The Platform

Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh. (Ramazan Nacar)

Is the announced repatriation of 3,000 Rohingyas into Myanmar at risk of being scuttled?

On November 22, Masud Bin Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, made a significant announcement: preparations to begin the sustainable and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas would persist. This declaration came at a moment when the Arakan Army launched a new offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, disrupting a year-long informal ceasefire with the junta—part of Operation 1027 aimed at the military regime that seized control in February 2021. The resurgence of violence casts a long shadow over the prospect of repatriation for the Rohingya, a people whose hopes have been suspended for six years. The recent escalation in Rakhine exacerbates the already tenuous situation, pushing the resolution of their statelessness further into uncertainty.

Operation 1027, initiated on October 27 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance—comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Arakan Army—targeted Shan, Kachin, and Chin states. The operation led to the capture of towns, the severing of trade routes with China, and the overwhelming of military outposts. The vulnerability of the junta has emboldened other factions, including the Kachin Independence Organisation and resistance forces in Kayah State, further straining the military’s resources.

For over a decade, the Arakan Army has been a formidable insurgency, challenging the junta’s rule. A de facto ceasefire in November 2022 brought a semblance of stability, easing travel restrictions and lifting blockades on vital economic hubs like Sittwe. The ceasefire, motivated by humanitarian concerns, aimed to alleviate civilian suffering caused by the ongoing conflict and emergency conditions. Yet, the Arakan Army’s participation in Operation 1027 brings the junta’s response into question, as the group had already taxed Myanmar’s military in times of relative peace. With the military and police evacuating positions and some troops surrendering, the junta faces its most significant challenge since the 2021 coup. The political unrest has been a stumbling block for Rohingya repatriation, but Operation 1027 may well be the final nail in the coffin, as it provides the regime with another pretext to procrastinate on the return of the Rohingya people.

The Arakan Army’s historical hostility towards the Rohingyas, marked by atrocities since its inception in 2009, remains a deep-seated concern. The future of the Rohingyas within Myanmar is fraught with uncertainty, not least because of this animosity.

Negotiations between Dhaka and Naypyidaw had raised the possibility of repatriating 3,000 Rohingyas by the year’s end. This tentative plan, confirmed by a Myanmar official’s visit to Bangladesh, was the result of protracted negotiations, including a tripartite meeting with China in April. Bangladesh has been assiduous in keeping the issue at the forefront of international discourse, leveraging every diplomatic channel to ensure the Rohingya’s plight is not forgotten.

As the Arakan Army controls a significant portion of Rakhine State, the question arises: if the junta is preoccupied with conflicts on multiple fronts, who will sanction the Rohingya’s return? China’s influence over the Three Brotherhood Alliance might be the wild card that ensures the repatriation process continues, regardless of who holds power in Rakhine.

Amidst these tumultuous dynamics, one potential outcome is the downfall of the junta, catalyzed by the united front of the Three Brotherhood Alliance and the people’s uprising. Such a shift could usher in the National Unity Government (NUG), creating an environment more conducive to respecting Rohingya rights.

As time unfolds, the myriad possibilities for the Rohingya—ranging from their continued displacement to a long-awaited return—will reveal themselves. Yet, it is indisputable that repatriation within a democratic Myanmar represents the most just and durable resolution. The international community must not lose sight of the Rohingya’s suffering or Myanmar’s quest for freedom. Only through sustained attention can the repetition of past tragedies be prevented.

Sadia Aktar Korobi is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at Dhaka University. Since 2019, Sadia has been a member of the Right to Peace Foundation.