As I detail in a prior article, Myanmar’s Buddhist government is systematically and repeatedly terrorizing the minority-Muslim Rohingya population into flight. Such attempts at what a senior U.N. official calls “ethnic cleansing” are clearly illegal, as is Myanmar’s related denial of residency rights to the Rohingya. But a 1978 “Repatriation Agreement” with Bangladesh marked “Secret” and published by Princeton University in 2014 constitutes evidence that in 1978, Myanmar acknowledged that the Rohingya had legal residence in the country.
Myanmar justifies its persecution of the Rohingya by publicly claiming that the Rohingya have no legal residence in the country, and should therefore move to Bangladesh, from which they ostensibly originate. The Myanmar government has even asked the international community to stop using the term “Rohingya” in an attempt to erase the Rohingya’s historical ties to Rakhine state that date to the 8th Century A.D. But the secret repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 1978 constitutes evidence that Myanmar recognized the Rohingyas’ legal residence in the country. An Asian diplomat who wishes to remain anonymous confirmed to me that this secret document is authentic.
After 1962, Myanmar (which was then called Burma) renewed repression of Rohingya political and social associations. In 1977, Burma began registering citizens and screened out ‘foreigners,’ primarily to target the Rohingya. The Rohingya alleged that the Burmese military used forced evictions and widespread rapes and murders against the Rohingya. By May 1978, approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees had entered Bangladesh and settled into 13 U.N. refugee camps near the border. The Burmese authorities publicly claimed that the fleeing refugees showed the Rohingya’s illegal residence in Burma. But Bangladesh urged Burma to accept the refugees back, and the U.N. used economic carrots and sticks to encourage Burma to agree.
The secret 1978 “Repatriation Agreement” that resulted states, “THE LEADERS OF DELEGATIONS, duly authorised by and on behalf of the Government of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, following their talks held in Dacca on 7th – 9th July 1978 HAVE AGREED as follows,” and continues, “The Government of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma agrees to the repatriation at the earliest of the lawful residents of Burma [italics mine] who are now sheltered in the camps in Bangladesh on the presentation of Burmese National Registration Cards along with the members of their families …” This constitutes evidence that in 1978, Burma agreed that the Rohingya refugees, most of whose families at one time had national registration cards or other documents, were by and large “lawful residents of Burma.”
Between 1991 and 1992, additional rapes, forced labor, and religious persecution caused another 250,000 Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh. A 1992 agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh similarly acknowledged the lawful residence of the Rohingya in Burma. Titled “Joint statement by the foreign ministers of Bangladesh & Myanmar issued at the conclusion of the official visit of the Myanmar Foreign Minister to Bangladesh 23 – 28 April 1992,” the agreement called the fleeing Rohingya “Myanmar residents” and “members of Myanmar society.”
As long as Myanmar violates its past agreements and the human rights of the Rohingya, other states and corporations should increase economic and diplomatic pressure on the country. This should include the threat of economic sanctions, and increased diplomatic pressure on the civilian government, including de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. On the Rohingya issue, her silence is wrong, as is her general support for the Myanmar military, and according to one knowledgeable source, “even protection of the military committing excesses.” At a minimum, she should publicly acknowledge the crimes being committed in Rakhine State, and support the voluntary return of the Rohingya and the Rohingya diaspora.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s past efforts on solving land disputes have yielded little progress, and the national advisory commission she initiated on Rakhine State has no Rohingya members and is yet to produce recommendations. Her relatively quiet position of support for the Myanmar military hurts more than helps the cause of democracy and human rights. Because of her intransigence on the Rohingya crisis, over 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for the removal of her Nobel Peace Prize.
It is time for all parties, including governments, media, civil society, and corporations, to get much tougher on the Myanmar government and its military over the Rohingya issue. Reference should be made to the 1978 and 1992 agreements signed by Myanmar and recognizing Rohingya legal residence in the country. Myanmar must be held accountable, and must honor its Rohingya agreements, which include a recognition of the Rohingya’s lawful residence in Myanmar. The alternative for Myanmar is to face an international community ready to impose bruising political, diplomatic and economic consequences.
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