In anticipation of the 12th national parliamentary elections, the government harbored ambitions to execute a significant Rohingya relocation through a meticulously crafted pilot project. Myanmar’s response to this proposition was equally thought-provoking. The relocation process seemed like a strategic chess move in the realm of diplomacy, evident in the careful scrutiny of China’s diplomatic maneuvers by the envoy. However, the volatile conditions in present-day Myanmar and the influence of certain international entities have cast an ominous shadow over the practicality of this visionary plan.
Stakeholders involved in the Rohingya relocation stress that executing such a plan amid the ongoing volatility in Myanmar is no simple task. While the government has made preparations, the actual initiation of the relocation process hangs in uncertainty. The complex dynamics in Myanmar, exacerbated by global factors, have added layers of intricacy to the potential success of this ambitious relocation initiative.
A Closer Look at the Pilot Project’s Progress
A confidential political analyst based in Dhaka disclosed that, before the elections, the primary objective was to relocate a substantial number of Rohingya, a goal underscored in the collaborative efforts between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Despite the ongoing progress in relocation, the prolonged instability in Myanmar over the past month has triggered a reconsideration of our decisions. Though attempts were made, the local conditions forced a return, leaving the intended goal unachieved. The decision-making process must now be recalibrated with utmost precision.
Insiders from diplomatic circles in Dhaka and Yangon reveal that in September of the preceding year, during a high-level meeting in Naypyidaw, Myanmar committed to initiating the relocation process within the pilot project framework, commencing with over three thousand Rohingya. Subsequently, following a thorough verification process, Naypyidaw consented to include Rohingya families in the relocation endeavor. Bangladesh envisions starting the relocation of more than three thousand Rohingya initially, with plans to continue the process in subsequent phases under a stringent verification and selection protocol.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the initial phase of the pilot project has identified over two thousand Rohingya refugees. This number may escalate with the inclusion of family members.
Decoding the Complex Landscape of Rohingya Relocation
Commencing the relocation, Myanmar’s representatives visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar twice until November of the previous year, seeking to uplift the morale of the Rohingya community. Engaging in dialogues with willing Rohingya refugees, the representatives faced the stark reality that, despite China’s mediating efforts, the persisting conditions in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, along with the reluctance of Western nations, continue to present an unfavorable environment for Rohingya relocation.
In the midst of this ongoing month, Afrin Akhtar, the Assistant Secretary of the United States, made her third visit to Bangladesh, venturing into Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Following discussions with local authorities, Akhtar candidly addressed the media, asserting, “Conditions for Rohingya relocation are not conducive at the moment.”
A confidential diplomatic source in Dhaka revealed that Western sentiments consistently echo the belief that, even if willing, the Rohingya’s voluntary return would be hindered. On December 12, 2023, Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen acknowledged emerging instability in Myanmar, casting doubt on the completion of the pilot project initiated with China’s support. Hopes for progress before the elections or in December were high, but unforeseen internal issues in Myanmar have added complexity. Despite setbacks, the lingering hope persists for the Rohingya to return.
Diplomacy’s Limitations in Focus
Various institutions express reluctance for the Rohingya’s return, deeming it a complex issue. Some foreign powers explicitly state they won’t facilitate the return now. The prevailing sentiment is, “Many organizations do not want them (Rohingya) to return. It’s a problem. Some foreign powers are telling us that they won’t send them back there now.”
In the climax of a book unveiling the five-year success achieved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of October, State Minister Dr. M. Shahriar Alam declared that acknowledging limitations in diplomacy places the Rohingya crisis and the repatriation of Bangabandhu’s killers at the forefront. The Rohingya issue is intricate, yet our efforts remain resolute.
As per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the pilot project has identified over two thousand Rohingya refugees within its scope, potentially including additional family members. In essence, Bangladesh aspires to initiate the relocation of more than three thousand Rohingya in the first phase. Success in the initial phase becomes the linchpin for subsequent relocations of Rohingya under the careful scrutiny of verification and selection.
Experts underscore that in November 2017, China brokered an agreement with Myanmar regarding repatriation. The bilateral understanding led to the initiation of the Rohingya repatriation process based on a two-party agreement in November 2018. However, this attempt proved futile.
In August 2019, a subsequent attempt at repatriation faced a familiar fate, as Rohingya voiced concerns about the environmental conditions in Rakhine state. The revelation of insurmountable obstacles has stalled any progress in Rohingya repatriation for over six years.
The Twists and Turns
The upcoming year heralds a new initiative by China to kickstart Rohingya repatriation. In a mid-April meeting in Kunming, Bangladesh, and Myanmar engaged in discussions. The consensus reached was that a Rohingya delegation, comprising government and Rohingya representatives, would visit Rakhine to uplift community spirits.
Expectations soared when, in May 2023, a delegation from Bangladesh, inclusive of government and Rohingya delegates, set foot in Rakhine. Regrettably, due to the sudden onslaught of Cyclone Hamun, the endeavor was postponed. However, May witnessed renewed efforts as a 14-member delegation visited Cox’s Bazar.
Come September, a pivotal meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Director-General transpired in Naypyidaw. The decision was cemented that a thirty-member team, inclusive of representatives from both sides, would visit Cox’s Bazar under the pilot project.
The definitive decision for the Myanmar delegation to visit Cox’s Bazar at the end of October was abruptly halted due to the unforeseen impact of Cyclone Hamun. However, by the beginning of November, a 28-member delegation from Myanmar visited Cox’s Bazar. Unfortunately, this visit coincided with the onset of internal turmoil in Myanmar.
It is noteworthy that after the military campaign in Rakhine began on August 25, 2017, over seven lakh Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh within a few months. Prior to that, Bangladesh already hosted over four lakh Rohingya refugees. Additionally, every year, approximately 30,000 Rohingya children are born in the camps.