Resettlement plan a sham

Resettlement plan a sham

Myanmar's government has unveiled a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. In essence, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, in what is known as a "phased return", will allow some returnees, beginning early next year, but not to their original villages, homes and land. It will build camps to "resettle" the Rohingya indefinitely. As the United Nations' refugee organisation and key international groups have said, the plan is unacceptable.

It is easy to see the problems of reversing the ethnic cleansing and forced emigration of the Rohingya. The Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, was largely responsible for causing and then hastening the flight of some 620,000 people from western Rakhine state. The Tatmadaw blames an attack on army and police posts by Rohingya militants for the crackdown. But the military launched a scorched-earth policy that burnt to the ground what the United Nations says were hundreds of Rohingya villages.

There are therefore no villages for the refugees to return to. This poses a practical problem, but for the moment at least Ms Suu Kyi's administration is treating it as permanent. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials, Myanmar has no plans beyond establishing the Rohingya in refugee camps. Absent are any stated policies to help returnees rebuild their villages -- or, in fact, leave the designated camps to try to resettle.

More than a dozen humanitarian organisations have rightly vowed, in writing, not to support the Myanmar plan for refugee centres. Prominent and respected groups, including Save the Children, say they will completely boycott any new refugee camps established by the government. Their statement said, specifically: "There should be no form of closed camps or camp-like settlements. [International] NGOs will not operate in such camps if they are created."

The well-founded fear of the international groups is that Myanmar intends to follow its long-held policies of refusing to recognise even the rights of the Rohingya to live in the country. Current government policy, inherited from the military dictatorship, holds that the Rohingya cannot be citizens. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called this a "cycle of violence and radicalisation".

After rejecting Mr Annan's call to normalise the Rohingya by granting them Myanmar nationality, the government has formed a new advisory body. It consists of five local and five foreign members, including the Thaksin-era foreign minister and Thai Rak Thai Party powerhouse, Surakiart Sathirathai, who now is a professional peace advocate. The members are to recommend steps "to create harmony for peaceful co-existence" in Rakhine state. Like the Annan commission, the United Nations and the NGOs, however, this new committee has no legal power. The policies of the army and radical Buddhists still hold sway.

It is possible to understand Ms Suu Kyi's predicament and wonder why she has taken no steps to ameliorate it. Until now, she has hardly spoken out openly for her country's most abused ethnic group. She has approved the return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh in principle -- there are many obstacles to overcome -- but must know that her government is going to be blamed for the unacceptable plan to put the victims of ethnic cleansing in refugee camps in the very area where they lived, worked and had property.

Ms Suu Kyi could reduce tensions by publicly calling for a new plan. It should include details of how the government will help or support efforts for the full repatriation of the Rohingya.

That must include a return to their original or new villages, not refugee camps and it's necessary that Myanmar allows human rights monitoring in its repatriation process. It is a small step to reconciliation but a necessary one.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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