A riposte to Myanmar’s Office of the State Counsellor
At the UN General Assembly this year, the representative of Myanmar accused Bangladesh of grandstanding. Kyaw Tint Swe, union minister for Myanmar’s Office of the State Counsellor, boldly proclaimed that pressuring Myanmar to change its laws and policies for minorities will be a “futile exercise.”
His speech suggests that Myanmar wants to move at its own pace on democratization. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi currently shares power with the military, which continues to hold key posts in the country’s cabinet, including the ministries of home, border affairs, and defense.
Where does this leave the million refugees in Bangladesh? A lacklustre process of reform at the expense of a million stateless people cannot be an acceptable approach. Myanmar should not keep the resolution of disputes between its government and ethnic minorities pending for an indefinite period.
Colonialism is not an excuse
The minister harked back to the days of the British Empire and sought to portray immigration from British India as a forced transfer of population from Bengal to Myanmar. The reality is that immigrants from Bengal, and elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent, had settled in Myanmar by taking advantage of colonial-era trade networks. Settlers from British India sought prosperity in Myanmar. Their descendants should not have to suffer xenophobia for the migration of their ancestors.
It was recently reported that a book by former British premier David Cameron quotes Aung San Suu Kyi as saying “they are Bangladeshis,” referring to the Rohingya. This allegation is contradicted by Myanmar’s own assertion that the Rohingya crisis can be traced to the colonial period when Bangladesh did not exist.
At the UNGA, the minister from Myanmar glaringly side-stepped the fact that Arakan had a pre-colonial relationship with Bengal. The presence of Muslims and Hindus from the sub-continent in pre-colonial Arakan is well-documented. Take the example of Bengali poet Alaol, who lived in Arakan during the 17th century. After Myanmar’s independence from British rule, the Indo-Arakanese enjoyed representation in the Myanmar parliament.
In 1982, Myanmar’s military junta violated international law by stripping the Rohingya, en masse, of their right to citizenship. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of citizenship.
The government of Bangladesh needs a broader strategy to bring about a peaceful repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The current repatriation agreement has been the subject of much criticism. A new agreement with Myanmar should be considered under the auspices of the International Court of Justice. It is imperative that any bilateral agreement with Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis should have recourse to an international court or arbitration mechanism given the complexity of the situation.
In addition to citizenship cards, Myanmar is touting verification cards to provide the refugees with permanent residency. Why should those stripped of citizenship and forced to flee their country be made to apply only for permanent residency? What are the guarantees that Myanmar will ensure that its verification process is at par with international norms?
Bangladesh has prioritized the registration of refugees. Myanmar must create the conditions for registered refugees to return without fear of their right of abode in their native country. Any verification process should be under credible international supervision.
At the UNGA, the minister emphasized respect of Myanmar’s territorial integrity. It is worth noting that the prime minister of Bangladesh herself has emphasized respect for Myanmar’s territorial integrity.
Then why should Myanmar continue to stall efforts for a sustainable refugee repatriation?
Bangladesh should also advise Myanmar to reform its constitution and ensure the principle of the separation of powers. Bangladesh surely has its own democratic deficits. But the Bangladeshi constitution provides for the separation of powers and the supremacy of civilian leadership.
The repatriation process should be brought under international adjudication. The Statute of the International Court of Justice provides the procedure for countries to submit a dispute to the court through either a special agreement, a jurisdictional clause in a treaty, or reciprocal declarations which should be deposited with the UN secretary general.
The government of Bangladesh should leverage its diplomatic skills and reach an agreement with Myanmar for international supervision and adjudication.
Time is of the essence. The repatriation process should be completed within five years. Otherwise, both Bangladesh and Myanmar may have to face more challenges over the refugee crisis.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.