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Why The Rohingya Can’t Return

Just months after a vicious military crackdown sent over 700,000 Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, the two countries have agreed on the eventual repatriation of the refugees, but not on a timeline or with details for what that process would look like.

This month, a senior Bangladeshi official condemned the Myanmar government as “evil,” and asserted that the refugees could not be repatriated for the foreseeable future. Although the world has watched the Rohingya humanitarian crisis with rapt attention, the strident nationalism enabling Myanmar’s “evil” behavior is not well understood.

Contemporary Burmese national identity revolves around the majority Bamar population, leading to numerous armed ethnic conflicts and a general shortage of trust between the government and ethnic leadership. In addition, the absence of meaningful civil rights protections has combined with decades of repression and ongoing unrest in border regions to create the present catastrophe.

Repatriation of Rohingya refugees will never be viable without a fundamental shift in the country’s allocation of political power.

Myanmar has astounding diversity, with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups as well as others like the Rohingya who are not officially recognized as native to the country. But ethnic minorities simply do not enjoy parity with the Bamar. Members of both the military and civilian government are disproportionately Bamar, and minorities often face challenges gaining citizenship (which grants access to other entitlements such as higher education, employment and the ability to serve in public office). And while the world has focused on the Rohingya catastrophe due to its scale and scope, other minorities have also faced similar tactics and oppression for years.

Repatriation of Rohingya refugees will never be viable without a fundamental shift in the country’s allocation of political power, as well as an expansion of rights and privileges for all. “Relations between the central government (both civilian and military) and ethnic politicians ... are abysmal. Urgent damage control is called for,” said Khin Zaw Win, executive director of the Tampadipa Institute, a nonprofit in Myanmar which conducts policy advocacy on a range of issues including federalism, nation-building and communal issues.

In January, Myanmar police cracked down on a demonstration by Buddhist Rakhine nationalists in the city of Mrauk U, leaving at least seven dead and many more injured. Mrauk U demonstrates that in a country without civil rights protections, the state can easily pivot against any outlying social group (be it one defined by ethnicity, religion, or otherwise). Similarly, the Kaman — a Muslim ethnic group who live in Rakhine state alongside the Rohingya and local Buddhists — have faced discrimination and challenges securing national identity cards which ensure freedom of travel, even though they are among the minorities accepted as native to Myanmar.

According to Htuu Lou Rae Den, founder and acting director of Coexist Myanmar, which seeks to promote the formation of a common national identity and a sense of belonging by ethnic and religious communities, “What is needed to stop this [trend] is moral courage, and honesty to [one]self and others.”

A realization that the Mrauk U killings and Rohingya disaster are both consequences of the same failure to value and protect human life and civil rights is a necessary first step.