Myanmar government’s military aggression on the Rohingya community, the indiscriminate killings, and the burning of their houses to ground, has driven hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter in Bangladesh. The most urgent concern of the moment is food, security and shelter for these people who have fled for their lives. The fear of food shortage in the refugee camps and the lack of enlistment of the refugees, indicate an immediate and a long-term crisis ahead.
The unforgivable silence of the international community and the unplanned steps of the Bangladesh government, which has an ambiguous stand on the issue, has made the refugee situation all the more complex. Bangladesh is having to bear the burden more or less alone.
In many countries of the world, this military operation has been termed as ‘genocide’ and a wave of protest has been voiced. But this had not changed the stand of the Myanmar government or of its military at all. On the contrary, Aung San Suu Kyi claims they are providing security to all and that the situation is normal. But the fact of the matter is, no one chooses the life of a refugee if things are normal.
Even the reporters who visited Rakhine at the invitation, and under the supervision of, the Myanmar government, have reported that civilian groups have been openly setting fire to houses in the presence of the police. (Jonathan Head’s report, ‘BBC Reporter in Myanmar: A Muslim Village was Burning’.) Not only is the Myanmar government claiming that their operations are against ‘militants’, but they have also started to lay down conditions concerning the return of the Rohingya refugees.
All this gives rise to certain questions. What are Myanmar’s plans regarding the future of the Rohingyas? Does the ongoing military operation indicate any sort of ethnic cleansing? Has Myanmar adopted a long-term strategy? The answers to these questions will not only help us understand the situation, but will also help us in determining what strategies should be adopted and what factors should be given priority by the international community in resolving the refugee crisis.
Regional and global powers have made their stands clear when it comes to their geo-political interests, economic and trade considerations, and the spread of their regional and global influence. China, Russia and India have taken a stand in favour of their ‘friend’ Myanmar and they have blamed the ‘extremist violence’ of 25 August for the present humanitarian crisis. It is as if before 24 August this year or 9 October last year, everything was peaceful and normal. Their stance is nothing new.
China is Myanmar’s closest ally and their friendship goes back over half a century. India’s friendship with Myanmar is recent and this may not be acceptable, but it is understandable. They aim at curtailing Chinese influence and increasing military cooperation. This year alone they sold arms worth US$38 million to Myanmar. They have been expanding trade with Myanmar and also need Myanmar’s help in containing the rebels of their northeastern states.
The European Union, on the other hand, from the very outset have been speaking of the rights of the ethnic Rohingya community. They are strongly castigating Myanmar. While the US has apparently taken a stern stance, their activities and sincerity are questionable. With the Trump administration so caught up in the North Korea issue, they hardly have time to get directly involved in any other crisis of this region. And the US needs China’s support on the North Korean issue, so it is not likely that the US will go against China to adopt a stern stance against Myanmar. ASEAN countries are committed not to ‘interfere’ in the international affairs of any other country. Despite that, Indonesia and Malaysia are putting pressure on Myanmar to resolve the problem. ASEAN has been discussing the issue at various forums since 2009, and in 2014 the ASEAN inter-parliamentary union condemned the discrimination and violence against Rohingyas.
As head of the OIC, Turkey has taken a leading role, though its own human rights records are questionable. However, its active stand has certainly had a positive impact on the international community.
The international institutions, the UN Security Council in particular, is not likely to be able to take up an effective role. In the past, China and Russian jointly used their veto powers on the Myanmar issue. There is no reason to expect any help for the gulf states or Saudi Arabia, though the Muslim identity of the Rohingyas would seem reason enough for them to take a stand.
Global politics is in Myanmar’s favour and this has rendered feeble any hope for the Rohingyas to be given their due rights.
As a result, the Myanmar government and military are being able to steadily implement their long-term plans and strategies.
The then president Thein Sein’s statement made in July 2012 gives an idea about these plans. He had said that the only solution to resolve the ongoing problem in Rakhine was to send the Rohingyas to a third country or to ‘contain’ them in camps set up by the UNHCR within the country. Actually, the military had been following this policy since 1974. The Rohingyas had been issued foreign registration cards then, rather than national registration cards. The citizenship act of 1982 snatched away their rights as citizens and they were dropped from the population census in 2015. All these are part of the government’s strategy.
The various military operations over the past few decades, along with violence unleashed by extremist Buddhist groups with tacit or open support of the authorities, has led to the displacement of 10 per cent of the Rohingya population, who have now taken up shelter in a ‘third’ country. According to the internal displacement monitoring centre, till March 2015 at least 146,500 Rohingyas were internally displaced, many of them living in camps.
Rohingya refugees in various countries
Saudi Arabia: 200,000
Internally displaced Rohingyas in Rakhine state: 140,000
Rohingyas in Myanmar: 1000,000
The Myanmar government has taken certain steps to implement their long-term plan to remove the Rohingyas from their land. They realise that with hundreds of thousands crossing the border, it will not be possible to deny that these people are from Myanmar and that they will have to accept the refugees under international pressure. Accordingly, Myanmar government’s security advisor U Thaung Tun told a press conference on Wednesday that only the Rohingyas with papers proving their citizenship would be taken back from Bangladesh. It is obvious that people fleeing in fear of their lives would hardly bring along their papers with them. And many of the Rohingya’s applications for citizenship were still pending. Then again, the law there doesn’t even recognise Rohingyas as citizens. So this is just a pre-planned move not to take back a large number of the refugees.
Rehabilitation of the Rohingyas will not be possible unless the citizenship issue is settled and the prevailing situation reaches a political resolution. Bangladesh will have to take a stand on this issue from the very outset so that Myanmar takes back the refugees without any conditions. According to the 1978 agreement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar, all the Rohingya refugees taken back then were legally recognised as citizens. Though the agreement had said they would have to show their citizenship registration card, 170,000 of the 200,000 refugees were repatriated at the time.
The Bangladesh government and the UN had ensured that the condition did not deprive the majority of repatriation. And in the 1974 edition of an encyclopaedia published by the Myanmar government, the Rohingyas were recognised as an ethnic community. There is also adequate proof that Muslims and Rohingyas have long been participating in Myanmar’s politics.
It is important to provide shelter and security to the Rohingyas now. It is equally important to remain alert about the plans of the Myanmar military and government.
* Ali Riaz is a professor of politics and government at the Illinois State University in the US. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.