Two UN agencies on Wednesday signed an agreement with Myanmar to return some of the 700,000 Rohinyga who fled a violent crackdown by the government’s army and settled in neighboring Bangladesh, even as Myanmar continues to reject the Rohingya narratives or admit any wrongdoing.
The Rohingya — a Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country of roughly 53 million — have been persecuted for decades, and since August, have been the target of a brutal campaign that the UN has described as ethnic cleansing, with the hallmarks of a genocide.
The full Memorandum of Understanding has not been made public, but the Associated Press reported that it does not include any right to citizenship, which the Rohingya have been essentially denied for decades. In fact, Myanmar even denies that such a group exists, calling them “Bengalis” instead, and waging a heavy propaganda campaign on social media calling reporting of the rapes and killings “fake news.”
Myanmar’s statement on the agreement never refers to the Rohingya by name, describing them instead as “displaced persons.”
What the memorandum of understanding does promise is a framework for “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of the Rohingya.
“At present, almost no Rohingya are going back. They have voted with their feet and left the country at gunpoint. They didn’t want to be slaughtered,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia Division.
He said that the Rohingya refugees have told HRW that they will not go back without absolute guarantees of security and citizenship rights.
“It is unacceptable for an agreement made with a government that is engaged in ethnic cleansing … to be kept private.”
“And that means having international monitors on the ground that are empowered to intervene on their behalf if there are any problems — and we need to know if that’s in this agreement,” said Adams.
But given Myanmar’s behavior and history of denying the Rohingya their rights, the odds are slim that it would tolerate such level of intervention from foreign entities.
“There’s almost no chance that Burmese militarily or [Myanmar’s leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, who has completely been complicit with the army, will allow any kind of foreign presence. So that makes any kind of memorandum of understanding dead on arrival,” said Adams, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
He also said that the agreement must be made public.
“It is unacceptable for an agreement made with a government that is engaged in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity to be kept private,” he said, adding that the Rohingya have a right to know what kind of agreement the United Nations has made for their future.
ThinkProgress asked the UN’s development agency for a copy of the agreement, but was told the document is not public.
Of the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya that once lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, only around 125,000 remain, living in areas that rights groups have described as “concentration camps.”
The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, Knut Østby, told the AP that the agreement is the first step in the process.
“We are talking about approximately 700,000 people who don’t only have to return, but the conditions have to be right for them to return: the conditions both in terms of their identity in society, in terms of their safety and also in terms of services, livelihoods, a place to live, infrastructure,” said Østby.
But this is not the fist repatriation agreement Myanmar has signed.
An earlier agreement with Bangladesh seems to have gone nowhere, with Myanmar claiming to have started repatriating people as early as January — a claim the UN immediately disputed. Rights groups called the alleged repatriation “staged.”
Additionally, Myanmar insisted that Bangladesh “verify” the claims of any refugees who want to return, and out of the 8,000 that Dhaka verified, Myanmar said it would accept 374.
Rohingya want their livelihoods protected, their lands returned, and be compensated for their losses, Adams said.
“There’s a very long list of conditions that would be necessary that are normal in any large-scale refugee repatriation effort,” he said.
Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network, told the AP that there’s little faith in the community that Myanmar won’t continue to crack down on the Rohingya.
“It’s terrible to be wet, and cold, and maybe even sick. But it’s worse to go back when you’re just going to be slaughtered.”
“How will the Burmese government guarantee these people will not again face persecution?” he said, adding, “It is very politically convenient for the Burmese government to sign this agreement, and also never commit.”
For now, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees remain in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, where monsoon season is about to start and their tents are almost guaranteed to be flooded or washed away.
But that does not mean they are likely to return to Myanmar, said Adams.
“They will try to make do where they are, because it’s terrible to be wet, and cold, and maybe even sick. But it’s worse to go back when you’re just going to be slaughtered,” he said.