Repatriation needs right conditions
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Repatriation needs right conditions

Early this month, news broke about plans of Myanmar's military regime to start repatriating some 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar's Rakhine State. Myanmar's generals are in a hurry. Reportedly, they want to start repatriation by mid-next month, during Ramadan. The choice of that date is no coincidence.

The regime is working to meet an April 24 deadline set by the International Court of Justice. By that date Myanmar has to present a report to the justices in The Hague. It will be in response to allegations by The Gambia that Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya violates the genocide convention.

Last month, the military regime collected statements from witnesses of atrocities committed in 2017, when its violence drove some 750,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh. It probably hopes the court will be impressed by the statements it collected and bless the start of repatriation.

However, experts agree the basic conditions for voluntary and dignified Rohingya returns with full rights (including citizenship rights) are not in place. In addition to impressing the justices, Myanmar also wants to impress members of the international community prepared to believe that Myanmar's generals are their best bet for stability in the region.

Little attention has been paid to the dire situation of about 600,000 Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh in 2017. They remain trapped in a dehumanising system of state-sponsored discrimination and racial segregation. There is a word for this: apartheid -- a crime against humanity defined by international law.

Myanmar's military is already accountable for keeping the apartheid system in place. Members of the international community who actively support Myanmar's repatriation plan may end up being identified as accessories. Since 2017, neither the NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi, nor the current illegitimate State Administrative Council took effective measures to dismantle Rakhine State's apartheid system.

For decades, Rohingya in Rakhine State have faced extreme discrimination and racially based restrictions in law, policy and practice. It intensified from 2012 onwards. Rakhine State became an open air prison for the Rohingya. Almost every aspect of their lives is severely restricted, and their human rights -- including the right to freedom of movement, citizenship, adequate healthcare, education, work and food -- have been routinely violated.

What makes it apartheid? Myanmar has aimed to dominate and isolate the Rohingya. According to Amnesty International, over the years four factors have contributed to severe breaches of human rights: the denial of the right to a nationality, extreme restrictions on freedom of movement, wide ranging violations of economic and social rights and systemic exclusions. The system also contributes to what article II.c of the Genocide Convention calls "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part".

As long as this dehumanising system of ethnic segregation remains in place, it is inconceivable that legitimate concerns expressed by potential returnees remain unheard. Dismantling the system is a critical prerequisite to ensure the dignified and voluntary return of refugees in Bangladesh and other countries.

Rakhine State's political reality is complex. Since 2018, it has frequently seen disturbing levels of violent conflict between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organisation that has been operating in the state since late 2014. Fighting has been affecting Rohingya living close to the firing line, trapping them between the two sides. Although an informal truce was agreed in November, violence could break out again at any moment.

Unlike states with well established ethnic armed organisations, the Arakan Army (AA) and its civilian arm, the United League of Arakan (ULA), have not yet fully established governance structures. They are making progress but in many areas they do not yet have full control. It is better to speak of mixed control. The military regime is still able to manifest itself in many areas.

The ULA/AA have taken some encouraging steps, such as the inclusion of Rohingya in some local administrative and judicial mechanisms, but it is yet to show the kind of vision and leadership needed to move beyond tokenism and to remove the laws, policies and practices that keep Apartheid in place.

In June 2021, Myanmar's parallel NUG government acknowledged the serious crimes committed against the Rohingya, but it remains unclear whether the NUG really seeks to recognise the Rohingya as an official ethnic group which would give them citizenship rights. As part of its legislative work, the NUG should speed up work to either amend the discriminatory citizenship law of 1982 or table a new bill.

In addition to the military regime and ULA/AA, other stakeholders also claim a role in Rakhine State. Several political parties continue their efforts to remain relevant. The largest, the Arakan National Party, has recently registered for the military regime's planned elections. In the north, two Rohingya insurgency groups (Arsa and RSO) continue to make their presence felt, while foreign governments, notably China and India, are planning large-scale infrastructure developments.

The political dynamics are complex and, granted, after decades of fear and hatred among both the Rohingya and Rakhine populations, trust and nation building will take time. But complexity cannot be an excuse for inaction.

It is disappointing that so little has been done to start a process leading to a widely accepted vision for the future of the state, one that makes equality and not ethnicity the cornerstone of governance.

Laetitia van den Assum is a former Netherlands ambassador. She was also a member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by the late Kofi Annan. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired Thai ambassador and former elected member of parliament.

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