IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

Nowhere has the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingyas been felt more than in Bangladesh, writes Syed Badrul Ahsan

The persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, which has been described by a senior United Nations official as ‘ethnic cleansing’, has had just as great an impact on neighbouring Bangladesh. While Myanmar appears to regard every Rohingya that flees the country as a problem solved, Bangladesh is forced to cope with the sudden influx of 400,000 refugees, doubling the number of Rohingyas on its soil.

In her speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, laid out a five-point plan on what the world must do to assist the Rohingyas in their struggle for survival. In sharp contrast to the neither-here-nor-there remarks by Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi,who spoke at home rather than going to New York, Sheikh Hasina sought to draw up a road map to a resolution of the conflict.

Bangladesh is warning that the Rohingya crisis affects the region as a whole

By far her most important proposal was for the creation of a safe zone for the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. That is where they have lived for generations, despite anything the army-controlled government of Myanmar may say today, and without a measure that stems the flow across the border, Bangladesh fears its development momentum will go into reverse.

It says something about the dire conditions Dhaka is faced with that the number of refugees who have streamed into Bangladeshsince early August far exceeds the number that came into Europe in the whole of 2016. The UN resident mission in Dhaka warned that the country ought to be prepared for conditions to become even worse, making the search for a resolution yet more urgent.

The government has struggled to handle the crisis. At first it deployed security forces along the frontier to deny entry to the Rohingyas, but this aroused a huge degree of criticism both at home and abroad. Bangladesh found itself being accused, along with Myanmar, of failing to treat the refugees humanely, in line with international principles and conventions. It became evident in any case that it was impossible to prevent the Rohingyas from coming in, on rickety boats and on foot.

Compelled to put in place facilities for the refugees, the authorities are now consideringmeasures to give the Rohingyas shelter in a designated area near the south-eastern coastal town of Cox’s Bazar. Sheikh Hasina travelled there to assess conditions before leaving for New York, demonstrating how politically sensitive the situation is for the government. Another sign of that is that earlier, speaking in Parliament, the Prime Minister condemned the atrocities being perpetrated on the Rohingyas in Myanmar, but avoided making any criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi. Seeking to avoid closing the door on any future dealings with Myanmar, she apparently thought it prudent to refrain from associating Suu Kyi with the persecution of the Rohingyas, instead pointing the finger of blame at the Myanmar military, who remain in control despite the prominence of the Nobel Prize-winning State Counsellor.

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina (l) detailed a five-point plan to aid the Rohingyas, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach has been irresolute
Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina (l) detailed a five-point plan to aid the Rohingyas, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach has been irresolute

The priority for Dhaka is enlisting international support for its position that the Rohingyas are no longer simply an internal issue for Myanmar. It wants global institutions such as the United Nations to put pressure on Myanmar to acknowledge the grave violation of human rights in Rakhine, and to recognise the Rohingyas as its own citizens. Bangladeshis are infuriated that more than a million Rohingyas who have lived in Rakhine state for generationsare endlessly depicted by Myanmar as Bengalis who are on its soil illegally, and not entitled to citizenship.Bangladesh’s political classes and civil society are demanding that the Rohingyas are accorded constitutional guarantees of security and autonomy within Rakhine in ways that will bring a permanent end tothe periodic persecution they have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military.

The crisis has thrown up domestic pressures for Sheikh Hasina, who faces an election at the end of next year. A vociferous political opposition is already gearing up to take on the ruling Awami League on the Rohingya issue. But there are implications for her foreign policy as well.

The government has consistently tried to maintain balanced ties with its neighbours, making energy deals with Moscow, buying submarines from Beijing and reaching border and trade deals with Delhi. These three countries, however, have been seen in Bangladesh as failing to bring their influence to bear on the situation created by the influx of Myanmar’s Rohingyas into its territory. That in turn raises the question of whether Dhaka’s foreign policy is now in need of restructuring.

Bangladesh is warning that the crisis affects the region as a whole.While the government continues its efforts to combat Islamist militancy, both in the capital and in the countryside, the fear is that clandestine right-wing groups will seek to capitalise on the Rohingya problem. It is all too possible that these uprooted Muslims could be recruited for the kind ofterror missions that have caused considerable harm to Bangladesh’s reputation as a peaceful society.

Bangladesh has limited resources to deal with these threats to its security, while its economy has always been under pressure. Without the intervention of the international community, the plight of the Rohingyas could have consequences far beyond the immediate tragedies of armed clashes, burned villages, and wrecked lives.


Syed Badrul Ahsan, a senior journalist based in Dhaka, writes on Bangladesh politics and regional and international issues. Associate Editor of The Asian Age in Dhaka, he contributes to the Indian Express and weekly Dhaka Courier. He is the author of From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a biography of Bangladesh’s founder

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