Why The Rohingya Can't Return

Khin Mai Aung
Rohingya Muslims gather behind Myanmar's border lined with barbed wire fences in Maungdaw district, located in Rakhine State bounded by Bangladesh on March 18, 2018.

Just months after a vicious military crackdown sent over 700,000 Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, the two countries have agreed on the eventual repatriation of the refugees, but not on a timeline or with details for what that process would look like.

This month, a senior Bangladeshi official condemned the Myanmar government as “evil,” and asserted that the refugees could not be repatriated for the foreseeable future. Although the world has watched the Rohingya humanitarian crisis with rapt attention, the strident nationalism enabling Myanmar’s “evil” behavior is not well understood.  

Contemporary Burmese national identity revolves around the majority Bamar population, leading to numerous armed ethnic conflicts and a general shortage of trust between the government and ethnic leadership. In addition, the absence of meaningful civil rights protections has combined with decades of repression and ongoing unrest in border regions to create the present catastrophe.

Repatriation of Rohingya refugees will never be viable without a fundamental shift in the country’s allocation of political power.

Myanmar has astounding diversity, with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups as well as others like the Rohingya who are not officially recognized as native to the country. But ethnic minorities simply do not enjoy parity with the Bamar. Members of both the military and civilian government are disproportionately Bamar, and minorities often face challenges gaining citizenship (which grants access to other entitlements such as higher education, employment and the ability to serve in public office). And while the world has...

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