Bangladesh has had to be a gracious host to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims over the last four decades. They have sought sanctuary in our country from ethnic cleansing, rape, arson and murder carried out against them by non-Rohingyas and communal Buddhist monks. They came into Bangladesh as they had faith that we would look after them till they could return to their own country. This happened in 1978, in 1992 and in reduced numbers subsequently.
Such injustice, communal and religious hatred and racial discrimination happened because the Myanmar Administration did not bother to be consistent with international law, regulations and expectations associated with the principles of human rights. They have dictated their own terms, followed their own hacked grammar of life and disregarded accepted norms of behavior.
This unfortunate aspect has grown in dimension and intensity because of Myanmar’s existing potentials in the form of energy resources and territory that can be used by some neighbours for improving their own economic dimensions and furthering their own national interests. This geo-strategic paradigm has also led a few others to hold Myanmar’s hand because they can sell armaments and defence equipment to that country. Thse countries are all sitting in the same dining table with a confident Myanmar, sharing aspirations of that country’s Armed Forces, cloaked in the garb of a so-called elected democratic civilian government.
This one-sided approach has evolved and gained in strength through false gestures demonstrated to the rest of the world in the name of democratic governance. This process has been further emboldened through the lifting of economic and other sanctions that had been in place on that country. The developed world- USA, Canada, EU and Australia were confident that after democracy had been restored Myanmar would abide by international legal norms. They thought that the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations would be carried out. Unfortunately, they failed to see the truth and the many pot-holes that had been camouflaged to hide the reality.
It has since become very clear that Myanmar might have an elected government and a so-called civilian Administration but the reigns of power still belong to their arrogant Armed Forces – now blatantly supported by radical and communal Buddhist monks –of the Ma Ba Tha group- who have their own agenda with regard to the promotion and creation of a completely Buddhist State without the presence of ethnic minorities belonging to any other religious faith. The leader of this ultra-nationalist group who advocates racism and communalism is always accompanied by heavily armed personnel in keeping with their unholy alliance with the Myanmar Army.
The government of Myanmar and their other administrative authorities presently practice a format where no one is allowed to even the utter Rohingyas in the context of the affected population. It was consequently sad to see such a hindrance created for even Pope Francis during his visit to Myanmar from 27 November to 2 December, 2017. The Pope very carefully avoided using the term Rohingyas during his statements in that country. Myanmar authorities believe such a measure will help their younger generation to forget that such a population ever existed in their country. One should not forget that Hitler did the same with regard to the Jewish population during his Nazi rule in Germany.
It was such a dynamics that led to the unfortunate events that started two years ago in August, 2017. There was the alleged attack by Rohingya militants on some Myanmar law enforcement outposts resulting in casualties. This eventually led to systematic oppression, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape and arson and the creation of more than 7,90,000 illegal migrants who left their Rakhine homes in Myanmar to enter the adjacent south-eastern Districts of Bangladesh- Cox’s Bazar, Ukhiya and Teknaf. This happened at a time when Bangladesh was suffering from massive flooding throughout its northern and north-eastern regions.
Our Prime Minister, instead of being harsh and denying entry to these affected people into Bangladesh was consistent with her magnanimity. Make-shift structures were built for these Rohingyas so that they could find safety and shelter. A coordinated effort was undertaken by the government and several international and local organizations to ensure that this suffering mass would receive food, health-care, reasonable water supply and sanitation and also special care for their children. This also included facilities where the children could carry on with their educational requirements. The host community of Bangladeshis living in this sub-region also demonstrated their goodwill by coming forward through an inter-active engagement.
Different institutions related to the United Nations and many other international and local organizations (including BRAC) were also permitted to be associated in the looking after of these displaced Rohingyas.
The subsequent months revealed a gradual growth in the number of Rohingyas living within the different camps in this sub-region. There were also many deleterious effects that started having toxic effects on the affected region.
Careful surveys carried out by different government agencies have revealed that the total number of the Rohingya population has now crossed one million- and that includes more than half a million children. There has also been the birth of nearly 90,000 Rohingya children in different camps. There have been efforts to persuade the Rohingya women in these camps to follow family planning methods but that has met with failure. The gradual expansion of the camps meant to provide temporaryshelter to the Rohingyas has also led to destruction of nearly 200 hectares of arable land. About 5000 acres of of land has also, according to UNDP been rendered useless because of sandy soilflowing down from the denuded slopes. The denuding of vast tracts of the hill side of the required vegetation has also seriously affected the use of such forest area by wild animals. This displaced population has also now become busy in drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling and in other nefarious activities in the Cox’s Bazar area.
There have been several bilateral discussions between Bangladesh and Myanmar Officials in Dhaka as well as in Myanmar. The effort was directed to the possible early repatriation of these Rohingyas to Myanmar. Digital Identity Cards of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh camps were prepared with the help of Bangladesh authorities and international organizations. The latest endeavor featured a joint venture undertaken by the UNHCR and the RRRC.
At the same time in these bilateral meetings Myanmar was informed of the five demands that had been put forward by the Rohingyas from their camps. That included- (a) citizenship for the Rohingyas with equal opportunities, (b) security for the Rohingyas after their return with monitoring facility of such security by international actors, (c) return of land forcibly taken away from them and proper compensation for damage that had taken place, (d) justice for the violence perpetrated on them and (e) rehabilitation of those living in internally displaced camps in the Rakhine State in Myanmar.
These were indeed tall orders. In an interview with a German media outlet towards the end of August, circulated eventually on 4 September, 2019, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has however pointed out the reality- “Myanmar authorities have agreed to one of these demands: provide safety, security and mobility to the Rohingya people. Demands such as granting citizenship to Rohingya, punishment for people involved in the Rohingya massacre, recognizing Rohingya as an ethnic group, and allowing them to return to their own homes have not been met.”
There have been two attempts to repatriate these Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Both were symbolical- one on 15 November 2018 and the other on 22 August 2019. Both attempts failed as those identified as acceptable for return decided not to take that step because they had not received any assurance of being accorded Myanmar citizenship. Matters came to a head on 25 August with Rohingyas convening a protest meeting in the Kutupalong Camp with digitally printed banners and placards written in English pressing their five points demand and refusing to move out of Bangladesh.
There were fiery speeches by Rohingya activist Mr. Mohibullah and other Rohingyas.Instead of supposedly being a prayer meeting, the gathering assumed different connotations. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas also turned up in a particular uniform dress code. The disappointing aspect was that the Bangladesh authorities appeared to have been totally ignorant that such a dynamics was about to take place. It was also evident that the coordination required for holding the meeting had required funding and that had obviously originated from external sources. Foreign and many local NGOs working in the Rohingya camps have since been identified as having helped to hold such a meeting and encouraging Rohingyas not to return. These include US-based NGOs- Adventist Development and Relief (ADRA) and Al Markazul Islam (AMI) and also the Rohingya Refugee Committee (RRC) and the Voice of Rohingya and Arakan Refugee Society for Peace and Humanaity (ARSPM) . They have also been identified in creating a negative mind-set among the Rohingya population in these camps about their possible transfer to housing built for them in Bhashanchar. It has since been discovered that hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have also been helped to obtain mobile phone SIMs, Fraudulent tactics have also been encouraged in their obtaining through wrong methods Bangladesh Citizenship ID Cards and sometimes even Bangladeshi passports.
Such a scenario has evidently been a source of embarrassment both for the Prime Minister and the government.
In view of the above evolving circumstances it is good that the government has now taken some significant decisions- (a) identifying those organizations who are instigating Rohingyas not to return, (b) banning their entry or operations within the Rohingya camp area, (c) incapacitating the use of the SIMs obtained by the Rohingyas illegally, and (d) building strong barbed wire fences around the camps to stop Rohingyas from leaving their camps and becoming a source of anxiety for the host community. In addition many of the Officials of the RRRC have also been transferred out of that region.
Bangladesh has done enough. It is now the turn of United Nations as well as - the EU, the USA, Canada and Australia to be more active.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance