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The level of hatred and hostility towards each other and the nature of the atrocities which triggered the outflux of refugees, underline the enormity of the task. Changing such negative mindsets is certainly a major undertaking. There must be a positive engagement on the part of the central government in this regard. Side by side, civil society efforts will also have to be generated.

Together with these, other confidence-building measures must be identified and undertaken in right earnest. Without firm determination, it will not work.

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While the mutual distrust and dislike have surfaced in more recent decades, it must be remembered that the Rohingyas have lived side by side with their Rakhine neighbours in Myanmar for centuries. They participated in public life in Myanmar, including in the general elections not very long ago. There is no reason, therefore, why they cannot be considered as local inhabitants and not outsiders. But the fact remains that there is deep hatred and distrust on both sides, which must be removed, however slow the process may be. Clearly, mere assurances that Myanmar is ready to take back the refugees and physical preparations on the ground which have been completed to receive a significant number of them, are not going to change the mindset of the refugees who know what caused them to flee.

There has to be fundamental changes in many regards, but the most important ones are psychological, mental and attitudinal in nature. Fortunately, good guidance is available on how to go about the difficult job of creating proper conditions for return. The Rakhine Advisory Commission RAC , led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, provided, in its August final report, an overarching framework for addressing the fundamental challenges that underpin the development, security and human rights crises in Rakhine State.

They are critical both for the development of the region and for creating conditions conducive to the return of the refugees. The RAC report also contains a set of concrete recommendations for the Myanmar authorities to implement. Myanmar has formally accepted to do so.

In an ideal strategy, Bangladesh and Myanmar should now work together, in a spirit of friendship, cooperation and, wherever necessary, compromise, to implement the recommendations. There must be a relationship of trust between the two countries on monitoring progress. I would suggest that the primary focus for facilitating voluntary repatriation of the refugees should be on progressive implementation of the key recommendations of RAC.

There are 88 recommendations under 16 broad categories in the RAC report. Among these, the more important ones, of crucial importance to the creation of conditions conducive to the return of the refugees, include economic and social development of Rakhine State, citizenship, freedom of movement, situation of internally displaced persons IDPs , intercommunal cohesion, strengthening trust in security sector, relationship with Bangladesh, regional relations and implementation of the recommendations.

Among these, the two key areas of immediate concern are the cross-cutting subjects of citizenship and freedom of movement. They would need priority attention as they are of fundamental concern for prospective returnees.

Myanmar: Fragility, tensions and violence - Security Council Briefing

From available information, including from the government of Myanmar, individual line ministries are said to have made efforts to implement some of the recommendations relating to their respective works. Without such an approach, small gains, here and there, will not be able to generate the necessary confidence in the minds of those concerned. Unfortunately, so far there is no clear message emanating from the government or actions on the ground that indicate that the recommendations are being taken seriously.

On the contrary, one hears that they are treated primarily as an exercise to stave off pressure from the international community. If that is the case, it should be a matter of serious concern for all. Let there be no doubt that unless genuine efforts are made towards transformative changes foreseen in the RAC recommendations, refugees are unlikely to go back home in large numbers and the attendant problems will continue to fester or even rise.

The reports should contain more meat than rhetoric and irrelevant information. It may be useful to underline the key points in the recommendations which are of immediate relevance to our discussion here. These include local orders restricting movements, requirement of travel authorisation, departure cards, registration requirement for overnight stay in another township, passing through security checkpoints, etc.

While formal barriers may be solved with policy changes and clear instructions to local level officials, removing informal and social barriers is far more difficult. It would be important to know what steps have been taken in that regard. The two governments, with participation of the UN, must monitor progress in this area on a regular basis.

Presently, the government is clearly unwilling to involve others in the matter, but efforts must continue to change their mind. The recommendations include a mapping exercise to identify all existing restrictions and actions to remove them. Clearly, a basic requirement of the returning refugees would be the ability to move around freely in their areas of residence with security protection, whenever and wherever needed. Among other things, it will facilitate their access to healthcare, education, and livelihoods.

As such, freedom of movement and access to services will need to be addressed in parallel. The recommendations also sought to delink freedom of movement from possession of National Verification Cards NVCs or citizenship documentation. This is because it would otherwise restrict the movement of a much larger population of Rohingyas who do not have these documents.

Any progress in this area will have to be widely publicised. The Commission also recommended that the lifting of restrictions of movement must be accompanied by a clear communications strategy aimed at members of all communities in Rakhine. An objective of the strategy is increased interaction between the communities. There are other recommendations related to the rule of law and the role of the police and the need for specialised police units for the Rohingya population.

UN to work with Asean to resolve crisis

They too are extremely important for confidence-building. On the citizenship issue, the RAC report rightly underlines that the acceptance of the National Verification Cards NVCs by the Rohingyas depends on the government showing that it is a clear path to citizenship. This will be facilitated if the verification process of 6, existing Rohingya NVC-holders is completed as soon as possible. Progress on this front too should be widely publicised.

The more difficult issue relates to the situation of those who do not qualify for citizenship under the Citizenship Law. The Commission recommended adoption of a policy consistent with international standards for citizenship and permanent residency. This is clearly the key to the success of the exercise.


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It is equally important to ensure that the process is voluntary and should not involve any coercion. This will encourage greater willingness of the Rohingyas to agree to verification. And, of course, it will be essential to ensure that the process takes place in tandem with delivery of humanitarian assistance to the returnees and assurances of their security. The implementation of the recommendations of RAC in other key areas will also have important bearing on the success of governments efforts to create conditions conducive to the return of the refugees.

They include the proper relocation of IDPs, promotion of inter-communal dialogues, strengthening trust in the security sector, closer relationship and interaction with Bangladesh, etc. Some of these are reportedly being implemented in some ways. Implementing the most critical ones will, however, take a much longer time.

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As refugees in Bangladesh remain in close contact with Rohingyas who still reside in Rakhine State, including in the IDP camps, improving their conditions of life would be important in generating confidence in the minds of the refugees to return home. Moreover, as many of the perpetrators of violence against the Rohingyas included local security forces, reform of the security sector—by replacing local police and border-guard forces by police and border-guard forces from other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, like Karen or Shan for example—would also be important in infusing confidence among the refugees about improvement of the security situation in Rakhine State.

Clearly, the tasks of the Myanmar government to implement the RAC framework in the context of its long history of ethnic conflicts, political upheavals, and the difficult transition from half-a-century-long military rule to civilian government, are daunting. Greater emphasis on development at the cost of human rights will mean continuation of, or even increase in, social inequality and segregation in Rakhine State, negating basic objectives of the recommendations. It is worth reiterating that for Bangladesh and the international community to accept that Myanmar has indeed undertaken initiatives to implement the RAC recommendations with all seriousness, more concrete actions will be needed than mere pronouncements of the government.

There must be a mechanism to involve the UN through giving it full access to areas of return of the refugees. Not much progress has been achieved in this regard. The best option for Myanmar, therefore, is to work together with Bangladesh to prepare for the return of the refugees and reduce tensions. Collaborative efforts might help Myanmar implement the RAC recommendations and show progress, however slow in the beginning.

As said before, Bangladesh and Myanmar could set a schedule to meet regularly to assess challenges and progress and undertake corrective measures, wherever necessary. A closer relationship between the two countries will be useful not only to pave the way to resolve the humanitarian crisis but also to foster a closer economic relationship between them. The phenomenal growth in the economy of Bangladesh in recent years could spur complementary economic growth in Myanmar. A safer, more prosperous life for the people on both sides of the border is the best way to ensure that people can live peacefully in their homes and help their countries develop.

For this to happen, the help of the two immediate neighbours in the region, India and China, would be essential. Positive engagements with Myanmar, as proposed earlier, would have to begin at home for Bangladesh. It would include commitment to improved care and maintenance of the refugees and better camp management, pending repatriation of the refugees. Part of it would involve creation of conditions in the camps that would allow the refugees to rebuild their social lives which they lost upon expulsion from Myanmar and to prepare themselves for return to Myanmar as valuable human resources, with proper skills and abilities to rebuild their lives and society.

A more socially vibrant atmosphere in the camps will also minimise tension and the influence of negative forces. Thoughts may have to be given to relocate refugees from specific areas in Myanmar to live together in separate clusters in the camps in Bangladesh so that they can return together to Myanmar when the time comes as cohesive groups.

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It may be recalled that international concerns were repeatedly expressed about stringent policies of the Bangladesh government on education and stable housing for refugees in the camps. While this was perhaps understandable in the context of expected early return of the refugees to Myanmar under the bilateral voluntary repatriation agreement, there is a need to revise it under the changed realities. Moreover, formal, informal, technical and vocational education, geared to the needs in Myanmar, identified in consultation with Myanmar authorities, would prepare them to become more useful citizens of Myanmar.

As for allowing construction of more stable housing in the camps, it will minimise likely casualties caused by frequent cyclones and landslides in the area and avoid criticism about lack of preparedness of the government. Moreover, in the interest of both the refugees and local inhabitants, Bangladesh should further improve its provision of law and order within the camps.

This would help meet the protection needs of the refugees, especially vulnerable groups like women and children, and at the same time help in preventing criminal activities and potential radicalisation that could have negative spill-over effects on the host communities in Bangladesh. In short, ensuring better facilities to the refugees in the camps and preparing them for return could be a win-win situation for all. International appreciation of continued generosity by Bangladesh will garner international support for the refugees in the country.

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There is also potential for additional funds from the World Bank and the ADB for Bangladesh to support these projects. The latter would include preparing the ground for UN presence at least in those areas of Myanmar where the refugees are likely to return and ensuring full and unfettered access of UN personnel. Such an undertaking will make it easier for Bangladesh to justify to its citizens the need to persevere in harbouring the refugees in Bangladesh for a longer period than anticipated and to respect the principles of international protection in their treatment.

The lack of progress in voluntary repatriation under the bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar has highlighted the need for multilateral efforts. Developments in the last two years have shown that there can be no repatriation unless progress is made with regard to ground realities in Myanmar. While the latter is formally committed to implementing the RAC recommendations, serious problems exist both in terms of government policy and popular resistance to their implementation.