Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi says that her government is prepared to begin taking back Rohingya refugees recently driven into Bangladesh in a national verification process. Suu Kyi said the repatriation can start “at any time” in a speech on September 19, her first since the refugee crisis began in late August after a surge of insurgent attacks and harsh military counter-measures.

The violence has pushed an estimated 420,000 mostly Muslim refugees into Bangladesh, which considers them natives of Myanmar and calls for their full return. While Suu Kyi’s offer to accept “verified” refugees may have aimed to defuse international criticism of military “clearance operations” the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”, it’s altogether unclear how many of the departed the autonomous armed forces will accept back.

Exactly how many Rohingya live in conflict-ridden western Rakhine state is debatable because Myanmar-conducted censuses don’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group. The 1.1 -1.5 million figures quoted in international media reports are made without reference to any official or credible independent source.

According to the most recent 2014 census and UN estimates, the combined population of Rakhine state’s three northwestern townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung – where the conflict is confined – before the recent exodus was around 950,000, of which between 80% and 90% were Muslims. It is uncertain how many of those Muslims would identify themselves as Rohingya – a contested term in Rakhine state where ethnic Kaman and other minority Muslim groups reside – but in any counting the total number of Muslims there is well below one million.

The total population of Rakhine state is 3.2 million with a clear Buddhist majority, according to the latest census. Whatever the correct figure may be, it appears that nearly half of the Muslim population of the three affected northwestern townships have recently been forced to flee into Bangladesh.

Rohingya cross a swollen river at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Myanmar’s military has deployed more than 70 battalions to Rakhine state to carry out its clearance operations, nominally aimed to flush out insurgents hiding in civilian populations. With both regular and light infantry battalions deployed, security analysts estimate there are between 30,000-35,000 Myanmar troops now on the ground in Rakhine state.

The deployment of that many troops must be motivated by strategic considerations other than suppression of the emergent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a vicious but small group of rag-tag guerrillas fighting with mostly rudimentary weapons. According to military insiders, the overriding strategic aim is to “balance” the demographic composition of the state’s three Muslim-majority townships.

According to well-placed sources in Yangon, the military aims to reduce the Muslim majority in the northwestern townships to no more than 60%, with Buddhists making up the remaining 40%. Towards that demographic aim, the sources say, the military is now preparing to resettle thousands of ethnic Rakhines and other Buddhists into the Rakhine area’s now abandoned and burned out villages.

The Muslims that are ultimately permitted to return will undoubtedly be put through a deliberately torturous process rooted in deeply contentious history.

Suu Kyi’s reference to a “verification” process harks to an April 1992 joint statement made by then Bangladeshi foreign minister Mostafizur Rahman and his Myanmar counterpart Ohn Gyaw that said Myanmar’s government agreed “there would be no restriction on number of persons [repatriated] as long as they could establish bona fide evidence of their residence in Myanmar.”

A Rohingya refugee waits in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

At that time, an estimated 250,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state had taken refuge in Bangladesh after a border skirmish which had resulted in a military crackdown on the Myanmar side. As with the current humanitarian crisis, the flight of refugees into Bangladesh in the early 1990s also attracted big international media attention and support from the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Prince Khaled Sultan Abdul Aziz, then commander of the Saudi Arabian contingent in the 1991 Gulf War, visited Dhaka and recommended a Desert Storm like (the name of the US-led campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait) action against Myanmar. That multinational offensive never came to fruition, but Myanmar eventually agreed to take back the refugees under United Nations’ pressure and on the terms of its verification agreement with Bangladesh.

Many but not all returned to Myanmar; it was uncertain how many actually stayed in Rakhine state or returned to Bangladesh because little remained of the villages they had left behind. Some had been destroyed while others were populated in their absence by migrants from other parts of Myanmar. The area between Bangladesh’s city of Chittagong and Teknaf on the Naaf river which forms the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar is still full of people who claim they were born and grew up on the Myanmar side.

The early 1990s exodus was the second big movement in modern times. The first came in 1978 when 200,000 Muslims from Rakhine state fled to Bangladesh as Myanmar security authorities carried out an operation against illegal immigrants codenamed Naga Min, or “Dragon King.” That crisis also led to a repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh signed on July 9, 1978.

That agreement was not different from what was stated in 1992, namely that Myanmar agreed to the earliest repatriation of its lawful residents on the presentation of [Myanmar] national registration cards. Some, but far from all, Muslims in Rakhine’s three northwestern townships have proper government issued identification cards or citizenship papers. Others have been systematically denied such documents and being effectively stateless face restrictions on their movements in Myanmar.

Now as then, Myanmar’s policy remains the same: only those who can produce proof of citizenship or residency will be allowed back. That may not be an unreasonable demand, but it will be a messy and contentious task given the current chaos and deprivation along the border and in refugee camps. It’s unclear how many of the estimated 420,000 refugees Myanmar will actually be taken back and how much international pressure will factor into that human calculation.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech on the Rakhine and Rohingya situation, in Naypyitaw, September 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

What is clear is that the Myanmar armed forces that carried out the brutal and controversial clearance operations in border areas don’t want the Muslims back as strategic planners aim to rebalance the region’s ethnic demographics.

Judging from anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim demonstrations recently held in Yangon and other Myanmar cities, it’s a stance shared by many Myanmar citizens who don’t consider the Rohingya a national ethnic group but rather illegal immigrants.

Yet another bilateral repatriation agreement will likely be signed in the coming days that allows for some refugees to return to Myanmar to placate both Bangladesh and the international community. But given the deliberately high hurdles to proving Myanmar citizenship or residency, and a military bent on using the crisis as an opportunity to change the area’s demographics, the repatriation will likely be smaller than seen in the late 1970s and early 1990s.

In the meantime, Rakhine state’s once predominantly Muslim region will remain heavily militarized, both to guard against ARSA from carrying out further attacks on undermanned security outposts and to prevent unverified refugees from returning across the border.

Regardless of any new bilateral agreement, recent events will be leveraged to create a new ethnic balance in Rakhine state, one with less Muslims, more Buddhists and over which Myanmar’s military has absolute control.

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