Myanmar’s Irresponsibility in Rohingya Refugee Repatriation: The World Must Act Now

At the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly Debate, Myanmar claimed that “Both the terrorist group ARSA and the terrorist insurgent group AA have used Bangladeshi territory as a sanctuary”. It is ironic that instead of facilitating the Rohingya repatriation, Myanmar is spreading propaganda, fabricated and false information to avoid their obligation to repatriation. In fact, it is well known to the world that Bangladesh follows a “zero-tolerance policy” to terrorism, terrorists financing and other drivers of terrorism under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has ensured that Bangladesh territory is not used by any terrorist.

It is nothing new for Myanmar. Myanmar also labeled Rohingyas as terrorist earlier to systematically persecute them. It is reported that Mandalay monk Ashin Wirathu used “social media to spread often false stories about Muslims, regularly denigrating them in speeches as mad dogs and rapists. Those that dare challenge Wirathu’s view of events quickly become the target of his invective. UN envoy Yanghee Lee was labelled a ‘whore’ when she stood up for the rights of the Muslim Rohingya minority” (Fisher 2015).

Indeed, Rohingyas were framed as “terrorist”, as the “enemy” of the state of Myanmar to occupy their lands. Donald M. Seekins rightly notes that “in a classic ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy, both military regimes have enlisted Arakanese Buddhists in attacks on Rohingya communities, and, after evicting the Muslims, allowed the Arakanese Buddhists to occupy their lands” (Seekins 2006:383).

Myanmar also claimed in the UN General Assembly that 350 Rohingyas from camps in Cox’s Bazar district had returned to Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Bangladesh raised questions over Myanmar’s such claim and wanted to know the whereabouts of those returnees. Bangladesh asks that: “Who are those 350 people? Where are they now? Are they living at their homes in safety and security?”. It is ironic that while Bangladesh is hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingyas since August 2017, though false claim, the number of 350 becomes a matter of joke.

The fact is that on January 16, 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a document on Physical Arrangement to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to their homeland. But unfortunately two repatriation attempts were failed in November 2018 and August 2019 due to Myanmar’s lack of political will and lack of seriousness by the international community to pressurize the Myanmar government.

In fact, Myanmar failed to create a safe and favourable condition for the Rohingya repatriation. Thus, no Rohingya is interested to repatriate. Myanmar did not show any interest to implement the repatriation deal signed with Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Myanmar has backing from the major powers including China, Russia, and India in the Rohingya issue. Consequently, Myanmar did not face severe international pressure on facilitating a successful Rohingya repatriation.

In the UN General Assembly, Myanmar identifies Rohingya crisis as a bilateral problem between Myanmar and Bangladesh. But it is Myanmar’s internal problem. It has been created by Myanmar and has to be resolved by Myanmar, as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina noted in the UN General Assembly. Bangladesh as a good neighbourly attitude  opened doors to the helpless Rohingyas who were raped, tortured, and killed by the Myanmar armies.While major powers in the region including China, India closed their doors to the Rohingya crisis, did Bangladesh make the wrong decision to show greater humanity to the Rohingyas, to save lives? Unfortunately, Bangladesh became a victim of Myanmar’s atrocities to the Rohingya refugees as Myanmar is not showing any concrete interest to repatriate those Rohingyas now. On the other hand, the international community also failed to make a successful repatriation though three years have already passed.

One needs to look at the genealogy of the Rohingyas to make a successful repatriation.If one looks at the existing literature on the Rohingyas, it was in fact 1799 when Francis Buchanan contends that “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.” (Reprinted 2003:55). Michael W. Charney from the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS], University of London thinks that “the derivation of Rohingya from Roainga is very clear” (Charney 2005). Moshe Yegar (1972:2) in his book The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group notes that “Muslim seamen first reached Burma in the ninth century. Although geographically on the perimeter of the major trade routes, Burma nevertheless enjoyed rather lively shipping activity which brought in its wake the beginnings of a Muslim settlement.” Yegar traced the ancestors of the Rohingyas to the Arab and Persian traders.Therefore, the lineage of the Rohingyas in Arakan was strongly found in earlier Burma which indicates that they are living in the country throughout centuries. This genealogy of the Rohingyas needs to be used by the international community to pressurize the Myanmar government and ensure the safety and well-being of the Rohingyas by ensuring their safe return in the Arakan state of Myanmar.

The international community needs to visit in the Arakan state and monitor the situation there to understand the conducive environment for the return of the Rohingya refugees. The international media needs to report the situation in Myanmar on a regular basis so that the world becomes well-aware of the developments there.

Finally, Bangladesh is providing food, shelter, medicare and other services to more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees since August 2017 but cannot handle such a huge people for a long time. Rohingya refugee crisis has already created economic, environmental, ecological, and social problems for Bangladesh. The country has already sacrificed a lot for the Rohingya refugees including its hundreds of acres of forests. The world needs to know that more than 170 million people live in 1,47, 570 square k.m. area with limited resources in Bangladesh which makes it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The world community needs to understand that it becomes a daunting task for Bangladesh to continue its whole-hearted support for the Rohingya refugee given the existing socio-economic realities of Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, it is already three years passed but concrete actions either from Myanmar government or from international community is absent. Thus, the proactive support of global community is a must now to address this crisis. One can also note that the scholars, the media, the civil society organizations, the human rights organizations in the world needs to come forward to mobilize global support in favour of Rohingya refugee repatriation as none can avoid its responsibility to address the crisis.

The bottom-line is that Myanmar’s irresponsibility to repatriate the Rohingya refugee became the key challenge. Myanmar needs to stop spreading propaganda against the peaceful Bangladesh. It is Myanmar’s responsibility to ensure the safe return of the Rohingyas in Myanmar who were living in Myanmar throughout centuries as the historical document suggests. In this case, the accountability of the state of Myanmar to successfully repatriate the Rohingyas needs to be ensured by the international community. The culprits of the genocide need to be brought under the justice system so that such a caseis not repeated in the future. The future generations will not forgive the Myanmar government and the international community if they fail to show humanity, to ensure justice to a great tragedy, to the Rohingya crisis. The world must act now.

Shariful Islam
Shariful Islam
Md. Shariful Islam is an assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Currently, he is on study leave and pursuing Ph.D. in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. Email: shariful_ruir[at]