The Rohingya Repatriation to Myanmar: The Relevance of the Trilateral Diplomacy

The protracted and deeply troubling Rohingya refugee crisis has engendered a significant strain on Bangladesh, as it grapples with the influx of over one million Rohingya displaced people who have sought sanctuary from persecution in Myanmar. The crisis at hand has undoubtedly posed a multifaceted challenge for both Bangladesh and the whole region, encompassing a wide range of pressing issues such as human rights abuses, mass displacement, security threats, regional instability, and intricate dynamics within the realm of regional politics. In such a milieu, the notion of repatriation has surfaced as a plausible solution to this enduring predicament. 

Amidst this ongoing impasse, Bangladesh has been actively seeking support from the international community to aid in the smooth and respectful repatriation of Rohingya individuals to their native villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The emergence of nascent trilateral diplomatic endeavors among Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar signifies a concerted effort to tackle the intricate obstacles associated with the process of repatriation. As a result, as China is willing to mediate the issue, the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar Trilateral Initiative has emerged as a focal point of considerable interest, as it endeavors to facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.

China’s Engagement in Facilitating the Rohingya Repatriation

However, since 2019, China has been exhibiting its eagerness to mediate the Rohingya repatriation issue. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September of that year, Dr. AK Abdul Momen, Foreign Minister Bangladesh, proposed the tripartite solution after meeting with the Chinese and Myanmar’s counterparts. Since then, Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar have been collaborating to establish a “tripartite joint working mechanism” to assess the current conditions for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

In March 2023, a delegation comprising ambassadors hailing from eight particular countries, notably Bangladesh, China, and, India, embarked upon a momentous visit to the area of Rakhine. The dispatch of these diplomats serves as a strategic move to showcase the preparedness status in the region of Rakhine, Myanmar, with regard to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Around four years following the arrival of approximately one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as a result of a military operation in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2017, China has played a pivotal role in organizing a trilateral virtual conference. This development has sparked optimism in Bangladesh, as it raises the possibility of initiating the repatriation process as early as possible this year.

Moreover, in late May this year, During the 12th Foreign Office Consultation (FOC) between Dhaka and Beijing, China articulated its viewpoints on the matter of Rohingya repatriation and the broader regional stability. China’s stance on the Rohingya repatriation issue is one of urgency, as they express a desire for a swift resolution to this ongoing crisis. Additionally, China’s strategic interests extend beyond the Rohingya crisis, as they actively seek to foster regional connectivity in the South and South East Asian regions through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which serves as a platform for China to enhance its influence and strengthen economic ties with countries in these regions. Moreover, during the meeting between Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary, Masud Bin Momen, and Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sun Weidong, The Chinese convoy reaffirmed its intention to aid in the Rohingya’s swift, secure, sustainable, and voluntary return to Rakhine.

More importantly, as a result of the development, Bangladesh, supported by China, has successfully concluded a bilateral agreement with Myanmar pertaining to the crucial matter of Rohingya repatriation. China, in a strategic move, subsequently established a trilateral mechanism encompassing Bangladesh and Myanmar, aimed at facilitating the repatriation process. In this respect, another crucial development has been noticed that, since the junta took control in Myanmar in 2021, recently, a Bangladeshi delegation went there for negotiations. By doing this, Bangladesh wants to launch a trial repatriation process and has provided a list of more than 3,000 Rohingyas to repatriate them to Rakhine.

The Growing Need for Repatriation: Bangladesh’s Perspective

From Bangladesh’s viewpoint, facilitating the safe return of Rohingya to Myanmar has become an issue of heightened priority and urgency for both domestic security and regional stability. Keeping refugees in the congested Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan-Char camps has imposed a massive burden, with socioeconomic stresses as well as security issues mounting on the surrounding districts. The presence of at least one million refugees has put pressure on local infrastructure, financial management, public services local stability, and so on in an already poor region and all over Bangladesh. In addition, crimes like drug smuggling, radicalization, and extremist tendencies have also allegedly risen. The most pressing concern is that Bangladesh considers the presence of Rohingya to be a danger to its national security

From a geopolitical standpoint, it is crucial to analyze Bangladesh’s position on the matter of the huge refugee burden. Bangladesh firmly asserts that the burden of responsibility should not solely rest upon its shoulders, but also be shared by Myanmar. However, the Myanmar military junta had long been unheedful about the burden. By emphasizing shared responsibility, Bangladesh seeks to underscore the need for a collaborative approach in addressing this pressing humanitarian issue. In light of its longstanding history of offering refuge, Dhaka has reached a point where its patience has been politically, financially, and socially exhausted, demonstrating the imperative for Myanmar to assume responsibility for repatriating its own citizens. Most importantly, the provision of international aid to the Rohingya population is experiencing a noticeable decline. According to experts, the prevailing circumstances are posing significant challenges in meeting the fundamental needs of individuals. In this respect, Bangladesh went through a notable shift in funding between the years 2018 and 2022. Specifically, the amount allocated for Rohingyas underwent a substantial decrease, declining from a sum of $689 million in 2018 to a figure of $383 million in 2022.

However, the repatriation process continues to face significant obstacles, as the military regime in Myanmar is widely seen as lacking the willingness and trust to establish the safe and peaceful required circumstances for the return of a substantial number of individuals. Amidst the waning global attention on the crisis, Bangladesh has strategically been turning to regional diplomacy, particularly seeking support from China, in order to overcome the current deadlock and expedite the process of facilitating the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

Shifting Mindsets in Myanmar’s Regime Towards Repatriation?

Recent diplomatic efforts have raised optimism that Myanmar may be taking a more accommodating approach toward Rohingya repatriation than in the past. It is likely that China is playing an important role in persuading Myanmar’s military authorities to allow modest and limited returns. With regard to this development, a Bangladeshi delegation visited Myanmar for the first time since the junta took power to hold discussions. Although there was hope in March about a “pilot project” to repatriate, it did not work out due to lack of Military willingness. However, Bangladesh has urged Myanmar to take steps to win back the trust of the Rohingya people. Especially relevant, a list of about 3,000 Rohingyas has been submitted with the goal of launching a trial repatriation initiative. Intriguingly, the most recent decision in this respect states that 7176 Rohingyas may have been returned to Rakhine before the end of the year.

Apart from that, from the Junta’s perspective, they have a lot to gain by softening its stance on the return of Rohingya refugees. This repatriation may reduce external pressure and placate friends like China as China is dreaming of greater BRI connectivity bringing about regional stability. Also, the regime may help stabilize border districts, through the partial Rohingya repatriation, where its control remains precarious in light of Bangladesh’s resolve to combat cross-border criminal activity. However, Rakhine State is predominantly Buddhist, but Myanmar’s commanders are wary lest an inflow of refugees erode Buddhist dominance and military rule. Therefore, they have rejected widespread repatriation in favor of limited “pilot returns” under close supervision. It will be difficult to ensure that such returns are truly voluntary and to prevent any further abuse of returnees but Myanmar’s renewed inclination to engage on the subject is significant given the country’s history of opposition to even limited returns.

Will the Trilateral Diplomacy Deliver Breakthroughs?

While the current negotiation between Bangladesh and Myanmar, backed by China, is a positive step forward, it is still to some extent uncertain whether or not it will lead to a repatriation of significant numbers of Rohingya people in the near future. Although there may be with an optimistic development, it would be challenging to believe that the Myanmar regime will continue to allow huge repatriation, if destabilizing and insecurity consequences are perceived internally. The Myanmar generals are still quite wary of having large numbers of refugees come home. Moreover, the isolated military rule in Myanmar is wary of becoming too reliant on any one friend, even China. More importantly, without stronger security guarantees and safe circumstances, the great majority of refugees continue to fear persecution and mistreatment if repatriated to Myanmar.

However, what can be done to continue the repatriation progress on a larger scale? Under certain circumstances, though, it is reasonable to hope for the best. First, Myanmar must demonstrate that life in Rakhine State has improved, allowing returnees citizenship and freedom of travel. Second, until the necessary infrastructure is in place, those who will have been relocated back should live in designated “reception centers” rather than their home villages. Third, extensive conversations beforehand are necessary to build cultural awareness and local buy-in. Finally, a neutral third party like China or the United Nations should oversee the entire repatriation process. Last but not least, assistance packages to facilitate repatriation require support from the international community.

The return of a small number of Rohingya refugees would send a powerful symbolic message. With a view to harnessing the process, the trilateral mechanism should be given priority with the tools and information it needs to ensure the safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees, on whatever scale Myanmar is now ready to accept.

[View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development.]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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