For the past six years, the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their homeland has been a contentious issue between their homeland Myanmar and host country Bangladesh since Myanmar authorities have consistently refused to recognize the Rohingya people as their own nationals. However, the minority’s exile appears to be coming to an end, as Bangladesh and Myanmar have finally initiated a pilot program to return a small number of Rohingyas to Rakhine state, where the majority of the population is located.

By S.A. Korobi

Given the continuing turmoil in Myanmar under Junta’s leadership, the decision to repatriate Rohingyas raised many eyebrows. While China has been facilitating this development, the Western world hasn’t been warm to this approach. Not for the first time, regional geopolitics and great power competition have used the Rohingya repatriation program as a scapegoat. China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region, along with the United States’ efforts to counteract that growth, has made every significant topic in the region a target for competition and influence. The lives of this underprivileged population are on the line while the world disputes and the world’s great powers must grasp this in order for the Rohingya to safely return to their home.

With the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States remained the only superpower of a new unipolar international system. But after three decades of enjoying its unipolar moment, Pax-Americana is on its way to the end.  The recent rise of new powers such as the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China– indicates that the balance of power in the international system is changing. The US realizes its waning influence and the Biden administration has been open about its concerns about China as a threat to international stability. But China’s geopolitics seems less of a hegemon and more of becoming a major power in its region and further. But how the Rohingya community fit into the big strategies of these big countries is an important question to ask.

The answer is the geopolitical importance of Myanmar. USA, China, Russia, and even India have their own agendas for Myanmar that often lead these countries to take half-baked approaches in the Rohingya issue – clearly not trying to upset the golden egg-laying goose.

Myanmar’s unique geographical position provides two brilliant opportunities for its international patron China; one is the naval access to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital strategic water passages which is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and China and the other is access to Indian ocean.  China is looking at the vast markets of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, along with India. Thus, China is gaining access into the Indian Ocean through Myanmar not only complements its string of pearls but also provides an alternative to its Malacca problem in the South China Sea. So, there’s no wonder China has shielded the country for decades from international sanctions and condemnation because of Myanmar’s history of human rights violations.

President Obama after his re-election visited Myanmar as the first US president. US’s engagement with Myanmar mainly demonstrated its policies to counter China’s assertiveness in Asia by meddling with the country’s neighbors. Other than geopolitical considerations, Myanmar is important for the U.S. on other grounds as well. Myanmar’s narcotic production and export have become an irritant for the U.S. as the U.S. is a major destination for these illegal drugs. So, it has always been important for the US that Myanmar returns to democracy and stability while for China as long Myanmar remains in chaos, the easier it becomes for the country to consolidate its influence over every sector of the polity. Their end goals for Myanmar and rivalry over the influence on the country have now spilled over to the Rohingya repatriation program too.

China has intervened in the Rohingya repatriation since the very beginning. Its mediation in the process started in 2017 when it proposed a three-phase plan for resolving the Rohingya crisis. The plan although welcomed by both Bangladesh and Myanmar but failed on the grounds. In 2019, another such attempt was taken for a “tripartite joint working mechanism” by Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar to evaluate the situation on the ground for Rohingya repatriation but that also reached nowhere. With covid-19 and then Myanmar’s coup in 2021, all efforts of repatriation fell apart even after a continuous delegation of China with Naypyidaw.

The US approach to Rohingya repatriation was based on its insistence that only the United Nations and its organs are the appropriate mediums to conduct the process where the safety and dignity of the community can be maintained. But after the coup of 2021, it seems that the US focus has shifted towards restoring democracy in Myanmar rather than solving the Rohingya issue.

Now that the repatriation program is set to start before this year’s monsoon, both powers must realize the importance of this development. China and the US should take this opportunity to keep the pressure on the Myanmar government to repatriate the 1176 Rohingyas under the pilot project as soon as possible and provide the needed financial assistance. Already a team of 20 Rohingyas have visited two of 15 villages in Rakhine State, at the invitation of the Myanmar government as an attempt at confidence building.

UN agencies such as UNHCR which must rely on the country’s permission to assist refugees, can also be involved in the process if these powers can utilize their connections to Bangladesh and Myanmar to ensure the safe repatriation for the Rohingyas.

In sum, the international community and especially these two powers must take collaborative responsibility to repatriate the Rohingyas and share the burden of Bangladesh which has already taken a toll of hosting such a huge population for six years. The US-China rivalry should not affect bringing solutions to the plight of most persecuted refugees around the world.

S.A. Korobi, Student, Peace and Conflict Studies (MSS), Dhaka University, Bangladesh