Silent or vocal on the Rohingya crisis, in whose interests?

AKM Zakaria | Update:

Rohingya refugees carry their child as they walk through water after crossing border by boat through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh on 7 September 2017. Photo: ReutersHas there been any tangible reaction in the international arena concerning the oppression and torture of the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and their forced exodus from the country?

Murmurs of concern have been heard from a few western countries and the UN. There has been a degree of agitation and protests in some Muslims countries.  And Bangladesh will naturally react as it is directly affected by the crisis. Then there is a clear division among the Muslim countries which are speaking out. Everyone is acting in their own political interests. Any real concern about the humanitarian crisis is hardly noticeable.

The Maldives has possibly taken the sternest stand concerning the Rohingya issue, severing trade ties with Myanmar. The Indonesian foreign minister and the Turkish first lady, in the meantime, have visited Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia is silent on the Rohingya issue. They are more interested in intimidating Qatar and annihilating Houthi Shias in Yemen. And it is just a part of the politics of the Muslim world that the Saudis will remain reticent over an issue where Turkey comes forward. Turkey’s ‘sultanate’ ambitions are hardly a secret, with Erdogan the aspirant sultan of the Muslim world!

Many people are calling for the Rohingya issue to be taken up at an international level and to put pressure on Myanmar. That may have some relevance, but international trade, economy and diplomatic interests have convoluted the significance of ‘international community’ and ‘international pressure’.

How elections are being held in certain countries, whether the political opposition is being oppressed and repressed, whether any community is being subject to ethnic cleansing – none of these are important issues anymore. The western world may issue a few routine statements, a proposal here and there, and that’s about it. The efforts of just a handful of Muslim countries are not likely to yield any tangible results.

The happenings in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are blatant violations on humanity. This is an extreme humanitarian calamity. People are being driven from their homes, killed. Hundreds of thousands of people are crossing the borders for their lives. We certainly want their plight to be highlighted on an international arena. And the world should also know how we are having to give shelter to these hapless Rohingyas, despite our country itself facing acute land and economic pressures. But we must be on an alert, watchful of who is coming ahead with their vested interests.

There are two competing big countries in this region. They are both on a drive, trying to exert their influence and power on the countries around them. Have we heard either of those two countries, India and China, make the slightest sound about the predicament of the Rohingyas? Even during his visit to Myanmar at this juncture of time, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi did not utter a single word on the issue.

When Myanmar had isolated itself from the rest of the world, China was by its side as its closest friend. Now India will remain silent on the Rohingya issue, so as to win Myanmar over too. It has economic interests with Myanmar. And it is only to be expected that the old ally China will also have nothing to say on this account.

I visited Myanmar in February last year and realized how little we knew about this neighbour of ours. They know nothing about us either. Democracy had arrived and Myanmar had opened its doors to investment. I realized that the country had immense economic potential.

In a piece I wrote upon my return from Myanmar, I quoted an American businessman, investor and writer James Roger. In an interview taken in 2012, he had predicted that Myanmar would possibly offer the best investment prospects in the world at present. He said, “Probably the best investment opportunity in the world right now is Myanmar. In 1962, Myanmar was the richest country in Asia. They closed off in 1962, and now it’s the poorest country in Asia. I see enormous opportunities there because they’re now opening up. It’s like when China opened up in 1978. There were unbelievable opportunities going forward. The same is true in Myanmar now.”

Myanmar received far more foreign investment than it expected. Most of the investment in Myanmar is in the energy, manufacturing and telecom sectors. At the outset of 2016 we say basically it was our Bangladeshi engineers and workers working in the telecom sector. Foreign oil and gas companies were coming in along with international hotel chains. Foreign tourists thronged the place too. CNNMoney had predicted that Bangladesh would stand third in economic growth among the countries of the world, but by 2020 Myanmar would likely overtake Bangladesh to grab the third position.

Myanmar has no dearth of natural resources. No one can stop investment there and Western countries and companies have already begun to reap benefits. That is why Myanmar is quite safe from any international ‘pressure’. Certain countries and international aid agencies provide some assistance to the Rohingyas who have taken up refuge in Bangladesh. But we cannot accommodate the Rohingyas forever, so we have to come up with a solution. This is a very old problem and we have already wasted enough time.

Myanmar is our neighbour and global realities indicate that direct interaction with Myanmar on the issue is the way to seek a solution. This is no easy task and it is evident that the interests of various domestic, regional and international powers are complicating matters further. Bangladesh must keep a sharp watch out so that the oppression and persecution of the Rohingyas does not take a turn towards an Islamic movement. Their nationalist struggle must not take the shape of Islamic militancy. This is the biggest challenge for Bangladesh at the moment. No ambitious leader of the Muslim world should be allowed to use this situation for political interests.

International communities have always used the Rohingyas of the Rakhine state in their own interests. So now they have to seek refuge as a distressed people. Many countries and aid agencies of the Middle East had used them for political reasons, but did nothing to improve their living standards. In fact, there are allegations that they were discouraged from being educated, around the 1970s and 80s. The common people of Myanmar reportedly had a certain fear of the Rohingyas who were economically and educationally lagging behind. Certain extremist Buddhist groups used this to ignite anti-Rohingya sentiments. It is said these Buddhist extremists received much support from the military government and they remain active even now.

The Rohingya issue has been an obstacle to better relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. In a recent article I had pointed out that with violence spreading immediately after the release of the Kofi Annan report, it seems like the incidents were motivated. Direct interaction and discussions between the two countries can thwart the efforts of the quarters instigating such violence. Amidst all this violence, conflict and humanitarian crises, there is a ray of hope. That is Kofi Annan’s report. We must keep in mind that the Annan report was drawn up at the behest of the Myanmar government. This report can be the starting point of discussions between the two countries.

First and foremost, however, it is most important that Bangladesh register all the Rohingyas fleeing into the country from Myanmar. If a credible and digitalised list can be made, it will make repatriation easier. We must keep in mind, no matter what law Myanmar may have enacted in 1982 regarding Rohingyas' citizenship, in 1978 under UN supervision and by means of an international agreement, Myanmar took back 280,000 Rohingyas who had taken shelter in Bangladesh in 1977, and recognised them as citizens of Myanmar.

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

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