Myanmar holds the only key to Rohingya refugee crisis
Bangladesh is in danger of being swamped by 1.4 million refugees fleeing from the misguided bigotry of a government under the thumb of its military
Hatred against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, has smouldered in Myanmar since it obtained independence from Britain in 1948. Besides fighting 15 insurgent groups along its borders, Myanmar has never been at peace with itself. The low-intensity civil wars are being fought between the government (Bamar military) and non-Bamar ethnic insurgents. The new addition in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh is the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM), which is suspected to be an offshoot of the defunct Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.
The latest round of atrocities against the Rohingya began following an AMM attack on police stations in early October. The brunt of the subsequent military crackdown is being borne by Bangladesh, where around 21,000 Rohingya Bangladesh have fled to escape the carnage. They are already without citizenship, and are now under threat of losing their homes and lives.
The other reason for hostility against Rohingyas is the geographical location of Bangladesh. The Muslim majority Bangladesh is sandwiched between Hindu India and Buddhist Myanmar.
The twisted argument is that people from overpopulated Bangladesh migrate illegally to these countries because of deprivation and poverty. The claim in the Indian Rajya Sabha on November 16, 2016, by Indian minister Kiren Rijiju that 20 million illegal Bangladeshis migrants were living in India, is a case in point. Myanmar authorities have repeatedly made similar accusations.
Bamars, who constitute 68 per cent of the population, seem to have become xenophobes since the days of General Ne Win’s dictatorship beginning in the 1960s when he adopted the policy to make the Burmese language, Buddhism and Bamar culture the single cultural identity of Myanmar. Burmese military is exclusively made up of male Buddhist Bamars. Non-Bamar and non-Buddhists are excluded by policy from all government positions, opportunities and all elections.
What is ominous is that Aung San Suu Kyi has started using terms such as “Bengali” and “Muslims of Rakhine State” to describe the Rohingya. The government has thus given into the slogans of Ma Ba Tha, the extreme racist organisation led by bigoted Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu.
The term Rohingya has wide connotations. It means a person of Rohang, the old Muslim term for what is now Rakhine state, which confers historical legitimacy on the Muslim community of Myanmar. The Myanmar government refuses to call them Rohingya, because it will officially recognise the community as a race that has political and human rights. During the 2014 census, the Rohingya were forced to identify themselves as “Bengali”, so that the government could eventually expel them to Bangladesh. Thus, accepting terms such as “Bengali” or “Muslims of Rakhine” effectively strips the Rohingya community of their rights.
It is understandable why Suu Kyi has not condemned the ongoing military atrocities against the Rohingya. She is not the head of state and thus is not in command of the military, which still holds control of important ministries (defence, home, and border security). Her position in the government is precarious, resting on her status as State Counsellor and foreign minister, and has few powers. Though Myanmar claims to have transitioned to democracy, the military still holds much of its old power and has used Suu Kyi as a façade of legitimacy in order to get Western sanctions lifted. Didn’t she legitimise the genocide of the Rohingya when she stated that the military was taking action in Rakhine based on the “rule of law”? Could she have said anything different and retained her position?
There was a faint ray of hope when in August Kofi Annan was commissioned to chair the Advisory Commission on Rakhine “to find the best possible solution to prevailing problems”. Though the former UN chief visited northern Rakhine recently, he is unlikely to see anything amiss. Given Annan’s failure as UN Special Envoy to Syria in 2012, it is unlikely he will be able to bring peace in Rakhine with his recommendations. After recent events in Rakhine, the Commission appears a futile exercise.
Given past experiences, Bangladesh’s efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully through “persuasion and mutual understanding” will not bear fruit. It is unlikely that the Myanmar government will take back the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh through peaceful negotiations. A planned visit by Bangladesh foreign ministers to Myanmar was cancelled recently, which shows that the Myanmar government is unwilling to talk to its neighbour. Myanmar has mounted diplomatic campaigns against the so-called illegal migration of Bengalis from Bangladesh to Rakhine, and blames them for atrocities against Buddhist people there.
Myanmar’s military dominated government does not seem to care about its international image. Fighting insurgents has given the army a bunker mentality. They do not trust anyone and believe Myanmar can live in isolation.
Meanwhile the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine into Bangladesh is a grave threat to its socio-economic security. Soft-peddling with Myanmar will not resolve the crisis. Myanmar has always spurned Bangladeshi moves for friendship, and friendship is never a one-way arrangement.
Bangladesh must now consider calling for a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting to address the grave security threat from Myanmar. The UNSC can pass a resolution that all Rohingya refugees have to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh and regain their citizenship within a fixed time frame. It can also deploy UN peacekeeping forces in Rakhine and impose economic sanctions on Myanmar.
Unless strong determined steps are taken by the government to resolve this intractable crisis, Third World Bangladesh is destined to be swamped by 1.4 million Rohingya refugees.
Mahmood Hasan is a former Bangladesh ambassador to Myanmar.