Event Recap: What's Next for the Rohingya?

The Rohingya Crises may have faded from the headlines but the plight of the Rohingya remains uncertain. On April 2nd, 2019, the Asia Program hosted Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, one of the foremost experts on Burma and the Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal Global University in India to discuss recent developments with the Rohingya Community what could be in store for them in the future. In this capacity, Dr. Kipgen analyzed the different propositions made by Bangladesh, Myanmar and China to resolve the humanitarian disaster.

Bangladesh has made two proposals regarding the Rohingya. The first envisions the establishment of a “safe zone” within Myanmar under the vigilance of Russia, India, China and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to solve the Rohingya crises. Dr. Kipgen believes such a solution is not feasible as Myanmar would consider an internationally administered safe zone to be interference in its internal matters and a “threat to its national sovereignty security”

Dhaka’s second proposal concerns the overcrowding of Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. In order to mitigate this issue, the Bangladeshi government would like to re-locate a 100,000 or so refugees to Bhasan Char or ‘floating island’. So far, they have constructed over a thousand temporary houses on the island, but Dr. Kipgen states that “so far there is no visible movement” when it comes to the relocation. Bangladesh has told the international community that it will only undertake the relocation if the refugees are willing to move, and it seems like the Rohingya community doesn’t seem particularly keen on moving to an island that has been previously uninhabited and is prone to natural disasters, particularly floods. However, there do seem to be some within the Rohingya community, who “instead of going back to Burma and going through the same experience, would rather choose to go to the floating island.”

When it comes to Myanmar, it seems that there is gap between what the civilian government has proposed to do and what the military will allow it to execute. According to a bi-lateral agreement between the Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya population is to be repatriated to the Rakhine state and each returnee would be provided with an identification card which would initiate an eventual path to citizenship. However, the Burmese military has not endorsed this course of action and the Commander-in-Chief has stated that unless the ‘genuine’ Burmese population of Rakhine state are open to this idea, the Rohingya will not be allowed back into Myanmar. A majority of the population of Rakhine state do indeed view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and do not believe they should come back. As a result, the “Burmese government has not made any commitment to provide security to the Rohingya population or to give them citizenship once they return.”

The Rohingya community themselves have made a few demands before they can go back to Myanmar. To begin with, they would like to return to their villages, have their lands returned to them and their homes rebuilt. They also want the government to recognize the Rohingya as one of the ethnic groups of the country in addition to the 135 ethnic groups already recognized by the Burmese state. Moreover, they would like to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar.

Dr Kipgen says that “For China the problem is poverty, they do not talk about citizenship or identity.” Beijing proposed a three stage plan to resolve the crises in 2017: first, a ceasefire is enforced to maintain law and order in Rakhine state and prevent the further flight of Rohingya refugees, second, the United Nations Security Council should help Bangladesh and Myanmar negotiate a bilateral solution to the problem, and third, the international community should help alleviate poverty in Rakhine so the ‘root cause’ of the crises can be addressed.

While the first stage of the Chinese proposal has been more or less fulfilled, the latter two have seemed elusive. The international community was able to pressure Myanmar and Bangladesh into signing a bi-lateral agreement to repatriate the Rohingya, but the agreement is problematic as it mandates the members of the Rohingya community to produce documents proving that they are from Myanmar. Many members of the Rohingya community never held such documents and many more lost them as they fled from Rakhine state. Dr. Kipgen adds that the international community has been undertaken development projects in Rakhine state, but so far, they’ve had little impact on the situation.

To conclude Dr. Kipgen says that he sees two possible outcomes in the near future. One, under international pressure especially the member states of ASEAN, Myanmar may be willing to expedite the process of repatriation and begin taking back Rohingya refugees with some minimal guarantees. The second and more likely outcome is that the “Rohingya will stay back in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future.” Should the Rohingya continue to be housed in Cox’s Bazaar, the refugee camps could become potential hot spots for the recruitment of extremists outfits particularly Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Even organizations such as ISIS have pledged their support for the Rohingya cause. Overall, there is a possibility that members of the Rohingya community are radicalized and if that happens it will disturb the entire Asia Pacific region.

Dr Kipgen also emphasized that the Rohingya crises was not a conflict between the Buddhist and the Muslims. He says there are Muslim communities within Myanmar whose members are Burmese citizens and the Rohingya themselves consist of Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

Image: Hafiz Johari / Shutterstock.com

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.