• Saturday, Oct 16, 2021
  • Last Update : 02:13 pm

OP-ED: Myanmar coup questions Rohingya repatriation

  • Published at 01:27 am February 7th, 2021
Rohingyas sail for Bhashan Char
A batch of Rohingya refugees being transported to Bhashan Char Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

What is the next step for Bangladesh to resolve the refugee crisis?

A military rule is again imposed on Myanmar through an army-led coup on February 1, 2021; the toppled government is accused of election fraud, which isn’t supported by the Western media. 

After the coup, people of Bangladesh are seeking an answer to a new question -- will 1.1 million Rohingya be able to return to their homes from Bangladesh? 

Now, unfortunately, I don’t see any clear answer to the question; even before the coup, we had many reasons to doubt, and the repatriation move has not started yet. The Rohingya problem was the worst during Aung San Suu Kyi’s so-called democratic rule. The military junta has indiscriminately killed this Muslim population in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and Suu Kyi has defended the atrocity in an international court. 

As a symbol of democracy, the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has shown her hidden face to the world as a racist. Therefore, the Rohingya return issue is irrelevant with Suu Kyi not being in power or in jail.

In consultation with the military junta in Myanmar, Bangladesh has the experience of repatriating about 300,000 Rohingya who took refuge in Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, with junta rule behind democracy for the past 10 years. The military has never lost control of a civilian-led government. It is true that under the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the possibility of a military coup had been relatively low. Still, the military has always found an excuse to reassert itself at the centre of Myanmar’s politics. In the end, they succeeded.

Aung San Suu Kyi was re-elected to form the NLD government in Myanmar’s general election on November 8, 2020, but the military took full control of power on February 1, 2021 -- the first day the new parliament session was scheduled to take place. The legislature, the executive branch, and the judiciary -- the country’s three main divisions -- are in Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s hands. The accusation was Suu Kyi’s alleged vote-rigging in the election.


Suu Kyi was captured by the military at midnight just hours before her second term began. 24 ministers in her cabinet were fired, and new ministers were filled with mostly senior army officers. Some are members of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Una Mong Loon, one of the leaders of the USPD, has been appointed foreign minister. He lost the November election.

Since the last parliamentary elections, the country has been in trouble when the army-backed opposition did not accept the results. Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing issued a statement criticizing the election commission for various irregularities during the election. He also blamed the NLD and said he could not accept the election result because of the government’s “unacceptable mistake.” However, international observers and the country’s election commission said it was a reasonably peaceful election.

Three in 50 years

Only three elections have been held during the long 50 years of military rule. Suu Kyi’s party did not run in the 2010 general election. She came to power after winning the 2015 general election. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose official title was state counsellor of Myanmar, could not start her second term after winning a landslide victory in the November election. 

Myanmar’s new constitution, adopted in 2008, calls for 75% of the seats to be filled by popular vote, with the remaining 25% reserved for the military. The military designed a constitution so that the NLD could never come to power in a multi-ethnic, politically diverse country.

If Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to power, would she have repealed the constitution? No, that was not possible because she couldn’t garner 75% support for a change in the constitution. So, the big question now is why the army is furious with Suu Kyi. Over the past 10 years, the military has gradually relinquished power to the civilian administration, but they have not wanted Suu Kyi to return to power. 

They could not digest the miserable defeat in the last election of the USPD which they supported. That’s why they called the election a fraud and used it as a tool to remove Suu Kyi. The army chief was due to retire a few months later. What will be his status then? If Myanmar is convicted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC) for the Rohingya extermination, then the first punishment will be for the army chief, when he is supposed to be a retired general -- those factors also worked.

One hundred and thirty-five ethnic minority groups in Myanmar do not care about the central government. Many of these groups are well-armed, and have considerable financial strength from various illicit trades. That is why they are not willing to accept the dominance of the government in the regions. Elections on November 8 could not be held in many places controlled by them. 

About 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims, including those living in Rakhine State and Bangladesh, did not have the right to vote. 4% of the country’s 55 million people are Muslim and they are not in the mainstream political movement. Overall, this election was flawed. Human Rights Watch also called the election “fundamentally flawed.”

After the military took control, it was announced that a new election commission will be set up and that voter lists will be scrutinized and reviewed under the rules; the army will hold a general election after a year-long state of emergency in the country.

But who knows how many years the “one year” means in the term of military rule! Avoiding all forms of conflict, the Myanmar government could focus on rapid economic development and humanitarian protection. Whatever the outcome of the election, Suu Kyi’s election also provided an opportunity to focus on building peace by reducing the long-running conflict in Myanmar’s tragically divided and impoverished society. 

Above all, it could allow solving the Rohingya problem, so that the international pressure on the country would be reduced. But in the current situation, they will once again have to deal with the international community, including the United Nations, at the mercy of China’s veto in UNSC.

No alternative but to stand by Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi’s behaviour towards the Rohingya, the absolute violation of human rights, made her unpopular in international communities; but, currently, foreign governments have no alternative other than supporting her to some extent for the sake of nurturing democracy. The international community will stand by Suu Kyi in the crisis in Myanmar.

The Western world did not take this coup lightly. The incident will put US President Joe Biden to his first global test -- to face Myanmar’s defender China. The promise he made to keep democracy and the restoration of human rights at the centre of US foreign policy must be fulfilled. It is not strange to say that the US-China Cold War has just started over Myanmar.

It is not easy for Bangladesh to deal with this crisis, because some of its allies are technically for Myanmar, and some are against it. In that case, tackling the Rohingya issue through successful diplomacy is a big challenge for it. Bangladesh has already made it clear that it is not willing to worry about Myanmar’s internal affairs. 

No matter who is in the government, the diplomatic relationship will be continued like before. The main point is, they have to take back the Rohingya because there are agreements, made by the governments, to solve the Rohingya refugee crisis.

In the end, I would like to say that Bangladesh has no option to step back from the international efforts to resolve the Rohingya problem, protect human rights, and end the crime against humanity. Here, Dhaka should take more diplomatic endeavours to convince China to boost its mediated trilateral talks with Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rohingya repatriation.

Anis Alamgir is a journalist and columnist, noted for collecting Iraq and Afghan war news. Contact: [email protected]

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