The day dawned bright and clear as a 36-member delegation from Myanmar arrived at Teknaf, stepping off of the boat and into the fray of repatriation discussions. Their brief stop at the Teknaf-Myanmar Transit Jetty Canteen served as little more than a stage for orchestrated camaraderie, captured in photographs with the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) officials and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel, before they boarded buses emblazoned with the insignia of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.
The sunshine did little to brighten the stark reality that greeted the delegation. The Rohingya representatives, chosen for the ‘Come and Talk‘ session, presented themselves with composure and they delivered their speeches with a firmness that commanded attention. The Myanmar delegation faced a barrage of questions.
With dignified poise, the speakers stripped away any veneer of preparedness the delegation might have claimed, and pointed questions were met with silence or inadequate responses that hung in the air tellingly.
One man asked: “Why should I not want to return to Myanmar?” and “I am willing to return, but if you can vote, why can’t I?” A woman expressed gratitude to Sheikh Hasina for the refuge provided by Bangladesh, but then turned to the delegation and asked: “Your journey here is acknowledged. However we are drawn from 98 villages, yet you want to relocate us to merely 20 camps; how is this feasible?”
She continued: “We don’t seek charity in the form of rice and oil (that you have mentioned). Restore to us our land, our freedom to move, and we will rebuild our lives with our own hands.”
In a poignant address that emphasized the gathering’s gravity, one Rohingya man articulated the community’s conditions for repatriation. “Twice you have journeyed to us, and for this, we are grateful,” he stated. “But our return to Myanmar must be safeguarded by international guardianship.”
He continued: “The cornerstone of our identity—our citizenship—stands compromised by the law of 1982. We don’t want new citizenship but the restoration of our rights. We reject outright the NVC card; our demand is the repeal of the 1982 legislation, the very law that nullifies our claims to citizenship.”
His words cut through the diplomatic niceties, laying bare the demands: “As long as this law remains, our status will not change, condemning us potentially to another century of having no citizenship. Assalamu alaikum.”
Through these powerful interventions, the Rohingya representatives laid bare not just a litany of requirements for their return, but they unveiled the sheer inadequacy of the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments’ preparation, and, by implication, the Chinese government’s endorsement.
The session became an unsparing exposition of the critical failings: their direct exchanges brought into sharp relief the absence of genuine proposals for legal reform, the glaring omission of community involvement (Rohingya, Internally Displaced Persons, Rakhine), insufficient international backing, Myanmar’s worrying lack of political resolve, Bangladesh’s tendency towards short-term fixes in light of upcoming elections, and an alarming vacuum where there should be dialogue around reconciliation and security.
This moment, likely unforeseen by the delegation, stood as a profound reminder that the journey towards repatriation transcends logistical complexities and demands a deep-seated commitment to morally and politically redress the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya people.
Lack of New Ideas around Legal Reforms
Myanmar’s military rulers continue to tout the National Verification Card (NVC) as a legitimate step towards citizenship for the Rohingya, despite the community’s clear repudiation of the scheme.
This stubborn stance points to a worrying detachment from on-the-ground realities, where the NVC is less a token of inclusion and more a marker of the Rohingya’s systematic exclusion. The card has become a hated emblem of Myanmar’s denial of the Rohingya’s full citizenship rights.
Rooted in the widely criticized 1982 Citizenship Law, which is based on a contentious classification of 135 “national races,” the NVC reinforces the entrenched system of institutional exclusion faced by the Rohingya. Dubbed the “genocide card” by the Rohingya, the NVC is anything but a facilitator of integration; it is the latest in a succession of bureaucratic hurdles that have systematically eroded their rights.
In persisting with the pretence that the NVC is a step toward citizenship, Myanmar willfully ignores the grave domestic and international consequences of such a stance. The ongoing enforcement of this law poses an immovable barrier to citizenship for the Rohingya, perpetuating their systematic disenfranchisement.
Myanmar’s presentation of the NVC at the meeting betrayed a profound insensitivity to the issue. A particularly telling example is a graphic used in their documents, where cartoonish figures of the Rohingya hold up the NVC while making proclamations of belonging and entitlement.
Such depictions, with speech bubbles stating “I am not a foreigner”, “I am a resident of Myanmar”, and “We are entitled to apply for citizenship”, do little but trivialize their genuine concerns.
These statements, especially the assertion of a right to apply for citizenship, ring hollow against the backdrop of systematic disenfranchisement. The reduction of the Rohingya’s complex and critical circumstances to mere caricature not only mocks their aspirations but also undermines the gravity of their need for authentic representation and genuine legal reform.
Absence of Community Involvement
Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have failed to engage the Rohingya meaningfully in decisions that bear heavily on their lives, marginalizing their input and agency. Myanmar’s neglect is evident in its omission of Rohingya communities in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps from resettlement initiatives—actions that could signify a sincere attempt to address their plight. Moreover, such engagement could have acted as an important confidence-building gesture among the wider Rohingya populace.
This neglect extends to the Rakhine community. Recent critiques from within Arakan State stress the need for an inclusive approach in the Rohingya refugee repatriation programme. The community advocates for engaging diverse stakeholders, including influential groups like the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army, to garner Rakhine support and avoid the process being co-opted by dominant Burmese political and military forces. Failure to involve these representatives risks bypassing the real voices of the state and paving the way for political exploitation under the guise of repatriation.
Bangladesh authorities were implicated in a coercive campaign against Rohingya refugees, having offered cash bribes and made violent threats to force their repatriation. On Bhasan Char, refugees were allegedly promised $2,000 each to return to Myanmar, a substantial sum given their precarious financial situation.
This offer has been denounced as a blatant exploitation of the refugees’ desperation. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that similar false promises were previously used to coerce relocation to Bhasan Char, which led many refugees to risk their lives to escape.
Furthermore, misinformation was reportedly employed as a tactic. Videos taken by refugees show that they were falsely informed that the Rohingya had been recognized as one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups. Paired with this misinformation, there were distressing reports of Bangladeshi officials threatening violence.
One refugee anonymously described threats of beatings by an official if they did not agree to repatriate. Another testimony by an elderly woman depicted a pattern of intimidation by Bangladesh authorities and the National Security Intelligence (NSI), including threats of forced return and physical abuse, with the potential cancellation of ration cards used as a threat against those who resisted repatriation.
These reported actions, aimed at forcibly repatriating the Rohingya to Myanmar, are a clear breach of the principles of voluntary return and show a shocking disregard for the well-being and rights of the refugees. The reported conduct raises grave ethical concerns about Bangladesh’s repatriation efforts and represents a serious infringement on the autonomy and dignity of the Rohingya people.
Lack of International Support
Most observers agree that the path to Rohingya repatriation is starkly overshadowed by Myanmar’s descent into a rebellion following the 2021 military coup. The ensuing crisis has unleashed a brutal crackdown against the Burmese people, resulting in a staggering toll of deaths and detentions.
This clampdown has fuelled a resurgence of public sector strikes and a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), weakening the military’s hold on power and plunging the nation into a profound economic crisis.
The escalating strife, exacerbated by the actions of ethnic armed groups and the emergence of new civilian resistance forces known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF), has rendered Myanmar a place of instability, which is far from ready to welcome back the exiled Rohingya population. Even Myanmar’s military-backed president recently acknowledged that the country is at risk of disintegrating.
Did the pilot repatriation delegation explain any of this? Absolutely not. This precarious situation was not even discussed. Furthermore, the delegation made a duplicitous move by presenting a booklet that misleadingly suggested the involvement and support of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the ‘Pilot Project’ to “ensure the smooth implementation of the Pilot Project.”
However, this claim was swiftly debunked by a spokesperson for the U.N. agencies, who clarified that they were not consulted about the booklet. Moreover, the U.N. maintains that conditions in Arakan State are not yet conducive to the safe and dignified return of the Rohingya. Its spokesperson stated: “The pilot repatriation remains an arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar without the involvement of UNHCR or UNDP.”
This stark contradiction exposes the deceit at the core of the initiative and explains the international community’s reluctance to endorse a repatriation effort under such precarious and unverified conditions.
The road map for Rohingya repatriation is not a clear one. It’s a maze of political rhetoric and recycled strategies that offer no real exit from the cycle of displacement and despair. Myanmar’s military remains wedded to the 1982 Citizenship Law and the reviled NVC, hindrances that echo past failures and foreshadow a grim future for returnees.
Yet, across the border, Bangladesh’s politicians, of all hues, seem all too keen to trumpet repatriation as the panacea, sidestepping the hard lessons of history — from the violently executed repatriations of 1978 onwards — and offering little beyond coercive tactics to move the Rohingya on.
The strategy at play is a playbook devoid of innovation or introspection, ignoring the dire need for a repatriation framework that genuinely factors in the Rohingya’s dignity and rights. Past repatriations, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda, tell a tale of variable outcomes, but they converge on one truth: enduring return hinges on political will for inclusion, justice, accountability, and the right to reclaim what was lost.
It’s these ingredients that craft a successful post-conflict comeback. Without a seismic shift towards these principles, the Rohingya remain pawns in a geopolitical game, their futures held ransom to a repatriation roulette that spins with uncertainty
Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues.
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