In Depth

Rohingya refugees will be returned to Myanmar

But the refugees show little enthusiasm to go back to the country that expelled them

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed terms to allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to return home to Myanmar, despite continued abuses and obstruction by the military there.

 While the details of the agreement have yet to be finalised, Bangladesh’s foreign affairs minister said the return should start within two months.

However, Reuters said there was “little enthusiasm for the deal among Rohingya refugees” unless they are granted citizenship in Myanmar as part of a wider deal to return their land.

Myanmar has come under intense international pressure to bring the refugees home after more than 600,000 Sunni Muslim Rohingya fled across the border to escape massacres by the military during a Muslim insurgency.

On Wednesday, the US said the military operation that drove the Rohingya into mainly-Muslim neighbouring Bangladesh amounted to “ethnic cleansing”, echoing an accusation first levelled by the UN in the early days of the crisis.

However, “the persecution of the stateless minority has not yet officially been classed as a genocide or crime against humanity”, says Sky News.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said those who perpetrated the atrocities “must be held accountable” and he was considering “targeted sanctions” against individuals, but not broader sanctions against the country.

Not safe to return?

While hailing Thursday’s tentative agreement as a positive step, aid agencies raised concerns about the safety of the Rohingya if they are forcibly returned.

Rights groups have accused the army of carrying out mass rape and other atrocities during a counter-insurgency operation launched in late August in retaliation for attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State. Reuters says many now fear the military “could prove obstructive” should hundreds of thousands of refugees choose to return.

Myanmar is nominally ruled by a civilian government headed by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but the military that ruled for two decades still has considerable power.

Its hostility to hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees returning to Myanmar appears to have been bolstered by support from some in the international community. Russia’s ambassador criticised the US use of the term “ethnic cleansing” and China has signalled it wants stronger ties with Myanmar’s military.

Li Zuocheng, who sits on China’s Central Military Commission, called for greater contact between the two armed forces as well as deeper training and technical exchanges aimed at promoting border defence cooperation.

Eye Witness News says China has been “angered by fighting between Myanmar’s military and autonomy-seeking ethnic minority rebels close to the Chinese border in recent years, which has at times forced thousands of villagers to flee into China”.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been overwhelmed by the scale of the humanitarian crisis and wants to ensure its overstretched refugee camps along the border do not become permanent homes for more than half a million people.

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