What a possible new breakthrough at Cern could reveal about the structure of the universe

Cern's LHCb experiment has spotted more evidence of an anomaly in the standard model of physics. © 2018-2021 CERN
This is a transcript of Episode 9 of The Conversation Weekly podcast, A new force of nature? The inside story of fresh evidence from Cern that’s exciting physicists. In this episode, listen to how scientists working at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider found tantalising new evidence which could mean we have to rethink what we know about the universe. And an update on the situation for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh after a deadly fire swept through a refugee camp there.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Gemma Ware: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.

Dan Merino: This week, we talk to experts about new evidence from particle physics that could mean we have to rethink what we know about the universe.

Harry Cliff: So the only way you can explain this effect is if there’s some new force.

Gemma: And we talk to an expert on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority about the situation after a devastating fire ripped through a refugee camp in Bangladesh where many have been living.

Rubayat Jesmin: There were losses of lives and more than 10,000 houses were burnt.

Dan: I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco.

Dan: And I’m Gemma Ware in London and you’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Dan: OK Gemma, so the first story today is about, well, just the substance of the universe.

Gemma: Nothing big then.

Dan: Well actually quite small, what we’re talking about here is tiny, at the subatomic level. Basically what’s going on inside the centre of an atom, the stuff which makes up, you, me and everything around us.

Gemma: Essentially it’s invisible to you and me then.

Dan: Yep, totally invisible to the naked eye and you couldn’t even see it on a microscope. Physicists know a lot about this suabtomic world, but there are so many unanswered questions. And in late March, physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator at Cern in Geneva, announced, tentatively I should add, that they’d had a bit of a breakthrough.

Dan: If what they think they’ve seen is proven correct, it could mean entirely new physics – essentially the model that we use to understand the universe needs a bit of a tweak.

Gemma: Now, people who study particle physicists can be broken down into two broad types: those who do experiments at places like Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, these are the experimentalists; and those who try to generate theories using super complex mathematics, these are the theorists.

Dan: And we’re going to hear from one of each of them in this story. Harry Cliff is an experimental particle physicist at the University of Cambridge. He works at Cern and was part of the team that recently announced this new tantalising discovery. Celine Boehm is a theorist who studies particle physics and cosmology. She’s a professor and head of physics at the University of Sydney. And I’m going to let Celine, who also worked at Cern for a while, set the scene for us.

Celine Boehm: When you go down there, it’s absolutely amazing because you, you can take a lift and you go down 100 metres. When the doors open you’re in a cavity and suddenly there is this massive experiment. And I used to do the visits there and I used to say it’s like a cathedral for physics. It’s like a major building in front of you but it’s just dedicated to understand the most fundamental aspects of the world we live in.

The name Large Hadron Collider means there are three terms, large, hadron and collider. Collider means it’s basically a facility where you take particles, you accelerate them and then you smash them against each other. And the reason why we do this is that we, we hope that by smashing them, we discover even more fundamental particles. Now we call it a hadron because it’s a certain type of particles, which are called the protons.

The reason why we called it large is that it is actually the largest in the world that has ever been built. So you have a tunnel which is circular, which is 27 kilometre diameter, and it’s passing through France and Switzerland. And in those tunnels basically we have pipes in which we have those proton which are accelerated and smashed. And we need to observe how it works, so we have four locations in which we have what we call a detector. So we have four experiments those experiments are basically detecting the result of the collisions and they’re essentially detecting energy and light, which is emitted through the collision.

Gemma: It really makes you want to go there, this enormous underground tunnel with all these protons smashing into each other at really high speed. But what is Cern actually looking for?

Dan: Well, you probably heard of this one. The first, and probably most famous discovery was the the Higgs Boson.

Dan: The Higgs Boson was detected at Cern in 2012. It’s a particle that has to do with why things have mass, and when one is created it only exists for a split second before decaying and disappearing.

Gemma: And they were expecting to find this Higgs Boson, weren’t they?

Dan: Yeah, it had actually been predicted by theoretical physicists back in the 70s. And in fact, it would have been kind of worrying if the Large Hadron Collider hadn’t found evidence of the Higgs Boson. That would have meant something was off in what’s called the standard model of particle physics. This time, physicists at Cern have found evidence that something might be missing from this model. But what, you might be wondering is the standard model. Well, let’s have Harry Cliff explain it.

Harry: The standard model is probably the most successful scientific theory that we’ve ever developed. So it’s a theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. So fundamental particles, the things that make up atoms, the forces that bind them together. It’s been around more or less in the current form since the mid 1970s, when it was sort of put together theoretically.

And since then, every single prediction that it’s made has been verified in experiment. And that, I guess the most recent version of that was when the Higgs Boson was discovered almost a decade ago at Cern.

So it’s this like incredibly successful framework for understanding the microscopic, subatomic world. But we know it’s seriously incomplete. So from astronomy, particularly we know that there’s way, way more stuff in the universe than we can see with our telescopes. There’s huge amounts of two mysterious substances called dark matter and dark energy, which are really just words for, we don’t know what they are, they’re kind of mysterious things. The standard model doesn’t explain what they are. There are no particles in the standard model that could answer those questions. There’s loads of other things like, you know, the standard model predicts, for example, that there shouldn’t be any matter in the universe, which is a bit of a problem given that, you know, a theory that predicts that his own authors don’t exist is probably in trouble. So that there are lots of reasons for thinking there’s new stuff out there.

Dan: So we’ve got this predictive model, the standard model, but what does the standard model predict and what are those fundamental particles?

Harry: Right. OK, well, let’s start from the beginning. I guess everyone’s familiar with the idea of an atom. And if you zoom in on an atom, you see that it’s essentially like a little solar system.

In the centre, you’ve got a nucleus which contains most of the mass of the atom, and then you’ve got electrons that go around the outside. So the electron was the first fundamental particle to be discovered more than 100 years ago. That’s part of the standard model. If you go into the nucleus, you find quarks, which are the up and down quark, which make up the material in the nucleus.

Dan: OK, so to clarify real quick, at the centre of an atom, in the nucleus, you have protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are made of teeny, tiny particles called quarks. They come in two flavours, an up quark and a down quark, and that has to do with which direction they spin. Put a few quarks together, and you get a proton or a neutron. Put a few protons, neutrons and electrons together and you get an atom.

Harry: You’ve actually got 12 matter particles in total. So you’ve got the electron the up quark, the down quark. Something called a neutrino. And then for reasons we do not understand those four matter particles come in three families, which have very similar properties but different masses. So there’s like a heavy version of the electron called the muon and an even heavier version of that called the tau and the quarks all have heavy versions as well. We don’t really know why there are like 12 of these things. It’s a bit of a mystery.

The particles interact through four forces in nature. So we have gravity, which is probably the most familiar force to all of us. But one of the defects of the standard model is that it doesn’t say anything about gravity. So that’s sort of a big problem for, not for now, really. And then you’ve got these other three forces. So there’s electromagnetic force, which is responsible for electricity, magnetism, light. And it has a particle called the photon.

Dan: A photon is essentially a particle of light. It’s what warms you skin when you stand in the sun and its how music is transmitted over the radio.

Harry: Then you’ve got two nuclear forces, the strong and the weak nuclear force, which are probably a bit less familiar, but the strong force essentially glues the quarks together inside the nucleus. That comes with a bunch of force particles called gluons cause they literally glue stuff together. And then the weak nuclear force, which is a sort of rather weird force, which basically allows particles to transform into each other so that it can, you know, one kind of quark can turn into another type of quark. So these forces are like kind of messengers that allow the matter particles, the electrons and the quarks and the muons and all these things to sort of interact and change between each other.

Dan: Explain to me where your recent discovery fits into this standard model.

Harry: OK, so that there’s broadly speaking two different ways you can look for new particles. There’s a direct method, which is kind of how the Higgs Boson was discovered, where you use your big particle accelerator. You smash particles into each other. The energy of those collisions is turned into new matter and you get new particles coming out and you detect them with your detector.

There’s another method, which is known as an indirect search and like a sort of analogy that I often use to describe this is if you’re like say looking for a very rare animal in a thick jungle, there are two ways you might go about that. One would be to like wander around in the jungle, trying to catch the animal itself, like maybe in a clearing somewhere. But if it’s a really big jungle and you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t really know where you’re supposed to be looking you might be wondering round for days and you won’t find anything.

So a slightly cannier thing to do would be, well, let’s look at the ground and let’s see if we can see footprints of anything, you know, kind of moving around in the jungle. So we might see a footprint and go, “OK, there’s clearly something out here, but we don’t necessarily know exactly what kind of animal it is, just from its footprint, but it gives us a clue about where to then look next.” So, that’s sort of what we do at LHCb, the experiment that this results come out from this week, where we do indirect measurements.

Read more: Evidence of brand new physics at Cern? Why we're cautiously optimistic about our new findings

What we’re looking at basically are particles we already know about – so standard model particles. And you’re looking at how they behave and you’re measuring the way they behave very accurately. And you try to see them behaving in ways that you can’t explain with your current theory, so sort of deviations from your expectations. And the way this works is basically, the specific thing that we’ve seen is a particle called a beauty quark.

Dan: Beauty quark’s a fantastic name. What actually is a beauty quark?

Harry: So it’s basically like a heavy version of the down quark that you find inside every atom, but these quarks don’t exist in the universe normally they’re very short lived. You make loads of these at LHCb and they decay. So they’re, they’re unstable. They’re produce in the collisions that the LHC then decay into other particles. And, and like so these parties, they’re not breaking apart. It’s not like a, you know, a car that’s falling to pieces with bits coming off it. It’s literally changing into something else. So it transforms. The beauty quark is a fundamental particle, but it changes its nature and it becomes three other particles.

Dan: OK Beauty quarks dont last very long and decay into other particles. And your new finding was about beauty quarks decaying, right? So what exactly were you looking at with the Large Hadron Collider?

Harry: What we’re looking at is how often they decay into electrons versus how often they decay into muons, and according to the standard model and the forces in the standard model these two decays should happen equally as often. So, if you have like 1,000 beauty quark decays, 500 of them should decay to electrons, 500 should decay to muons. But what we’re actually seeing is the moun decays are happening less often and they’re happening about 85% as often as the electron decays.

And this is really, really weird because the forces in the standard model treat electrons and muons as like identical copies of each other, more or less. So any process involving electrons and muons for the most part should happen just as often. So, the only way you can explain this effect is if there’s some new force, basically that interacts with electrons and muons differently, that’s interfering with the process, changing how the decay happens.

And this is a bit like a footprint. So we’re sort of seeing the imprint of some heavy particle of a new force that we’ve never detected before that’s changing how these ordinary standard model particles behave.

Dan: Well that sounds like some huge news! Did this anomaly appear out of nowhere or had there been clues before?

Harry: This anomaly first appeared about seven years ago in 2014. At that point, we had quite a big uncertainty, there wasn’t that much data at that time. And over the last few years, this anomaly has got more and more precise. And the reason that it’s sort of big news this week is actually the anomaly is still there, and the error, the uncertainty on our measurement has shrunk to a sort of slightly arbitrary but nonetheless important statistical threshold, which in particle physics terms is known as three sigma. Basically if you did 1,000 experiments like this, you would expect one of them to land randomly this far away from your data. So there’s sort of a one in a thousand chance this is a random wobble in statistics. Like, you know, rolling lots of sixes in a row with a dice or something.

So really we won’t know for sure whether this is a real effect until we get to a much higher statistical threshold known as five sigma, and at that point there’s like a one in three and a half million chance of it being a random fluke. And that’s the sort of gold standard for saying, “OK, we’re really seeing something for sure here.”

Dan: OK, so you’ve been measuring and measuring all these decaying beauty quarks, and now we’ve got some pretty good evidence that something is off – a force seems to be missing from the standard model. Do you have any idea what this new force could be?

Harry: Theorists have come up with loads of ideas over the last few years, and there are broadly two candidates, so they both have quite, like, weird sounding names. One is called a Z prime, which is essentially, a sort of super weak force. So there’s this particle in the standard model called the Z, which is the carrier of the weak force. So this would be like an even heavier, even weaker version of that called the Z prime. But unlike the Z, which decays to electrons and muons equally as often, this Z prime would treat electrons and muons differently. So it would have a preference for one or the other. So essentially that would be a new force of nature along the lines of the weak force that we already know about.

Dan: You mentioned there are two options for what might be causing this anomaly. What’s the other one?

Harry: There’s another thing called a leptoquark, which is a whole different object entirely. So this is sort of a, again, it’s kind of a force particle, but it’s a unique force particle in the sense that it can decay into a quark and what we call a lepton at the same time.

Dan: So, if you remember, atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Lepton is an umbrella term that refers to basically the electron family. There are a few particles, including electrons, muons and taus, that are identical in every way except some of them are heavier than the others. These are the leptons. What Harry told me is that all forces physicists know of can only turn into one thing at a time. Leptoquarks, if they exist, would be able to change into two things: leptons and quarks. So, leptoquarks.

Harry: The leptoquark might be part of a bigger picture that explains how these objects are related to each other and whether there’s like a deeper structure that explains why we have these 12 matter particles, which at the moment look a bit arbitrary and we don’t really know why they’re there. If either of these turns out to be true, it would be a really major discovery, and it would probably be telling us something about the structure of the standard model itself. So, why we have these particular particles in the universe, which is a question that we’ve not been able to answer so far.

Dan: What do you expect it might show about the universe?

Harry: So if this is real, and we find out what this particle is, it’s unlikely to be on its own. So in general, when we’ve found new particles in the past, they’re part of a bigger pattern. So it would be kind of weird if there was just one of these things. It’s probably the start of a collection of objects.

The standard model in a way is this, is like a part of a puzzle. It’s like maybe the top corner of a puzzle, which we filled in really nicely. And there’s the edges and we think there’s more pieces to go at the edge, but we don’t really know what they are. It’s unlikely to be one extra piece. It’s probably going to be a whole new set of pieces that enlarge the whole picture.

Dan: Harry was very, very careful to say that the team at Cern is “cautiously optimistic” about the finding, that’s kind of the official line. They’re claiming to have found evidence of an entirely new force of nature after all. That proof is coming though as physicists analyse more data and run more experiments at Cern and other particle accelerators around the world.

But even with the careful statement of caution, there’s real excitement about this paper. It’s also been a very exciting time for the theoretical physicists, like Celine Boehm. Part of what Celine studies is dark matter. Now, our regular listeners might remember what that is from our episode a few weeks ago, but here’s a quick recap. Dark matter is this mysterious stuff that makes up about 85% of the matter in the universe. It’s called dark matter, because, well, we can’t actually detect it in any direct way. The only way we know dark matter exists is becuase of its gravitational effect. Theoretical physicists have been trying for decades to find dark matter, and when Celine heard the recent news out of Cern, she immediately thought it could shed some light on the dark side of the universe.

Celine: It’s almost immediate to say, well there may be a link to the dark matter because it’s a new type of particle, so you could envisage, let’s say, a new type of force which these experiments have potentially discovered. That new type of force would basically be a mediator between the dark particles, the dark matter particles and the visible sector that we know of.

Dan: Remember, there are two theoretical particles that could explain the anomaly Harry and his colleagues found at Cern: one is the Z prime, and the other is the leptoquark. So, I asked Celine – have people been looking for these particles?

Celine: Yeah. So the leptoquarks have been looked for a long time. And in fact, just before my PhD, so as a master’s student, there was a claim already at that time, just as I was passing the exam actually, we heard some people shouting in the corridor because there was a claim for evidence of leptoquark. And that claim disappeared, essentially because it was not robust enough.

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable to think that they’re there, but they need to show up. And so far wherever we test them, we didn’t see them. So again, it’s a question of finding them and, it’s not clear whether they exist or not. So I think it’s going to take, a long time before we can actually validate whether it’s leptoquarks or Z prime or maybe some people will propose a new type of particles.

Dan: You’re a theoretician, now that you’ve got this little clue, are you going to go back to the chalkboard and start scribbling formulas to try and figure out maybe there’s something else? Or do you think it’s most likely the leptoquark or the Z prime?

Celine: I’ve already done that to be honest. I’ve already contacted my colleagues and said, “Hey guys, it’s time to revisit some of the ideas.” Yeah, so far for me, leptoquarks I can see how it works. Z prime, definitely I can see how it works. I don’t think that’s going to be easy to propose something else, but there are many people with a lot of imagination.

Dan: So, were you expecting this finding to happen eventually?

Celine: For this one, no, it’s unexpected for me because I’ve been working with Z prime boson for a long time and I kind of I basically decided, OK, they don’t exist and I wasted my time.

Dan: Oh no!

Celine: So it was, it was very interesting to see, oh actually, maybe not.

Dan: That must’ve felt very good. Did you pop a bottle of champagne or something?

Celine: No, I would, I would if they discover it at five sigma then, I would actually be very happy because they’re extremely cute particles.

Dan: Did you say cute?

Celine: Yeah, you know you get attached to what you’re doing basically. You know, every particle physicist have their own preference. Some prefer quarks, some prefer leptons. I’m addicted to leptons. They’re the most fundamental particles in the world. Most particles that we know of you can decompose them, you can break them. The leptons we try hard and we didn’t succeed so far. So they seem to be just the most fundamental particle you can think about. It’s like saying, you know, you start from a Russian doll, you remove a first layer and then the second layer you peel off that, then eventually you get this smallest one. And that’s it – and you can’t do more than that.

And in that respect leptons are exactly that last Russian doll. They’re an absolutely stable particle that never decays, they don’t disappear. So their lifetime is basically the same as the age of the universe and they’re extremely powerful articles because we can use them as a tool, basically, to probe the early universe. And we probe objects like clusters of galaxies. So knowing that something is wrong in that sector, that maybe there’s more physics there to explore that is very exciting to me.

Dan: I personally enjoy physics and dark matter and all these heady things, but for someone walking down the street or going to lunch or going to work, why does it matter? Why should they care?

Celine: So there are two things I can say, the very first one is fundamental knowledge. And, you know, a few centuries ago you would say, “Well, you think you’re at the centre of a universe, why would you care knowing that you’re not?” And yet basically the Copernicus revolution is a revolution in knowledge.

Dan: And by Copernicus revolution, you’re talking about Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer who first proposed that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around, right?

Celine: Yeah. Here, we’re talking about the same, the moment we were discovering dark matter particles, we would be saying that actually we are not the main form of matter in the universe. We’re actually negligible and most of the universe is made of something else. So it’s very similar to that problem of we’re not the centre of universe, we’re actually almost irrelevant. But we have a great privilege to be able to know that and observe it.

Now, the second thing I can say, there’s always consequences of fundamental discoveries and it’s very hard to anticipate. So for example, general relativity is a theory that I would say a very tiny amount of people can understand it. The rest of the world certainly doesn’t understand general relativity, yet we all use it because we all use GPS and it’s embedded in every mobile phone you have on Earth, basically.

So it’s one of those things where it’s hard to know what people will be using it for, but surely if it turns out it’s a fourth force, I’m sure we’re going to be able to harness it. It may take time. It may take centuries maybe more, but we will be using it eventually.

Dan: Celine, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Celine: You’re welcome.

Gemma: What’s so mind blowing about this kind of physics is just how much we don’t know.

Dan: If you want to read more about what the physicists at Cern think they may have found, you can find a link to a story by Harry Cliff and his colleagues in the show notes.

Gemma: Coming up, why a bad situation just got even worse for many Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. But first, we’ve got a few recommendations from our colleague Nehal El-Hadi in Canada.

Nehal: Hiya, this is Nehal El-Hadi, science and technology editor at The Conversation in Toronto, Canada. My first recommendation for you this week is a story I worked on by Samantha Lawler at the University of Regina. I’m a science fiction fan and a book I very much enjoyed reading was the Three Body Problem by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin.

Samantha’s article reminded me of the book because she writes about how a group of astronomers discovered an exoplanet with three stars. Two stars A and B orbit each other while a third C orbits both A and B. The planet orbits star A. This three-star system was found using information from publicly available databases and scientists were able to study changes in brightness and the intervals between these changes to figure out the stars’ sizes and orbits.

My second story for you is by researchers at Simon Fraser University, who look at how the quality of our social interactions can make us happier and lead to healthier cities. Because of the pandemic we’ve had to change the ways we interact with each other, things like physical distancing, stay at home measures and the introduction of social bubbles have changed the way we deal with other people. But when it comes time to rebuild after the pandemic, these researchers say that it’s important to consider the social connections and chance encounters that vibrant city life is built on. That’s it for me. Happy reading.

Dan: Nehal El-Hadi there, science editor at The Conversation in Canada.

Dan: Now, we’re turning to the situation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Gemma: In 2017, an estimated 750,000 people from this minority, mainly Muslim, ethnic group, fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state after violent pogroms.

Gemma: The majority of these Rohingya refugees ended up in a city called Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh, now home to two giant refugee camps. In late March, a fire ripped through one of the camps there, leaving many people homeless.

Gemma: I’ve been speaking to Rubayat Jesmin, a PhD candidate at Binghamton University in New York. She’s researching the economic situation for Rohingya women in these refugee camps. I first spoke to Rubayat in February, just a few days after a recent coup in Myanmar and I called her up again just after the fire. I asked her to give me a bit of background about the situation .

Rubayat: The military junta took power in 1962 and the army government enacted the 1982 Citizenship Act, which totally stripped these Rohingyas of their nationality. This law recognises many ethnicities, except Rohingya Muslims, and that started this flow of Rohingyas into Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. From time to time, there were other military crackdowns on the Rohingyas in Myanmar. So, some of these Rohingyas moved to Bangladesh. After 1978, some where repatriated to Myanmar, but after the influx of 1991-92, there was hardly any repatriation.

The situation really worsened in 2017. There was some big military crackdown in Rakhine state by the Myanmar army. So more than 750,000 Rohingyas crossed the border and take refuge in Bangladesh, mainly in two camps in Bangladesh, Kutapalong and Nayapara. After this influx, Kutapalong became the world’s largest refugee camp, and one of the most densely populated one. You can imagine more than 1 million Rohingya refugees living in a very small place. So it is overcrowded. Gradually, the government with the help of national and international NGOs, they made these camps sort of livable for these Rohingya refugees, but you can understand it’s not at all up to the mark.

Gemma: And you’ve obviously spent time there as part of your research.

Rubayat: Right.

Gemma: Can you give us a picture of what life is like there?

Rubayat: Almost 80% of these Rohingya refugees are women and children. These women especially are very much tormented by sexual abuse, rape and other kinds of traumas. So most of the efforts for the humanitarian workers are diverted toward the mental health issues of these women and children.

Gemma: What’s it been like during the pandemic in the camps?

Rubayat: The camps were kind of sealed from April. That means only the very essential humanitarian workers for food, health, these kind of facilities are allowed. None other activities are taking place. All the learning centres are closed. The security situation has deteriorated in recent times. Especially there have been some cases of trafficking, smuggling and even killing.

Rubayat: So since December 2020, the government has started to relocate some Rohingya refugees, batch by batch to this remote island.

Rubayat: Despite UNHCR and some other international community having strong reservation about this relocation because this island is flood-prone and cyclone prone.

Gemma: What’s the island called?

Rubayat: Pashanjatw. Pashanjatw in Bangla actually means a floating island.

Gemma: Floating island.

Rubayat: Yeah, the name itself says a lot.

Gemma: It’s a very impermanent place. And have they built facilities for the refugees there?

Rubayat: Yes. That, the government of Bangladesh did. They have built facilities to accommodate at least 100,000 Rohingyas. They have built schools, mosques and healthcare centres. So these facilities are there, but those are kind of very basic.

Gemma: You’ve got that happening, but also there’s been a long process talking about repatriation of sending or helping Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. Can you explain a bit about what’s been happening in terms of repatriation?

Rubayat: There were two failed attempts, because the Rohingyas didn’t want to go back to their country. So since this enactment of 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya Muslims became the largest stateless population in the world. That’s why Rohingya who have taken refugee in different countries, they are afraid to go back because they don’t have the nationality or the access to better health, education, even marriage or civil and political rights.

So when this negotiation for repatriation started in 2018, these Rohingyas refused to go back because the situation that led them, across the border in the first days, wasn’t corrected.

Finally, after many months, China, took a lead and at the end of January this year, there was a tripartite meeting between China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, where the parties agreed for peaceful repatriation. The repatriation was supposed to start from June this year, June 2021.

Gemma: And were the Rohingya involved in this decision?

Rubayat: There’s another issue actually. During tripartite meeting, Rohingyas were not part of the conversation. These Rohingyas will now fear to go back when the military is again in power. At the same time, the military may want to continue their plans of making Rakhine state free of Rohingya Muslims.

Gemma: Hello? Hello?

Rubayat: Hello?

Gemma: Hi Rubayat.

Rubayat: Hi Gemma.

Gemma: Hi, good to speak to you again.

Rubayat: Same here.

Gemma: When we first spoke to you back in February, it was just a few days actually, after the coup in Myanmar. Two months on the situation has actually dramatically deteriorated for Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There was a huge fire that ripped through one of the camps there on March 22. Can you tell us what we know about what happened so far?

Rubayat: Actually, the Bangladesh authorities are still investigating about the fire, but there were several fires in the past in the camps. You have to understand that these are very densely populated, overcrowded camps. So the houses are like adjacent to each other. Those are made of plastics and bamboos. So those are very flammable, right? But this time there were losses of lives and properties. Official estimate is saying more than 10,000 houses were burned and there was a big marketplace that was also burned.

So the initial suspect is that there is a cooking cylinder burst and that started the fire. And it very soon spread throughout these houses. But there is an apprehension that it could be done intentionally also. But Bangladesh authority has taken it seriously and they’re investigating it right now.

Gemma: And when we spoke back in early February, you had said that there had been this agreement between Myanmar, Bangladesh and China to start repatriation. Has there been any, any movement since then or any sign of what might happen?

Rubayat: I haven’t heard any such developments yet. If these people are repatriated to Myanmar, they cannot just go back to a place where the condition is not improved since they left. To my opinion, the root cause still is there – this citizenship law. Unless it is reformed, these people continue to remain stateless and deprived of all kinds of rights, and they don’t have their land or home anymore. Several villages have been demolished and in some places, the previous government in Myanmar had developed other infrastructure. So where these people are going to go back?

Gemma: I actually some reports that suggested that the brutal crackdown of protesters by the junta had actually kind of improved the cause within Myanmar for the Rohingya, because there are people who perhaps had been slightly ambivalent about what had been happening to them, who now realised what they’d been going through. Is that something you’ve also been hearing?

Rubayat: Yes. It’s not only the Rohingya Muslims that have been persecuted. There were other ethnic groups also persecuted by the junta government, earlier, right. Kachin and Christian Myanmar people. So now, what this coup kind of brought in is a solidarity among all the ethnic groups. They’re now together and fighting against this coup. So I see a very positive sign because now everybody understands what this persecuted minorities have been going through all these years.

Gemma: It’s sad it’s taken a coup for people to realise that, I guess. But I wanted to ask you finally, if you had a message for the international community who could do something, what would you say? What needs to be done?

Rubayat: Immediate need is definitely the humanitarian assistance like food, shelter, healthcare, education, right? In the longer term, definitely the international community need to strengthen their pressure on Myanmar government to repatriate them, create the favourable conditions for these people in their homeland and to do really something about this citizenship act. They cannot be stripped of their citizenship forever.

Gemma: OK, well, thank you Rubayat for speaking with us again, I appreciate your time.

Rubayat: Thank you, Gemma. Thank you once again.

Gemma: In Myanmar itself, the clampdown by the military against protesters has got more deadly in recent days. You can read about the ongoing protest movement on The Conversation, or to hear more about the events which led up to the coup, you can listen to a story we did in early February in our second episode of this podcast.

Dan: We’ve got links to all of the expert analysis we mentioned in the shownotes. You can also find a link to sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email. If you want to reach out, tell us what you think about the show or what questions we should be asking academics, find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. Or you can email us on podcast@theconversation.com

Gemma: Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode. And thanks too to Miriam Frankel, Abby Beall, Catesby Holmes, Nehal El-Hadi and Stephen Khan. And thanks to Alice Mason, Imriel Morgan and Sharai White for helping with our social media and promotion.

Gemma: This episode of The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: Thanks for listening everyone and we’ll talk to you next week.

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