The US BURMA Act: Long Way to the Rohingya Repatriation?

The politics did not get better in 2022 but only became more complicated. We have seen many predicaments of international politics last year including a worsened phase of the Russia-Ukraine War, rising Chinese involvement, strategic autonomy question of the European Union, renewed transatlantic connection etc. The silent genocide in Ethiopia continued. The military rule in Myanmar regained its pace. The United States seems to be focused on regaining its global leadership role.

The global leader of liberal democratic values is particularly more concerned when Asian countries get tangled with their political havoc, especially with the question of military rule, performing democracy, and the rule of law. One of the major predicaments was the issuing of US BURMA Act on Dec. 23, where the country imposed sanctions on the Tatmadaw military regime including army personnel, senior military leaders and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. The act also allows the US to support democratic activists, resistance forces struggling to renew the democratic rule in the country. This has come when almost two years have passed since the February military coup d’etat replaced the National Democratic League in Myanmar and five years have passed since the Rohingya refugee crisis took a face of protracted situation. Thus it is not a surprising question to ask — will this act be a befitting accompaniment to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis?

The credit to this bill goes to the US Congressman Gregory Meeks who also happens to be the first black member to chair the House Foreign Affairs committee in the US. His issuance of the BURMA Act back in April 2022 was initiated to send the Myanmar military a signal that their brutality and atrocities should have accountability to the global community. Also, as a means to push political pressure, the act was finally passed this December with the signing of President Joe Biden which immediately effectivized the act as law, allowing the US to impose property and visa blocking sanctions on Burma’s military government leaders and national energy company. This bill also allows the US to continue their support to the international development agencies actively engaged in Bangladesh, Myanmar and other surrounding regions with their humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance. The act has been a headway for the US engagement in Burmese affairs after giving the formal recognition of the Rohingya atrocities as a genocide back in 2021.

The 2021 Burma Act is divided into five Titles. The Section 102 (11) of the first Title explicitly addresses the US policy preference of ensuring protection and non-refoulement of refugees by creating a conducive environment in Myanmar. The Title II (Section 202) delineates the nitty-gritties of sanctioning on individuals such as persons knowingly operating in the defense sectors, responsible for undermining democratic processes, senior leader of the Burmese military. These sanctions apply to their properties, foreign exchange, visa admission and parole. Section 205 also actively promotes more rigorous United Nations actions with regard to Burma. However, in this bill the repatriation issue of Rohingya refugees unfortunately did not get the attention that it deserves.

This has also been a headway of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which predominantly changed US policy to shift towards Myanmar by supporting full-fledgedly National Unity Government (NUG) and posing restrictions on Myanmar’s military junta in forms of sanctions or freezing assets. Now, this 2022 US BURMA Act will only strengthen the critical posture of the US by not only in rhetoric supporting People’s Defense Force (PDF) or NUG but also in providing non-lethal assistance to the democracy fighters.

However, the bill’s chief concern remains the military rule which has been criminalizing democracy at home, whereas the Rohingya refugee crisis was mentioned only as a liability to the military rule and also pledging to support the humanitarian assistance to the protracted refugee people. Alarmingly the financial burdens to support the refugee people has become a critical issue in recent two years where Bangladesh is heading the growing financial burden to support these people, and also facing an unwilling international community due to the Eurasian geopolitical stability and the seemingly protracted situation of the crisis. This suggests that only sanctioning the Myanmar military rulers and supporting the humanitarian cause will neither help Rohingya people to achieve their justice nor easing the pressure from Bangladesh.

The refugee population is nonetheless increasing. With a birthrate of almost 5%, every day 95 babies are born on an average in the Rohingya camps of Bangladesh. To deal with an overpopulated area, the Bangladesh government also facilitated a temporary resettlement initiative in Bhasan Char in December 2020. The United States albeit slowly but also has started taking around 24 of Rohingya people for resettlement purposes in December. This instance shows the strong partnership of Bangladesh and the US in their comprehensive response to the crisis. However, the number should be increased and more countries need to volunteer in taking the initiative of resettling Rohingya people even if it starts with a small number.

Certainly, resettlement is not a permanent solution. Bangladesh, from the very beginning of the crisis, has been firm on the repatriation of the Rohingyas back to Myanmar. What needs to be done is to create a conducive environment in Myanmar to facilitate Rohingya’s fearless, safe and dignified return to their original home. Thus the chief actor to resolve this crisis should be the Myanmar government. It is on their bread to create a safe political space for democratic rules and to do necessary legislative reform to recognize Rohingya people in their original identity. The international community at best can pressurize the present military regime. The United States has been a dominant supporter to Bangladesh in this regard. But, the BURMA act would not be enough, if we are to take the Rohingya repatriation issue seriously.

Sanctioning Myanmar government through BURMA Acts remains a praiseworthy action on the US part in promoting a safe political environment in Myanmar. Though this does not explicitly address the Rohingya crisis except its recognition of its genocidal nature and the liability of the Myanmar regime in exacerbating it. In pressurizing to promote democracy to bring in the rule of law there was no alternative to this act. However, what we needed was a more direct pressure on Myanmar to facilitate dialogues of repatriation into a tangible action form. It is high time that we advance towards a new bill to put a full-stop to the sufferings of those people.

Probably, it is the first step. The sheer challenge of the Myanmar government comes from the United States. The act’s major contribution would be to challenge the legitimacy of the military regime even more than the temporary stern posture of sanctioning. However, we need more efforts to solidify this challenge and ossify the global repatriation agenda for the Rohingya crisis. Hence, the original solution lies in a solid repatriation of the Rohingya refugee people to Myanmar, which probably is a long way, but the BURMA act will probably smooth the path indirectly.

[Photo by the White House]

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

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