Rohingya Crisis – No solution is in sight

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By Anisur Rahman* 11 November 2019

Despite continuous promises, Myanmar has not taken back a single Rohingyan refugee to their home since the latest crisis began in 2017, Bangladesh foreign minister Abdul Momen categorically informed the journalists at a function held in Kolkata, India on 2nd November. And an end of the plight of the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees driven out of their homes in Myanmar and now living in miserable conditions in Bangladesh is not in sight though more than 2 yeara have passed. Rather the decades-long Rohinga issue has become more complicated and more burdensome for Bangladesh since it first surfaced more than 40 years ago. It became a concrete problem for the first time for Bangladesh in the late ´70s of the last century. In 1978 several hundred thousand Rohingyan people, an ethnic community living for generations in Arakan (now Rakhine) province of Burma (now Myanmar) were pushed back to Bangladesh by the oppresive regime of Rangoon (old capital). But due to the prompt, vigorous and effective diplomatic efforts taken by the then charismatic leader of Bangladesh General Ziaur Rahman, they could be sent back to Burma within a reasonable period of time. Since then Bangladesh has not kept necessary vigilence on the matter. Diplomatic momentum has been slowed down, if not abandoned altogether though repression on Rohingyan people continued in Burma. On the other hand, after the initial stebacks, Rangoon junta adopted a new heinous course with a firm and long-term strategy to drive out this ethnic minority from Burma to Bangladesh.

By all international norms and standards Rohingyan people are citizens of Myanmar. The prime criterion of citizenship of a person is his or her birth. And when a community lives in a country for generations, it becomes a natural right for them to become automatic citizens of that country. And Rohinga people have been living in Arakan province of Mynamar for several generations. And the second criterion is naturalization. Under this criterion a person is granted citizenship of a country if he or she lives in that country for a considerable length of time. Normally it varies from 5 to 10 years. But Rohingya people are living in Arakan provine for several hundred years. So, under both these criteria they are citizens of Myanmar. Besides, once a community is given citizenship, it can not be withdrawn later with lame excuses.

Background of Rohigya people: Rohingyan people are mostly Muslims in predominantely Buddhist Myanmar. And now a wave of anti-muslim propaganda and atrocities is being systematically carried out all over the country and particularly in Rakhine province. But once they had a vital role in Burmese politics. Some Muslim politicians faught for the independence of Burma alongside Suu Kyi´s father Aung San who is considered as the father of the country. Abdul Razak was a Minister of Education at Aung San’s pre-independence interim government and was assasinated, along with him on 19 July 1947. Another prominent Muslim at that time was M A Raschid. He was active in the student movement against the ruling British colonialist power. Raschid was the president of the All Burma Students’ Union, while being concurrently president of the Rangoon University Students’ Union from 1936 to 1937. Aung San was then its vice-president. In 1952 U Nu appointed him as Minister for Housing and Labour, later in 1954, Minister for Trade and Development, in 1956, Minister of Mines, in 1960 Minister of Commerce and Industry.  U Nu requested him to change his name to U Yanshin to make him more acceptable to others but he declined. General Ne Win arrested him in 1962, during the coup. It is an irony that Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has gone against the Myanmaris muslims with whom her father fought independence movement.

When Burma understood that Rohingyan people could not be driven out from the country under the existing citizenship law, they changed it altogether and adopted a new citizenship law in 1982. Under this law people mainly belonging to 8 indigenous ”national races” were given citizenship right. They are Kachin, Kayah, Karen,Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhin and Shan. The Rohigyans were excluded from these groups and thereby denied citizenship under this category. Though there are two other categories of citizens i.e. ”Associate Citizens” and ”Naturalised Citizens”, they do not enjoy similar rights and facilities. And it is very difficult to obtain necessary certificates for the present Rohingyan people that they or their ancestors settled in Burma before 1824 which was a pre-requisite for getting citizenship in certain cases. The concerned authorities do not co-operate with them and it is done deliberately to deny them citizenship.

Muslims in Burmese Politics : Myanmar government does not even accept the term Rohingya. They describe them as people of Bangladeshi or Bengali origin though six decades ago U Nu, the then prime minister of Burma in a radio broadcast recognized the separate identity of the Rohingya people. Today Rohingyan people are denied political rights and representation whereas in 1951 general election 5 Rohigyan Muslims were elected to the parliament including one female MP named Zura Begum. In the following election which was held in 1956, six Muslims were elected to the parliament.  Even, two prominent Rohingya politicians were member of the constituent assembly of Burma which framed the first constitution. M. A. Gaffar, one of the vocal members of the assembly fought for the establishment of ethnic rights of the Rohingyans from the begining. Sultan Mahmud who was very active in Burmese politics became a minister in U Nu´s cabinet. He advocated for division of Arakan and establishment of a separate Rohingya province. But after the 1962 military coup through which Gen Ne Win took over power, the situation changed drastically. To perpetuate his power General Ne Win adopted a populistic policy of Burmese nationalism suppressing the rights of minority groups. He started an operation under which non-nationals were separated from nationals. Rohingya people became the main target of repression. Instead of creating a separate Rohingya province the name of the Arakan province was changed to Rakhine province. Rohingyas were further marginalized. And naturally different Rohigyan resistance groups were formed to establish and protect their rights and resist state-run opprssion on them led by the local Rakhaine thugs. The final blow was punched when new Burmese citizenship law was enacted in 1982. This discriminatory law is cotrary to all international laws in this regard and violates the U N Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.

Two blunders : After enactment of the new citizenship law Burma undertook a major drive-out (push back) operation in 1992 when almost a quarter-million Rohingyans were forced to take shelter in Bangladesh. That time also BNP government lead by Begum Khaleda Zia could send them back to Burma after launching a vigorous diplomatic campaign. They could mobilize the international community behind them. At that time Bangladesh had a more balanced foreign policy. The main player in the region surrounding Bangladesh and Burma is P. R. China. Dhaka had en excellent relation with Beijing. She also had a very good relation with the U.S.A. And her relationship with India was not too cold either. Hence Bangladesh could convince Burma to take back the refugees with the help of the international community including UN, EU and OIC. Notwithstanding this setback Burma continued its long-term policy of ethnic cleansing of Rohingyan people. They changed the tactic. The fanatic buddhist monks and their extremist followers were provoked to engage in anti-Rohingya riots in the name of religion. A reign of terror was created in Rohingya dominated areas of Rakhine province. Internally, the military junta playing sectarian nationalist card, became successful to mobilize other groups of people against the Rohingyans. Even Nobel laureate Suu Kyi joined them just with the intention of carryin her share in power. These heineous tactic could not be enough for achieving their ill motve had Bangladesh not made two major blunders. The first blunder was made in 2001 when Khaleda Zia´s BNP government allowed Taiwan to open a consulate in Dhaka. It was a severe diplomatic blow to Beijing which had an excellent tie with all the BNP-led governments of Dhaka all along their tenures till then. No doubt, the then foreign minister Morshed Khan ignored the intererest of Beijing to satisfy the Taiwanese-American interest. This imprudent and rush decision damaged the tie between the two close allies. The second and extremely damaging blunder that severely affected the relationship between the two countries had been made by the present Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed when it scrapped the Sonadia Deep-Sea Port Project in 2016. It was agreed upon by the two countries that a deep-sea port at Sonadia near Cox´s Bazar, not far away from the Rakhine province of Myanmar, will be built by China. The 14 billion dollar project was to be financed by Beijing. If completed it would be the biggest project of Bangldesh. It was Bangladesh which wanted to build a deep-sea port at Sonadia as its port in Chittagong and Mongla proved to be too inadequate to meet its future demand. Besides, these two ports are on shallo water-level where large container ships can not anchor. Ports on shallow water level can not compete with deep-sea ports. They are more costly as cargos are to be carried with smaller vassels to and from jetties. It may be mentioned that not a single new sea port has been built in Bangladesh since its independence almost 50 years ago though its export-import has increased manifolds. So when Bangladesh expressed its intention for building a deep-sea port, China along with some other countries showed their interest to build it. But Bangladesh government accepted Chinas offer as it has already built similar deep-sea ports in Srilanka, Pakistan and even in some African countries. China had its own interest to build and run this port on the mouth of the Bay of Bengal along the Bangladesh-Myanmar coastal belt. It befitted its Maritime Silk Road Project side by side with its ambitious International Belt and Road Initiative. Sonadia deep-Sea port could fill the gap between Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Srilanka and complete its circle in this region. The three other contending parties in the region i.e. the US, Japan and India became afraid and thought that if Sonadia Port is built and run by China then Beijing will get a tremendous boost in achieving its long term commercial, military and strategic goals even beyond the region. The US no longer considers Russia its main rival. They are more afraid of China which might overtake them economically by 2050. Most of all they feel threatened at the rapid rise of Beijing´s military might, particularly in the Indian ocean and the Pacific region. Japan has lost its position to China as the 2nd largest economy of the world. China´s growing naval power and ongoing Maritime Silk Road Project added its concern. Japan does not want to lose its importance in the maritime feild further. India, the 3rd partner of the axis considers that if Soandia Deep-Sea Port Project is implimented she will be encircled by China in this part of the Indian occean as Beijing has already taken charge in Gwadar and Hambantota. Hence all these 3 partners of the axis became united and put tremendous pressure on Bangladesh not to go ahead with the project. A formal treaty was supposed to be signed on Sonadia project when Sheikh Hasina visited China in 2014. But at the last moment Bangladesh changed its mind without explaining any reson. However Beijing did not give up though they knew about the opposition from the 3 countries, particularly from India. When President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh last time, China again tried to table the matter but Bangladesh excluded it from official agenda. Bangladesh formally scrapped the Sonadia project in June 2016. To describe the matter Wade Shepard rightly quoted from an article written by Indra Bagchi in the Times of India where he analyzed ” The cancellation of Sonadia is clearly a strategic decision by Bangladesh doubtlessly helped along by India, Japan and the US.” On June 21, 2016, Dr. Sudha Ramchondran, a famous Indian Researcher and analyst on South Asian Security who regularly writes column in Asia Time published an article styled ” China´s Sinking Port Plans in Bangladesh” where he wrote ” India, Japan and the US which are wary of China´s growing presence in the Indian Ocean, are reported to have pressured the Bangladesh government to cancel the Sonadia project. The latter was unable to resist such pressure”. Quoting a retired senior diplomat he continued India had ”stood behind” the AL government in 2014 on the issue of questionable general elections that returned it to power and in the circumstances, the latter did not want to displease India.” Actually Awami League returned to power in 2914 in a rigged and opposition- boycotted election with the help of India. Ramchandran´s observation implies that Bangladesh had to cancel the Sonadia project when India opposed it vehemently. When personal and party interest is placed above country´s interest, the nation has to pay the price. Bangladesh lately tried to say that Sonadia Deep-Sea Port Project was not economically viable. This argument is laughable as Japan-financed Matarbari port is being developed only 25 kilometers away from Sonadia.

One thing must be noted that Sonadia Deep-Sea Port was supposed to be built between Cox´s Bazar of Bangladesh and Rakhine province (formerly Arakan) of Myanmar. And Rohingyan People live in that province. Had Bangladesh allowed China to build the port there, Dhaka could have had much more leverage on Beijing on Rohingya issue. When Bangladesh denied China to build the Sonadia port near Rakhaine, Myanmar government entered into an agreement with China to build a deep sea-port at Kyaukphyu along the western coastal line of Rkhaine state. So Myanmar got an extra leverage about their policy on Rohingya question. One must take into consideration all these facts and background incidents before judging Beijing´s apparent favor to Naypyidaw (present capital of Myanmar). The U.S. foreign policy is determined by its vital national interest. So is the case with China and India. One should not plead for chauvinistic nationalism. But legitimate national interest must not be compromised which the present BD government did more than once.

Previousely Rakhine province was known as Arakan province. Arakan was once an independent country and Bengal had a close and friendly relation with Arakan. The Bengali language got patronage in the then royal court of Arakhan. During the Sultani period, the rulers of Bengal helped Arakani monarchs against Burmese invasions. However in 1784 Arakan lost its independece when Burmese king Vodapaya conquered this kingdom. Repression on Muslims began when Arakan became a part of Burma particularly after military dictator Ne Win came to power in 1962 overthrowing the civilian government. It has been continuing since then though so-called democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined them after the last general election.

Bhashan Char refugee Project : Though an agreement was signed in November, last year, between Dhaka and Naypyidaw for repatriation of Rohingya refugees, few believed that they would be taken back soon by Myanmar. Because, within days Bangladesh government announced that more than hundred thousand Rhingyans would be relocated and moved to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone remote island around 20 km off the mainland. This refugee shelter project has been undertaken with an estimated cost of over Tk 2312 crore.  This project clearly indicates that Rohingyan people´s stay in Bangladesh will be a long-term matter, if not permanent. However, some experts are very critical about selection of this location.

The most dangerous side of this crisis is that repression on Rohingyan people has led to establisment of some very radicalized and extremist resistance groups on both sides which might destabilize the region. So a congenial atmosphere should be created where all the concerned parties can live together side by side peacefully and where legitimate rights of every communities are accepted and safeguarded constitutionally. And Rohingya crisis can be solved if Kofi Anan (Former UN Secy General) Comission´s suggestions on the issue are implimented sincerely.

  • Anisur Rahman is a senior Bangladeshi journalist now living in Sweden.