Current Crisis In Myanmar Shouldn’t Impede Return of Rohingya

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Myanmar is passing through a critical time due to unrest and conflict between the government and the anti-junta forces. There are no indications that the current violence in Myanmar will stop; instead, it is getting more organized every day.

According to Duwa Lashi La, head of Myanmar’s anti-junta National Unity Government (NUG), the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a paramilitary force fighting the junta, has witnessed a significant improvement in efficacy. The PDF is currently fighting the military junta successfully, having organized and established tactical regiments and battalions that are armed with automatic weapons. The NUG leader said that anti-junta forces are now outperforming the nation’s armed forces. Attack drones are another weapon that PDF militants are employing to defeat the junta forces.  NUG Defense Ministry Spokesman Mong Mong Swee said that PDF had opened new fronts in Chin state along with the Sagaing and Magway regions to conduct offensives against Myanmar army. They gained control of new areas of Kayah and Kayin state. PDF have been able to inflict heavy casualties, including killing junta soldiers, in the ongoing war over the past two years.

At a meeting of the National Defense and Security Council on July 31, junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing mentioned that the PDF was fighting with the army in Sagaing, Magway, Bago and Tanintharyi regions as well as Kayin, Kayah, Chin and Mon states. These states have been particularly affected by war, mine attacks and arson. The junta has extended the state of emergency for another six months to take ‘security measures’ to deal with the wider conflict.

According to international military analysts, the junta has suffered more casualties than the revolutionary forces in nearly every conflict or battle in Myanmar. To cope with this, in addition to ground combat, Myanmar Army will have to use more air power and aircraft against the PDF and rebel groups. Following the fourth extension of the state of emergency, anti-junta groups claim that combat has escalated in eight of the nation’s states and regions as the Myanmar military resumes operations to reclaim territory controlled by ethnic militias and the PDF. The Myanmar military stepped up its operations in the Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Mon, Sagaing, Bago, Magway, and Tanintharyi areas.

Officials of the Karen National Union (KNU) said that, their troops were engaged in fierce battles with junta forces in Kayin and Mon states as well as Bago and Tanintharyi regions. Junta troops are attacking seven areas controlled by the KNU, in those areas 109 battalions are deployed by the army. Fighting in Kachin state’s jade mining region has intensified and the junta has carried out airstrikes in jade mining areas. According to statistics provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the ongoing violence has forced more than 1.6 million civilians to leave their homes.

Western nations tightened their sanctions against Myanmar after the military took control in 2021. However, ignoring these sanctions, Myanmar’s junta chief visited China, Russia and India and bought weapons and equipment from those countries. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden regularly studies the global armaments trade. According to data from Sipri’s Trends in International Arms Transfer 2022 study, which was published in March 2023, 42% of Myanmar’s arms imports from 2018 to 2022 came from Russia, 29% from China, and 14% from India.

Recently, Myanmar received two Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia in the first phase. Later, four more Sukhoi fighter jets will join Myanmar’s fleet. During a visit to Russia in September 2022, Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing signed a deal to buy 6 Sukhoi SU-30SME fighter jets from Russia. The Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 SME fighter jets are effective in air-to-ground and air-to-air attacks. These aircrafts will enhance the junta’s capacity to deal with ongoing violence.

Bangladesh has maintained its diplomatic, commercial, and other contacts with Myanmar while taking Myanmar’s situations into consideration. On September 6, General Hlaing, the head of the State Administration Council, received the credentials from Md. Monwar Hossain, the recently appointed ambassador of Bangladesh to Myanmar. While speaking with the Ambassador after accepting the credential, the Chairman reaffirmed Myanmar’s serious political commitment to repatriating the Rohingyas. This is a positive sign in the current context. General Hlaing voiced his optimism for the further advancement of bilateral ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar during the conversation and covered a number of topics of mutual interest, including the repatriation of Rohingyas, commercial connections, and improved air, land, and sea connectivity. Furthermore, they exchanged their views on enhancing military cooperation and public relations, as well as issues like conventional and non-conventional security cooperation, including the prevention of drug trafficking and arms smuggling. The ambassador of Bangladesh has asked for his assistance in order to develop and expand bilateral relationships between the two countries.

On August 24, a human chain and a demonstration were held in front of the Cox’s Bazar District Commissioner’s office to call for proper repatriation measures. Local leaders said at the demonstration held under the banner of “All Residents of Cox’s Bazar” that the long-term presence of Rohingyas in the bordering upazilas of Ukhia and Teknaf poses a threat to the survival of the local community there. Drug and human traffickers now useing the Rohingya camps as a safe transit location, murders and crimes occur often in the camps. This in turn created pressure on the daily life of the locals. As a result local people wish to resolve this issue permanently. Bangladesh’s main focus is to return the 1.25 million Rohingyas who have been staying inside Bangladesh for the last six years. Under the auspices of the pilot project launched by the Myanmar government at request of China, efforts are being made to return a limited number of Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh requests assistance from international community and organizations in this regard. Bangladesh further urged all parties involved to refrain from impeding the return of Rohingyas under the pilot project. The Rohingyas also wish to go back to their country of origin, where they have homes and other amenities. To begin with, a group of Rohingyas should return to Myanmar for observing the situation.  Once they return to Rakhine, they will have a better understanding of the situation, challenges and the difficulties there. This knowledge will facilitate to undertake the repatriation of remaining Rohingyas. By December this year, Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar hope to begin a trial program for returning Rohingyas home.

On September 4, Bangladesh and Myanmar convened a conference at the director general level to discuss repatriation. The Myanmar military administration has consented to allow the Rohingyas to return to their villages.  Bangladesh and Myanmar will hold several meetings in the coming days to make the pilot project for the repatriation a success. A four-member delegation led by the Director General of the Myanmar Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh went to Myanmar to attend the meeting. After that, an official delegation from Myanmar will visit Cox,s Bazar and discuss with the Rohingyas prior to the start of this repatriation. More than 3,000 Rohingyas have been listed for pilot repatriation. Bangladesh places a high priority on safeguarding the Rohingyas’ safety, dignity, and security in addition to preventing family separation during repatriation and allowing Rohingyas from the same area to travel together.

According to Western countries and the UN, Myanmar does not have a functioning democracy, and as a result, there has not yet been established a conducive climate for the repatriation of Rohingyas. Reviewing the present situation in Myanmar, it is evident that the ongoing conflict is going to escalate in the days to come and that both sides are enhancing their capabilities. Furthermore, the international community as a whole, including the UN, Amnesty International, the Western countries, international NGOs, has been unable to exert meaningful pressure on Myanmar. Despite its continued efforts, ASEAN has not been able to control the situation in Myanmar and bring about peace. However, Bangladesh cannot continue to shoulder the burden indefinitely. Additionally, the total amount of support provided to the Rohingyas is declining gradually and the issue poses a threat to regional stability. For the past six years Bangladesh has sought a workable solution bilaterally, trilaterally and multilaterally and is keen to resolve this issue.

The nature of the issues in Rakhine State differs from those in other regions of Myanmar. The Arakan Army acknowledges the Rohingyas as inhabitants of Rakhine, and the NUG is dedicated to fostering circumstances that would allow the Rohingyas and other displaced groups to return home voluntarily, safely, dignifiedly, and indefinitely. The issue’s significance has also grown due to General Ming Aung Hlaing’s commitment to returning the Rohingyas to their homeland. Compared to other parts of Myanmar, Rakhine’s condition is now stable. It is time to implement the pilot project for the repatriation of a small group of Rohingyas. The pilot project will help identify the difficulties and issues related to the repatriation procedure. These results are then examined to develop the most appropriate course of action. The entire repatriation of the Rohingyas should be carried out in the future using the lessons learned from this experience. In the middle of the current uncertainty, it is anticipated that the Rohingya crisis would see a ray of hope if all these issues are adequately handled.

– Brig Gen (Retd.) Hasan Md Shamsuddin, ndc, psc, afwc, Mphil, is a Lead Researcher for the Rohingya, Myanmar and ASEAN Affairs at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]