In response to the armed attacks started by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) in the Rakhine province of Myanmar against the army and police of that country, the security operation launched by the Myanmar army has created an alarming situation there.
The ensuing reaction is not restricted to Myanmar alone, but spills over into Bangladesh where thousands of Rohingyas have been fleeing as refugees in search of shelter.
Not only has Bangladesh refused to take in these refugees and has been turning them back, but the Bangladesh government on Monday proposed a joint operation along the border with Myanmar.
This is an alarming proposal. This is not the first time Bangladesh made such a proposal. They proposed a joint operation in August last year too. But this time the proposal is more specified. The director general of the foreign ministry’s Southeast Asia desk Manjurul Karim Khan is quoted as saying that this time the proposal is for a joint operation by the armed forces of the two countries specifically against Islamic militants, the Arakan army and any other anti-state forces (Prothom Alo 28 August 2017). If we take note of how the situation has changed since August last year, it will be clear why such a proposal is so alarming.
The recent events have unfolded after simultaneous ARSA attacks on at least 25 police outposts in the western region of the country last Friday. The international media reports that over 100 persons were killed in these attacks, including the attackers themselves.
But sources say the number of deaths is much higher, particular after the army operations beginning on Saturday. Many innocent citizens have been killed too. ARSA has issued a warning through a video, stating that the army will have to face a ‘war’.
Actually the armed attacks began from October last year, when the army launched an operation following an ambush on 9 October on Myanmar border outposts. Thousands of Rohingyas crossed the border into Bangladesh then too. The army operations relented somewhat only after a few months, but the main problems remained unresolved. These include recognition of the Rohingyas as citizens, ensuing their human rights, and involving them in the economic development of the region.
If we are to understand the anger of the Rohingyas, we have to remember the law imposed in 1982 which denied their citizenship, the process introduced in 1983 to determine their citizenship, and the manner in which the Rohingyas were left out of the peace deal signed in 2015 between the military government and 15 rebel groups.
All this pushed a section of the Rohingyas towards taking up arms. The new Rohingya organisation wields more influence that organisations of the past and has accelerated radicalisation among the Rohingyas.
Under pressure from the international community, the Myanmar government in September last year appointed a nine-member advisory commission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to draw up long-term recommendations to resolve the situation.
The commission visited the Rakhine state and the refugee camps within Bangladesh and spoke to the concerned governments. So the Rohingya issue expanded from being just a refugee problem to a ‘political question’.
A report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in December last year stated that there was fear that the new armed rebel group of the Rohingyas, Harkah al-Yaqin, would establish links with international terrorist organisations and had already got their support.
The report said that Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere where giving a religious colour to this rebellion. While ICG and other have highlighted the Muslim identity of the new group, ARSA specifically terms itself as a nationalist organisation with no international agenda. They claim to have no alternative but to take to armed conflict in order to establish the citizenship of the Rohingyas.
So over the past year, the Rohingya issue became a political one, there has been a radicalisation of a nationalist movement, and certain sections of Rohingyas abroad want to give this a religious hue, opening the doors to international terrorist involvement. The entrance of extremist and international terrorist elements into a nationalist or democratic movement in any country is nothing new.
The ARSA attack came at a time when the Annan Commission had submitted its report a recommending political and economic solution to the problem. Why did ARSA choose this moment for their attack? After all, it gave the army an excuse for a security operation and the government and excuse to put any political solution to one side.
But it is likely that ARSA had been planning such an attack for long and the timing of the Annan report was simply coincidental.
We have to consider the alarming aspect of Bangladesh’s proposal for a joint operation at this juncture. Bangladesh’s proposal will certain strengthen the Myanmar government’s case against a political solution and bolster their arguments. This gives support to the extremists within the Myanmar society who demand that Rohingyas be tackled militarily. It identifies the Rohingya rebellion as one of Islamic militants rather than a nationalist one.
There is no reason for Bangladesh’s policymakers and people not to understand the apprehension of a nationalist movement to take on a violent and armed shape. When a neighbouring country takes a military stand against a nationalist movement, an adverse relationship is created with the rebels. If Myanmar’s rebels view Bangladesh in this light, will that be a positive development for Bangladesh where its security is concerned?
If Myanmar responds positively to this proposal, will their army have the right to enter Bangladesh territory? How will the borders be determined in such an operation? Bangladesh seems to have adopted a military stance rather than a political one regarding this situation.
After the Annan Commission report and the subsequent streaming in of refuges from Myanmar, Bangladesh has the opportunity to make an international political case of the issue, but this proposal may negate this chance. Rather than going for a joint security operation, Bangladesh should put pressure on Myanmar for a political solution in light of the Annam Commission recommendations.
* Ali Riaz is a professor of politics and government at the Illinois State University, US. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.