Young Rohingya refugees enjoy rides on traditional wooden ferris wheels during Eid Al-Fitr festival celebrations at a refugee camp in Ukhia district near Cox's Bazar on June 5. Photo: AFP / Suzauddin Rubel

Amid mounting pressure, Myanmar appears to be softening its position on the repatriation of more than a million Rohingya refugees, an estimated 700,000 of whom fled to Bangladesh two years ago following atrocities committed by its security forces.

This week, for the first time since the large exodus of the refugees began in August 2017, a senior Myanmar official dropped a broad hint, saying his country would be willing to grant “part citizenship” to the Rohingya in order to win back the trust of the refugees.

“We are ready to welcome them. We are ready to receive them. Most importantly, we’re considering giving them part citizenship,” Myint Thu, Myanmar foreign secretary and head of the 19-member delegation, told reporters after meeting with representatives of the Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in the coastal districts of Cox’s Bazar.

Charges against Myanmar of human rights violations have gained traction as Bangladesh’s biggest worry – that young people growing up in the refugee camps will become a radicalized generation – rubbed off on Myanmar, and on other concerned countries including China and Japan that have development projects subject to disruption.

Myint Thu’s offer fell just short of the refugees’ demand of full citizenship and that proved to be the stumbling block to restarting the repatriation, which had been stalled in 2018 at the last moment after the refugees refused to go back without ensuring their safety and security first.

“Trust deficit is a big thing,” Kamrul Ahsan, acting foreign secretary and leader of the Bangladesh delegation, said in a joint press conference with Myint Thu. Myanmar, he said, must generate trust among the Rohingya for their spontaneous return. They won’t go back “as long as confidence is not built up” – and Bangladesh “won’t push back anyone forcibly.”

The Myanmar chief delegate appeared to agree with Ahsan’s observation, saying his side would continue to work on winning the refugees’ trust and confidence. “We heard their voices, we heard their concerns,” Myint Thu told the join press conference. “We will cooperate with the government through the joint working group and then we will continue to visit Cox’s Bazar and explain preparations for the repatriation.”

On Jan 16, 2018 Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a “physical arrangement” document to facilitate the return, stipulating that the repatriation would be completed preferably within two years from the start. The return of the first batch of 2500 refugees was scheduled to begin on November 15 last year but none was willing to return due to lack of a congenial environment in Rakhine.

New hopes

While the latest visit of the Myanmar delegation failed to produce any time frame for the start of the stalled repatriation, it nonetheless raised hopes among Bangladesh officials and analysts.

“It’s a major departure from their previous position where they were saying that Rohingya are actually Bengali infiltrators,” retired Air Commodore Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, a respected security analyst, told Asia Times, referring to Myanmar’s latest offer of granting “part citizenship.” Now that the ice is melting, negotiators should bargain for the maximum, he added.

Indeed, the question of citizenship was nonnegotiable until now as Myanmar consistently  characterized the Rohingya as nothing but infiltrators and economic migrants from the then East Bengal, now Bangladesh, even though they have been living in the Arakan province for over 100 years.

Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen also called the latest Myanmar offer a positive development. “It’s a “breakthrough,” he told reporters in Dhaka. “Our focus is on their dignified and safe return,” Momen said. “We don’t have any issue regarding their citizenship there.”

But he hastened to add that the Rohingya should go back to their motherland first to realize their rights and “they should understand it’s not possible to realize all their demands unless they are going back.”

Time bomb

His comments appear to reflect Bangladesh’s growing frustration and concern about the prolonged, indefinite stay of the Rohingya in squalid refugee camps, which is slowly but surely endangering the country’s security and stability.

Choudhury, the security analyst, says the biggest threat appear to stem from the growing adolescent camp population.

“Nearly 200,000 young jobless males are in the camps growing up with little or no education and an uncertain future. They can easily be misguided to join the terrorist groups or just local criminal gangs or drift into drugs and drug trades,” he said. “The longer the Rohingya stay in the camp, the greater is the danger of them turning into a potential time-bomb.”

Foreign Minister Momen warned that development projects in both Bangladesh and Myanmar would be affected if uncertainty prevailed with pockets of possible radicalization due to the youths’ prolonged stay and uncertain future.

He said the projects of Japan and China in both Bangladesh and Myanmar would be affected if this problem remained unresolved and urged that they, for their own interest, ask Myanmar to take back its nationals. Myanmar is heavily dependent on their development assistance.

To be sure, they showed little interest initially despite Bangladesh’s fervent call for their intervention. But now they seem to be responding to Dhaka’s calls, perhaps rattled by the looming threat to their economic interests.

The month just past has seen the most visible steps taken by Beijing and Tokyo in resolving the Rohingya crisis. First, China made a commitment to take active role towards that goal when prime minister Hasina met Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Then on Tuesday this week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, during his meeting with Momen in Dhaka, offered to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar. On Monday, he had visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar to talk to the refugees.

Change of heart

Foreign policy experts and analysts say some recent developments and a combination of factors forced Myanmar to soften its position.

“It’s the result of international pressure and I should say pressure from China after our prime minister’s visit to that country early this month,” Choudhury told Asia Times.

Besides, he said, the recent pressure from the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, who called for a separate state for the Rohingya, coupled with a recent proposal from US Congressman Bradley Sherman to bring Rakhine state under Bangladesh’s control, could have contributed to the change in Myanmar’s position.

But what perhaps really unnerved the Myanmar authorities is a decision of the International Criminal Court to begin investigation into the allegations of committing genocide against the Myanmar military junta, as well as a US travel ban on Myanmar generals.

Last week, James Stewart, an ICC prosecutor, wrapped up a six-day trip to Bangladesh and Rohingya refugee camps as part of preparations for a potential ICC investigation into Myanmar’s military for alleged crimes of humanity against Rohingya.

On July 16, the day Stewart’s team landed in Bangladesh, the United States issued travel bans on Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and three other generals for their alleged role in a brutal 2017 crackdown on Rohingya in their home state of Rakhine.

The United States and the United Nations had described the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing,” which, according to a U.N. fact-finding mission in August, included mass killings and gang rapes

All these factors are “having a snowball effect”, Choudhury said. “We just need to continue the pressure.”

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