by Kalam Shahed 14 May 2019
The Monk-Military-Led Genocide
Over 900,000 Rohingya refugees are encamped in Bangladeshi refugee camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders, and another two million remain scattered in different countries of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. By early 2017, only a relatively small population of one million were able to withstand decades of systematic persecution and discrimination and continued live in Myanmar. The same year saw widespread death and dislocation of Rohingyas due to Myanmar’s monk-military- led genocide and ethnic cleansing. The local militia, militant monks and military in the Rakhine State went hand-in-hand in perpetrating genocide over this minority ethnic group. Large groups of refugees fled to Bangladesh where they live in squalid camps, each comprising of a couple of square kilometers along Bangladesh-Myanmar borders, and face several humanitarian crises. Thousands remain in shock and trauma, attempting to recover from the specter of rape, death, pillage, and destruction in their ancestral homes in Myanmar. With allegations of rape and genocide against the Rohingya population, Myanmar’s leadership, under increasing diplomatic pressure, has only shown lukewarm response to the concerns of mass displacement and gross human rights abuses.
The UN has condemned Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingyas, dabbing it an ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s leader, Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), has lost much of her grace and glamour as a champion of human rights and she remains a party to the genocide in Myanmar. Today, she is at the center of global ire as she deflagrates the moral trust reposed on her. She has been stripped of many honors and recognition accorded by several Western countries, but the leader remains defiant and unabashedly reluctant to address the Rohingya issue. Unfortunate as it is, there continues to prevail a common hatred for the Rohingyas among Myanmar’s nationalist pantheons: the mainstream ethnic Burmans, the extremist Buddhists, Myanmar’s remaining population who are told by their government that the Rohingyas are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, the army notoriously known for human rights abuses, and finally, the ruling ASSK’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), which according AASK, which has cultivated “sweet” relations with the military notoriously known for its human-rights abuses.
While there has been a considerable Western outcry against the horrendous genocide against the Rohingya people, Russia, China, and India, which are known for marginalizing and mistreating their own ethnic and religious minorities, chose to remain silent and opposed international approbations against Myanmar. Bangladesh’s close ally, India, not only remained silent about the genocide but also moved to India’s Supreme Court to expel a handful of Rohingyas who sought refuge in India in 2018 and 2019. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not raise the Rohingya issue during the 2018 Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Nepal. This speaks to Bangladesh’s timid approach and regional ambivalence towards the crisis. Although as the host country, Bangladesh finds itself saddled with an enormous economic and social burden, it remained reluctant to voice concerns about Indian, Chinese and Russian policies regarding the Rohingyas. The Bangladeshi foreign minister has denied media reports that India was attempting to push 40,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, who took shelter in India over the last decade.
China and Russia, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have shielded Myanmar from formal condemnation for its persecution of the Rohingyas. Myanmar purchases military equipment from both Russia and China. China sells arms and has invested heavily in Myanmar’s natural resources, and India has a growing commercial and investment interest in Myanmar and wants to check-mate Chinese strategic outreach. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, focused on a Hindu nationalist agenda, is deporting Rohingyas refugees to Myanmar against their will. India’s new immigration and refugee policy, drafted by the Hindu nationalist government, will provide shelters to refugees from select groups, which exclude Muslims and Christians. Caught in the vortex of the crisis, Bangladesh is forced to act as a mere fiddle in these competing ethnoreligious narratives and geopolitical interests.
No Short-Term Breakthrough
Despite international condemnation and outcry, there appears no short-term breakthrough in addressing the plight of the Rohingyas. Delegations from Myanmar to Bangladesh promised to take back the “genuine” refugees who are not a “threat” to that country. These delegations offered neither guarantees for security and accommodation of those who would return nor a commitment that their rights of citizenship would be addressed. The Rohingyas are unprepared to walk into an uncertain insecure future, and the UN agencies have sternly warned against sending them back without guarantees of safety and civil rights.
The Bangladeshi government lacks a grand plan to tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis. It has neither been able to adequately energize international opinion nor forge a sufficient regional consensus to address this issue of enormous domestic and geopolitical significance. Although the Bangladeshi government has made several statements condemning Myanmar’s Rohingya policy, it remained rather shy to wage a full-fledged diplomatic campaign to shore up regional and international support. Statements from its foreign office and its diplomatic activism at the UN has had little traction with Myanmar and its traditional allies. Thus far, the Bangladeshi government has remained limited to only publicizing and recycling what the international media has been portraying, offering little policy posture to step up pressure on Myanmar and to engage the international community to resolve the crisis. Bangladesh’s so-called close ally, India, has indicated political and diplomatic support for Myanmar rather than for Bangladesh.
It has indeed sent delegations to Myanmar and received Myanmar’s diplomatic representatives. Several rounds of talks reveal that Myanmar remains lukewarm to international concerns and is ready to adopt a trickling policy of returning only a handful of Rohingyas at a time. Such a process would inevitably take years to complete repatriation if this were to occur at all. Myanmar hopes that such a token gesture would defuse international pressure on the country and the issue will eventually slide into twilight, rather than remaining a focus of global concern. Without a well-conceived policy of its own, Bangladesh appears to be attracted to this trickling policy. For Bangladesh, this would be a slow and uncertain beginning but would appease the two dominant regional countries, India and China, who see more significant geopolitical stakes in annoying Myanmar, rather than helping out the helpless refugees and their reluctant host, the Bangladeshi government. The Bangladeshi government relies heavily on China for financial assistance and on India for political support for shoring up its controversial domestic legitimacy.
Isolation, Abandonment, and Camps
Identifying the lingering refugee burden, the Bangladeshi government has planned to create a new camp in an islet (char) in the Bay of Bengal, where the refugees would be quarantined. The Bangladeshi authorities hope that relocating them to the islet camp would deny any attempt to build bonds with the local population and thus, allow an expedient way to repatriate them to Myanmar. As mentioned, the beleaguered Rohingyas are now living in deplorable conditions in Bangladeshi camps with little political or social liberties. The only connectivity they have with the external world is through the NGOs and social media connections available to a handful of educated Rohingyas. Their move to an islet camp in the Bay of Bengal would only add to their isolation and abandonment. There are some nagging questions about the psychological development of the encamped Rohingya children in the ghettoized refugee camps. Nazi concentration camps, Palestinian refugee camps and other marginalized communities who had been ghettoized gave rise to a collective psyche of revenge and violence. Bangladesh continues to insist that it does not support violence against any country. However, prolonged stay in the Rohingya camps may convince many Rohingya inmates to adopt militant measures to get back their ancestral homes and fundamental rights. In the past, a fringe element, calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked several army posts.
While the refugees are deprived many rights even in the camps, including freedom of movement, under the watchful eyes of several humanitarian organizations active in these camps, the refugee children will avail a minimum level of nutrition in their diet and have access to elementary education. They are like to grow up as more conscious persons than their parents, keen to establish their fundamental rights of life, liberty, and safety. The youths growing up in these camps will remain inevitably vulnerable to radicalization along ethnic lines, and some may be persuaded to choose violence against their oppressors. Such a possibility becomes more real when religious zealots can access the Rohingyas and motivate them to seek a route to violence to achieve political and social rights. The Rohingyas continue to remain the world’s most persecuted minority. When acts of genocide do occur, it leaves lasting memories for the victims, and this could be psychologically destabilizing for children growing up in camps. Many observers believe that the ghettoed refugees are a ticking time-bomb which the concerned parties must address on an urgent basis.
As for now, the fate of encamped Rohingyas remains hamstrung between Bangladesh’s and Myanmar’s mutual policy postures and the contemplations of settlement show a glacial tickling process that could spread over the years. There could be subtle geopolitical interests in keeping the Rohingya issue alive by fanning animosity between Bangladesh and Myanmar. They have their language and culture and are believed to the descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have been in the region for generations. Some cross-border migration indeed occurred from different parts of India to Myanmar, catering to the economic and political outlay needs of the colonial edifice in the region and the administrative requirements of its preceding Mughal rule. The Rakhine state is the least developed one in Myanmar with a poverty rate as high as 78 percent. Poverty and a lack of employment opportunities have helped exacerbate Buddhist-Muslim cleavage. Through waves of ethnic cleansing, Burman ethno-nationalist narratives seek to drive out the Rohingya population. This has culminated into the current humanitarian crisis and could lead to potential volatility and violence. Myanmar and Bangladesh need to tread carefully not to trick one another and avoid being overwhelmed by ethnic and sectarian mindset and broader regional geopolitical powerplay.
In a positive vein, a peaceful settlement of the Rohingya crisis can be the harbinger of friendly relations between two historic neighbors. Myanmar and Bangladesh have historic trade and cultural ties and a greater connectively between the two countries would help their societies and economies. The two neighbors have a vast potential for cooperation for mutual economic and security benefits. For Bangladesh, it will further widen opportunities for transit and trade across the border in the south-east, and Myanmar’s agricultural products and other resources would gain easy access to Bangladeshi and the Indian markets. Can Myanmar move from a policy of trickling and tricking of Rohingyas rehabilitation to a more whole-hearted approach? For a population of over 55 million in Myanmar, a small segment comprising a total of about one million Rohingyas, now camped in Bangladesh, cannot threaten Myanmar’s national security. The crisis must not be allowed to fester and snowball. Myanmar has already several insurgencies gripping the country, where ethnic minorities are attempting to establish their political and economic rights as citizens. All violent conflicts start from a desire to change the status quo. Long exposure of Rohingyas to refugee camps can radicalize the Rohingya youths and instability in the Rakhine state would spill over to Bangladesh. It is imperative that attitude cooperation and accommodation should replace the current taciturn policy envisioned for addressing the Rohingya crisis.