Rohingya crisis: What are we thinking?

AKM Zakaria | Update: | Print Edition

The problems of Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the Rohingyas are nothing new. However, the manner in which these problems have arisen anew, is likely to have a long-lasting and dangerous impact.

It is quite clear that Myanmar is unwilling to keep the Muslim population of Rakhine in their country. Forget about history. Let’s begin from 1977. The oppression and repression of the Myanmar government had reached such a height that hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas were forced to take shelter in Bangladesh. The number according to official records at the time was 280 thousand. Then on 7-9 July 1978, a deal to repatriate the refugees was signed in Dhaka between the Bangladesh government and the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, as it was called then. Many refugees were taken back accordingly.

Violence erupted again, and in 1992, 2012, 2013 and 2014, many Rohingyas fled their country. In between all this, from 1992 to 1997, Rohingyas were taken back in a few phases. Even so, a large number of Rohingyas remained back in Bangladesh. There may be no accurate number, but credible estimates put it at around 400 thousand.

After the recent spate of violence on 24 August night in Rakhine state, so far around 180 thousand Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh. So the total number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh presently is almost 600 thousand. The Myanmar government has been successful in driving out a large population of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state. A few hundred thousand Rohingyas have also taken refuge in India, Pakistan, Thailand and the Middle East.

Alongside its various machinations and manipulations to drive away the Rohingyas from Arakan, in 1982 the Myanmar government enacted a treacherous law which deprived Rohingyas from rights to citizenship. They were registered as ‘Bangalis’ in an attempt to erase their identity as a race. In 2015 a compromise on the question of citizenship was reached with various ethnic groups, but the Rohingyas were left out.

Bangladesh is the most convenient territory for the Rakhine state outside of Myanmar. That is why this problem from the very outset has been precarious for Bangladesh. Whenever a problem emerges there, a wave of oppressed hapless refugees pour into Bangladesh. Given territorial as well as economic circumstances, it is difficult for Bangladesh to bear this burden. Yet it would be inhuman not to allow them to enter. That would simply be pushing them into the jaws of death. When so many people of Bangladesh had taken shelter in India in 1971, in the face of oppression and torture of the Pakistan army, how can this country turn away the Rohingyas!

Bangladesh is in a difficult situation, yet we see no official or declared strategy to tackle these circumstances. The Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) tries to block the entrance of the refugees, but this is not even a very strong effort. If that was so, then over 175 thousand refugees wouldn’t have been able to enter Bangladesh in a matter of 12 to 13 days. Every time there have been clashes and violence in the Rakhine state, Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh, no matter what the numbers may be.

In the meantime, Burma has become Myanmar. There had been a struggle for democracy. An internationally accepted election was held. The party backed by the powerful army lost to the National League for Democracy of the Nobel peace prize winning democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The country’s name has changed from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi is presently the country’s state counselor and foreign minister. She is the actually leader of the country. However, ground reality is that the army’s influence and power cannot be overlooked. Even so, the government must take responsibility to resolve the Arakan and Rohingya problem. Hope had arisen when an international advisory commission on the Rakhine state was formed at the behest of the Myanmar government.

The nine-member commission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan had international credibility. They were to find a way out of the crisis. But in September 2016 after the commission was formed, it faced a setback, perhaps a contrived one to trip them up. Even so, they went ahead, keeping the reality of the circumstances in mind. They came up with a full-fledged report at the beginning of this year.

The terrorist attack on a border outpost in Mongdu of the Rakhine state was a setback for the commission, just a month into its work. It can be said that this was no isolated incident. It may be recalled that in retaliation to this incident, the Myanmar army and the extremist Buddhist groups unleashed terror and violence on the Rohingyas. There are certainly hands working behind such incidents. These are planned by certain quarters. The problem is, given global realities of today, regional and international politics has reached a stage where no country can carry out their objectives, good or evil, on their own accord. Actually that incident indicated that there are forces at work at domestic, regional or international levels that do not want a solution to the problem and have different considerations.

About a year after being formed, on 24 August this year the Advisory Commission for the Rakhine State, headed by Annan, published its full report. They had toiled hard. They had had held at least 155 meetings in various cites of Myanmar, in Bangkok, Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar and Geneva. Other than Kofi Annan, the nine-member commission comprised six from Myanmar, one from the Netherlands and one from Lebanon. The 63-page report contained 88 recommendations. There hasn’t been much criticism of the recommendations. In fact, there is a general opinion that the recommendations were made pragmatically and in light of the situation.

The report stated that economic development, humanitarian assistance and citizenship must be ensured for the Rohingyas. There can be no restrictions on their movement. It was said that all communities of the Rakhine state must be allowed to move freely, regardless of religion, colour or citizenship. The commission said that a commission should be formed to determine citizenship and it also determined the strategy and timeframe for this. It spoke of a joint commission with Bangladesh since a large number of Rohingyas had taken shelter in Bangladesh. The Myanmar government will have to ensure the safety of those who return. When the Annan commission had submitted the interim report in March, Suu Kyi had assured that the recommendations would be implemented.

However, the moment the report was officially presented to the Myanmar government, the situation changed. There was an attack on border outposts again, this time even bigger and better-planned. Simultaneous attacks were launched in 25 police posts. The same organisation, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), had launched the attack in October last year. They took responsibility for the attack over Twitter and spread video messages too. So long the Myanmar government had been using the term ‘Rohingya terrorists’. That has become ‘Rohingya militants’ overnight. It is clear that the situation is deteriorating, or being made to deteriorate.

The statement made by the Bangladesh government after the ARSA incident on the border, has revealed a new reality. Prothom Alo published two columns in this regard. Our regular columnist and professor of government and politics at Illinois University in the US, Professor Ali Riaz, expressed deep concern at Bangladesh’s proposal for a joint operation by the two countries along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Ali Riaz feels that this stand indicates that Bangladesh will consider the Rohingya rebels as Islamic militants rather than nationalists. He fears that a military stand by a neighbouring country against a sort of nationalist rebellion may create an adverse relationship with the rebels. This cannot bode well for Bangladesh’s security.

It is actually a vital question as to why we are taking the risk of branding the rebels of the repressed and oppressed Rohingyas as Islamic militants rather than nationalists. In fear of international intervention in the region, we have been steadily denying the presence of IS in Bangladesh. Journalist Kamal Ahmed has also expressed consternation at the initiative for a joint operation.

According to a BBC report, while the young and able-bodied men have fled Arakan in the face of assault, they send their families, women and children to Bangladesh rather than come themselves. They clearly have other plans. The name of ARSA is being heard now, but it is assumed that other such new organisations will crop up on the future. These young men will join ARSA or these news organisations. When such organisations operate along the border, the border demarcations are blurred.

Rohingyas are Muslims and it won’t take long for Islamic extremism, ideology or militancy to enter their midst or for IS ideology to spread. Political analyst of Myanmar affairs Larry Jagan wrote in an article (Rakhine Violence Leaves Everyone Guessing), intelligence sources do not know much about ARSA, but many feel it has links with IS. This may not be true, but it gives the movement a religious colour and many believe that certain countries and organisations of the Middle East are active in this regard. So the dangers ahead are likely to be extreme and prolonged.

It is only natural to be concerned at Bangladesh’s participation in a joint operation along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. But given the indications emerging around Arakan, how long can Bangladesh keep aloof? Bangladesh’s hand may be forced at one point of time. The violence and clashes or any degree of militancy revolving around the Rakhine state, will impact Bangladesh more than any other country. We must proceed with extreme care and caution. With this new reality of the Rohingya crisis emerging, what are we actually thinking?

* AKM Zakaria is a senior journalist and can be contacted at <>. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir. 

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