The delay in starting the repatriation of more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees back to Myanmar from Bangladesh has raised heckles in the UN system.
A visiting delegation of UN Security Council that includes the high profile US representative Nikky Haley has lambasted Myanmar officials for not cooperating with Bangladesh in expediting the repatriation process. Myanmar MP Daw Khin Nyo has alleged the UNSC delegation was “unwilling to listen to us” and said they had been influenced by Bangladesh and the Rohingya refugees, whose camps were visited by them last week.
Bangladesh has clearly lost patience. It made a fervent appeal to a visiting UN Security Council delegation to “do everything possible” to get Myanmar to start taking back the Rohingyas.
There are efforts underway to drag Myanmar to the International Criminal Court in the Hague under the Rome Statute for “crimes against humanity”. Myanmar is not a signatory to the statute but Bangladesh is, having suffered a huge genocide at birth. Indications are that if Myanmar delays the repatriation process, Bangladesh may raise the Rohingya issue at the ICC.
The acting head of the pre-trial division of the court — Judge Antoine Kesia?Mbe Mindua – has sought the ruling from the International Criminal Court based on the fact that these “deportations” can be examined by the court, because the forced deportations involved crossing a border: and although the “coercive acts” occurred in a State which is not a party to the Rome Statute (Myanmar), it involved the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute (Bangladesh).
If the ICC rules that this allows a prosecution then Bangladesh legally could initiate it. A ruling is expected in a few weeks. This could open a “Pandora’s box”, which Myanmar’s military leaders are anxious to avoid. The mounting international criticism of the military’s actions in Rakhine has alarmed the army’s top brass.
India now seems obviously worried for two reasons. In the first place, the problem seems to be spilling over into Indian territory with hundreds of Rohingyas now moving into a safe zone in South 24-Parganas, provided shelter by Islamists seen as close to West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress much to the annoyance of the country’s ruling BJP. Secondly, the feeling in Delhi is that the longer the Rohingyas stay in Bangladesh, they inconvenience the Sheikh Hasina regime which India clearly wants back in power. The BJP wants the forty to sixty thousand Rohingyas in India send back to their homeland in Myanmar, far from accepting any new Rohingya migrants. Getting the repatriation process from Bangladesh to Myanmar started is seen as crucial to ensuring that.
Therefore after some initial ambivalence on the Rohingya issue caused by fears of pushing Myanmar into Chinese lap, Delhi has now decided to back Hasina’s government in mobilising global opinion in favour of Rohingya repatriation. That became apparent when Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale conveyed India’s ‘wholehearted support’ to Bangladesh which is going ahead with the Rohingya refugee repatriation during his recent visit to Dhaka.
This writer has exclusive details of the backroom negotiations to work out a Myanmar-Bangladesh deal on repatriation of the Rohingyas, strongly supported and somewhat shepherded by Indian diplomats and intelligence officials who got the Myanmar military to realise that the only way to stave off western sanctions was to reach a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to Myanmar in December. Indian officials also convinced the Myanmarese that it was in their interest to agree to the repatriation to give Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a honourable solution which she could sell to her own people in an election year.
“We told the Myanmarese that if Hasina loses the end-2018 Parliament polls, Rakhine will be the next Afghanistan. And also that the Chinese may stave off UN sanctions but could not prevent bilateral sanctions by US and other western powers,” said a top Indian intelligence official who has served in Myanmar and then headed the country’s top spy agencies. But he was unwilling to be identified because of the delicate nature of Indian role — one he described as a combination of ‘soft persuasion, on-your-face ultimatums and realistic solutions’.
When the Bangladeshis insisted on a time-frame to accept the agreement and Myanmarese refused, the Indian backroom operators promised Dhaka to get a time frame going within January. When the Myanmarese pointed to lack of housing as a cause for delaying the process, the Indians jumped in to offer thousands of units of pre-fabricated housing that had been used to shelter thousands of tsunami victims in the country’s Andaman islands in 2004. Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar rushed to Myanmar to sign an agreement promising the supply of pre-fab housing to shelter the returning Rohingyas.
For India, it is important to see the regimes of Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi survive and weather the Rohingya storm. Both ladies are crucial to the regional stability of a key link region that connects the South to the Southeast and East Asia. But for that, it is important to get the repatriation of the Rohingyas started without any further delay.