees will be segregated, newly built villages, in which freedom of movement is hugely restricted, and access to jobs, essential services, and other aspects of Rohingyas’ rights as citizens of Myanmar will be denied.
The intended commencement of return coincides with the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which has also established an initiative involving the the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, to visit Myanmar “to discuss the quickest way to help the Rohingya community return to their country.” Yet by doing so, not only will this add momentum for a return process that is fraught with danger, but also adds a false layer of legitimacy to the Myanmar government’s plans to establish apartheid-like segregation for returning Rohingya. This initiative also has the potential to evade measures to address the root causes of the Rohingya’s displacement and hold accountable those who perpetrated crimes against humanity and genocide against the persecuted Rohingya minority. As a statement by civil society organizations in the region states, “ASEAN must not consider the option of voluntary return without addressing the root causes of the displacement and entrenched discrimination of the Rohingya.”
The opposition to the repatriation process beginning at this moment is clear. A statement by 42 aid agencies working both in Rakhine State and in the camps in Bangladesh gives a stark warning about premature return, stating the need for freedom of movement, access to essential services such as health and education, and most of all, security. Forcing the Rohingya to return under these conditions would be in breach of customary international law. As the statement by aid agencies warned, “The involuntary return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, where their lives and safety remain at grave risk, is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.” This is echoed by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who stated “I urge the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to halt these rushed plans for repatriation, to ensure the protection of the Rohingya refugees and to adhere to their international human rights and refugee law obligations to ensure any returns are safe, sustainable, voluntary and dignified.”
Worst of all, these plans for return have not been in consultation with the refugees themselves. If the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar had consulted Rohingya refugees, a clear message would have been received: that right now they dare not to go back. Added to this are the living conditions that they would return to. Their homes and villages have been burned or bulldozed to the ground, with plans underway for non-Rohingya residents to move onto this land. For the Rohingya, however, newly built ‘reception centers’ or ‘transit camps’ which resemble open-air prisons in which Rohingya cannot move freely to and from, segregated from the rest of the population of Myanmar, are waiting for them. In other words, apartheid.
There is now a deep fear among camp residents in Bangladesh about the prospect of return. One man attempted to commit suicide after he believed he would be forced to return against his will. Speaking to The Telegraph, his wife stated, “My husband said Burma, where we may face rape, murder and other violence again, is unsafe for all Rohingyas and so we should not return.” Another refugee also expressed his fear, “The security forces who unleashed genocide-like violence against us are still around there. I can never trust them. There is no guarantee that they will not turn against us again as they did last year. I certainly want to go back to my homeland. But I cannot return until our demands are met.”
The plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees are premature, dangerous, contravenes international human rights and refugee law obligations, and are against the express will of the primary stakeholders in this conversation – the refugees themselves. It is not that they never want to go home, but they must be able to return home in safety, dignity, and to be able to exercise their fundamental human rights, including freedom of movement, citizenship, and human security. International actors, such as ASEAN, have a responsibility to protect these most vulnerable communities by pressuring both the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments to suspend their planned repatriation process. Furthermore, they must apply all possible pressure to the Myanmar Government to address the root causes of the Rohingya’s displacement, and bring those perpetrators responsible for mass atrocities to account.
 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
By 42 Non-Governmental Organization
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Karen National Union Headquarters
By Karen National Union Headquarters
By Karen Local Community
By Land in Our Hands
By Land in Our Hands
By Progressive Voice and 11 Civil Soceity Organizations
By United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
By Freedom House
By Free Burma Rangers
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.”