What awaits any Rohingya refugees who return to Myanmar?

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Rohingya Muslims, fled from ongoing military operations in Myanmars Rakhine state, walk towards BangladeshImage source, Getty Images
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Many of the Rohingya now live in camps near the Bangladeshi border town of Cox's Bazar

Since late 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, following a military crackdown on the Muslim minority people.

Under a deal between the two countries, thousands of them were due to be moved back to Myanmar. But this was halted when none wanted to return. So what is in store for them should they ever choose to go back?

In the 1990s, "Asia's Mandela" was one contrived comparison used to praise the incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle for universal human rights in Myanmar.

But where Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) fought to dismantle an apartheid regime, Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) now stands accused of entrenching division and discrimination in her own blood-drenched country.

Image source, AFP
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Once seen as a human rights symbol, Aung San Suu Kyi has now been accused of failing to speak up for the Rohingyas

If we are to consider what sort of life awaits any Rohingya Muslims who return to Myanmar's Rakhine state from their refugee camps in Bangladesh, our best bet is to look at the 400,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine at the moment: those who did not flee the Burmese military's brutal "clearance operation" last year and say they are living each day as prisoners in their own land.

"We Rohingya are treated like animals. The restrictions, the oppression, the persecution", Nur Deen, 22, tells me.

We speak often on the phone but I've never been able to meet him.

That's because, for a quarter of his life, he's been confined to one of the many camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the Rakhine capital, Sittwe.

It's about 60 miles (96km) south of where the Myanmar army - also known as the Tatmadaw - carried out what UN investigators say were genocidal acts against the Rohingya people.

The Tatmadaw rejects that charge, insisting it was only driving out Rohingya militants who had attacked the police and army.

Nur Deen's family was moved to their IDP camp in 2012 when a previous wave of Buddhist-Muslim violence erupted. They've never left.

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A woman in an IDP camp in Sittwe

The camp is an open-air prison - as human rights groups describe it - where they have no freedom of movement and no access to healthcare and education.

"Everyone has ambitions but the government blocks ours," says Nur Deen.

"I feel anxious and sorrowful. I feel hopeless. We want to be free, we want to have opportunity. I would like to plead to the government: let us be whatever we want to be."

There seems little chance of that.

The last Rohingya student to enrol at Sittwe University was in 2012. A generation of would-be doctors, teachers, scientists and politicians suppressed. Academic, vocational and professional ambition crushed.

The United Nations says the Rohingyas still living in Rakhine state need to be granted citizenship and free movement before it's possible to even contemplate bringing back the one million Rohingya refugees across the border in Bangladesh.

Their houses have been razed to the ground, their villages bulldozed, signs of their long history in Rakhine wiped off the map.

The conditions are not conducive for "voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable" repatriation, is the phrase we hear time and again.

Ensuring a safe return

Myanmar will tell you a different story. At a recent press conference in the main city, Yangon, the big screen behind the top table of military and civilian officials showcased the warm welcome and bright future returning Rohingya refugees could look forward to.

Some 1,000 pre-fabricated houses had been donated by China, we were told.

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This transit camp was meant to house returning Rohingya refugees

In the short term, there would be medical assessment, special care for new mothers, food and fresh water and a daily allowance of 1,000 Kyat per person ($0.63; £0.49).

In the longer term, there would be incentives to get into work and the opportunity to create a home in one of 42 locations that had been identified for the returnees. We weren't told where.

Building shelters, roads and bridges is one thing. But how about addressing the root causes of the violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and their former ethnic Rakhine Buddhist neighbours who'd lived side by side in Myanmar's poorest state?

It was Buddhist mobs who are said to have torched many of the Rohingya villages after the military had finished their killing and raping sprees. How about tackling the poisonous anti-Rohingya narrative which ultra-nationalists had spread, using and abusing the likes of Facebook?

Image source, Getty Images
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Villages in the Rakhine state were razed to the ground following violence between civilians and the military

What checks will there now be on the Tatmadaw, which still has the country in a chokehold despite Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government theoretically taking power following the 2015 elections?

There was no mention of granting full citizenship to any returning Rohingyas - a key recommendation of a 2017 Rakhine inquiry headed by the late Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General.

Instead, the offer remains one of limited freedom of movement in exchange for accepting a National Verification Card (NVC). The majority of Rohingyas reject NVCs because they believe taking them is accepting they're unlawful aliens from a foreign land.

When it came to the Q and A there was, to me, still one deeply worrying part of the Burmese plan I wanted to ask about.

"How can you possibly guarantee the safety of the Rohingya when the people supposedly looking after them will be the military accused of committing genocide against them?"

Silence. A long silence. The senior officer didn't reply. "Where are you from?" came the eventual reply from a government official.

He noted down my response and then duly reassured me returnees would definitely be safe. And any rogue elements among the military or civilian contingent who commit crimes against them would be brought to justice.

Stateless and helpless

Workshops were also being laid on in Rakhine state to help people understand ethnic differences and foment good relationships.

But activists just don't buy it.

"The situation is getting even worse", says Chris Lewa, the director of Arakan Project which monitors the plight of the Rohingya and developments in Rakhine State.

"The Rohingya are threatened with taking the NVC and they get cut off from livelihood opportunities. The freedom of movement has got worse, there are new checkpoints. It's even worse than it was before the violence started [in August last year]. We see all this construction, but it creates this fear that people will be just be put in new camps."

As it turned out, the heavily trailed repatriation of an initial 2,200 Rohingyas under a joint Bangladesh-Myanmar deal stalled in November when it became clear none of the refugees on the list wanted to go.

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The Rohingya Muslims they would rather stay in refugee camps than return to Myanmar, where it is not safe for them

The plan had faced an avalanche of international criticism. But the two countries seem undeterred, and say the process will resume after the Bangladesh general election on 30 December.

The Rohingya: stateless, helpless and at the mercy of cold politics. In reality, the world will have no way of seeing what will happen to any Rohingya who do return.

Despite an agreement signed between two United Nations agencies and the Myanmar government, humanitarian access to Rakhine has reduced. But the welcome is unlikely to be pleasant, to say the least.

Many ethnic Rakhine say the fear the day the Bengalis or "Kalars" return.

They will tell you these are illegal immigrants who all support the militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) whose attacks on security posts on August 2017 preceded the military's brutal crackdown.

When we're considering the likely reception, I find it hard to forget the cold, calm comment of one Rakhine village administrator I met in northern Rakhine a few months ago. He of course, one of the community leaders who will be responsible for ensuring that "voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable" return.

Can you describe the Rohingya in three words, I asked him. He only needed one.