The ultimately postponed plan for over 2,000 Rohingya refugees to return to the place they experienced unspeakable violence created fear, anxiety and in some cases desperation in camps in Bangladesh last week, forcing some to hide from authorities or attempt to leave the refugee camp to avoid this prospect. While different in scale, similar anxieties about a possible return have been mounting along the other side of Myanmar where just across the border in Thailand, approximately 100,000 refugees remain displaced in nine refugee camps while over 160,000 people continue to be internally displaced persons (IDPs) just in the southeast of Myanmar. While there remains major concerns about the safety and security for returning refugees, a recent report by The Border Consortium, (TBC), a consortium of NGOs working with displaced populations for over three decades, has found that push factors such as the gradual withdrawal of assistance are some of the major reasons why some refugees have been returning to Myanmar. These push factors that are forcing refugees to return were highlighted by a brave lone demonstrator in Thailand who walked through the border town of Mae Sot in an attempt to call attention to the deteriorating living conditions in Mae La refugee camp, calling for the UN refugee agency to find durable solutions for its residents.
The recent report by TBC outlined the human security concerns in southeastern Myanmar, where many of the refugees and IDPs fled armed conflict and related human rights violations which have plagued ethnic communities for decades. The report, ‘Human Security in South Eastern Myanmar,’ highlights how while many displaced persons have made attempts to return in the past five years, “the sustainability of these movements and prospects for reintegration remain in doubt due to ongoing security and livelihood concerns.” Ethnic community-based organizations have been documenting the growing establishment of Myanmar military outposts and its reinforcement in ethnic areas in spite of, and in some cases, because of, ceasefire agreements, while IDPs and refugees remain fearful of returning to areas occupied by the same military which drove them out of their homes. Moreover, the same military which terrorized ethnic communities for decades with impunity have also confiscated their land without compensation, further complicating their possible return.
One of the major issues facing returning refugees, as highlighted by the TBC report, is that of land tenure. There are complex issues around the restitution of the lost land and property to displaced populations from eastern Myanmar, including contested claims, secondary occupation, and the marginalization of customary land law, as laws that favor private investors and individual ownership are forced upon ethnic areas. Recent developments only add to the mounting concerns. Despite serious ongoing public opposition, the Myanmar government recently pushed forward with the adoption of the 2018 Vacant Fallow Virgin Land Management Law. The law supports a centralized system of governance requiring those currently using their ancestral land to register it with the government. Those using what is considered “vacant, fallow and virgin land” under the law without government permission will be punished with imprisonment of up to two years. According to a statement signed by over 340 CSOs, “the law does not take into consideration people who have been displaced by various conflicts, and instead it continues an effort to grab the land of ethnic peoples across the country.” In Rakhine State, the process of taking over land has been much quicker. The Rohingya’s land has been taken over already, their crops cleared and their houses burned down. In the context of such Government policies that are especially problematic to ethnic communities, it is vital that the international donor community ensures that any refugee and IDP return plan prioritizes a restitution process for the housing, land and property lost by refugees and IDPs that adheres to the Pinheiro Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons.
What links the situation for Rohingya refugees who are living in Bangladesh and the IDPs and refugees living in southeastern Myanmar and the camps in Thailand is that the root causes of their displacement remain unaddressed. For the Rohingya to go back to Rakhine State, fundamental issues such as citizenship, freedom of movement, guarantees of security, restitution of their housing, land and property, and accountability for the crimes committed against their communities must be resolved. While receiving less attention globally, these issues are also prevalent for the displaced populations of Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan and Kachin States. Until these issues are resolved, however, international aid organizations must continue to provide support for refugees and IDPs until they believe that the time is right for them to return. Furthermore, any plans for return or other process that affects their future must be with the full consultation and participation of the displaced populations themselves, especially in decision-making stages. Only they can decide what is best for them, and have proved time and time again in eastern Myanmar that they are the ones who keep their communities functioning with their aspirations and resilience despite all the challenges. International donors must continue to support them and their invaluable contributions for their communities, including holding the Myanmar government accountable, as this is the only way towards achieving a sustainable solution for these populations which is essential for genuine peace in Myanmar.
 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.
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Human Rights Watch
By Land in Our Hands and Myanmar Alliances for Trasparency and Accountability
By The Border Consortium
By The Border Consortium
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.”