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Myanmar And Bangladesh Announce Tentative Deal On Rohingya Crisis


For months now, we've been telling you about the Rohingya Muslims, a minority group who've been fleeing what the United States calls ethnic cleansing in their home country, Myanmar, a country that claims they're not even proper citizens of the country. The Rohingya have in - have been ending up in sprawling camps in many countries, especially neighboring Bangladesh. And now, today, Myanmar and Bangladesh have reached an agreement - a deal to return the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been monitoring this situation from China. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what exactly happens when we say we return - when we say people will be returned?

KUHN: Well, what the two governments are saying is that they've signed a memorandum of understanding. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also their foreign minister, met with her counterpart from Bangladesh. And they say that any Rohingya who want to return to Myanmar can do so after they fill out forms with their names, dates of birth and their original addresses in Myanmar. But it may not be so simple, I think.

INSKEEP: Well, yeah. And I'm trying to figure out what that means for their return, given that we've just had people on the program in recent days talking about the horrific conditions for people inside Myanmar. Would refugees be returning to that?

KUHN: Well, you know, key details of this deal are missing. How many of these Rohingya will actually be allowed back and under what terms? What we do know right now is that Myanmar is under immense political pressure, as would anyone - as anyone would be who is accused of ethnic cleansing, genocide and things like that. Plus, Myanmar has Pope Francis visiting next week, and he has been very vocal about helping - you know, about addressing this crisis.

INSKEEP: Are there a lot of refugees who want to return?

KUHN: That's hard to say. It could be a very tough choice. Many of the Rohingya in Myanmar who did not leave are now confined in internment camps that are not much better than the ones in Bangladesh. And these Rohingya have no citizenship, no rights. As you mentioned, they're seen by the Buddhist majority as illegal immigrants. And if Rohingyan insurgents attack the Burmese military again, who's to say that the Rohingya would not be subjected to the same sort of abuses that caused them to flee in the first place?

INSKEEP: So, Anthony, you mentioned international pressure, and we know that the United States has criticized what the U.S. calls ethnic cleansing. Of course, the Myanmar government would deny that charge. Other countries have also criticized the ethnic cleansing. What about the country where you are - China? What has China been saying, given how influential it is in that part of the world?

KUHN: Well, China has shielded Myanmar from criticism over this ethnic cleansing. They have actually suggested a solution to the crisis - talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh and development aid to Myanmar. And they've made no - they've made no mention of the ethnic cleansing, no mention of the fact that the Rohingya are stateless. Basically, they took advantage of the fact that nobody else in the region - none of Myanmar's neighbors - seem to have a solution. The U.S. has been threatening sanctions, and that has only served to drive Myanmar closer into China's embrace. But yet, China is trying to play a more proactive role. They are trying to show that they are now not just a major power but a strong power, and they want to be seen as providing solutions, sharing their successful experience. But to critics that just seems like they're essentially exporting authoritarian rule, one-party rule and a lack of human rights.

INSKEEP: Yeah, in this case, proposing a deal to pacify two countries but without regard to human rights, you're saying. Anthony, thank you very much. Really appreciate it.

KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.