BANGLADESH finally achieved a bilateral arrangement with Myanmar to find a way out of the dangerous Rohingya problem that started in the current and the most dangerous phase following the Myanmar military’s crackdown after the terrorist attack of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25 that had killed four Myanmar soldiers. That crackdown sent fleeing across the border to Bangladesh 6,30,000 Rohingyas for fear of their lives to add to the 4,00,000 of them already in the country. The Bangladesh foreign minister expressed satisfaction that the agreement would protect Bangladesh’s interests. His satisfaction notwithstanding, the arrangement raised many questions.
The Myanmar side totally declined to release the arrangement that Dhaka released following the questions in the Bangladesh media. One flaw that was palpably obvious was that it would cover those who entered Bangladesh after the latest influx, numbering 6,30,000. That would mean that the remaining 4,00,000 that had entered Bangladesh before would stay! Of the 6,30,000, Myanmar would accept only those that they would verify as residents of Rakhine State, a very non-transparent process to say the least. The repatriation would start in two months but no closing date was set in the arrangement. Finally, the Rohingyas on return would be kept in camps before they would be allowed to return to their homes.
The arrangement completely ignored the main reason why a million Rohingyas fled their homes that is now obvious to world, exposed explicitly by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who called it a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Washington accepted that description after secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar on November 15, before the arrangement was signed on November 23. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina described the reason as genocide, a view taken by many heads of state and government, including the French president. The prime minister pursued that line during her visit to New York and was successful in creating an international consciousness that brought a flurry of foreign ministers and international visitors to Dhaka before the arrangement was signed.
The arrangement unfortunately not just ignored Myanmar’s role as the perpetrator of ethnic cleansing/genocide, it also gave the impression that the Myanmar government was being generous to Bangladesh in agreeing to accept a little over half of the Rohingyas that they had forced to flee. That the arrangement was flawed was further underlined by the UNHCR, which stated categorically that the conditions were still not safe in Rakhine State for the Rohingyas to return. The Rohingyas themselves have largely refused to return under the terms of the arrangement that has made their return voluntary. Therefore, the arrangement at this stage does not show the potentials of dealing with a crisis that is an extremely dangerous for Bangladesh for a variety of reasons, the greatest of which is the threat of bringing international terrorism to the country.
Myanmar’s intention to make the Rohingyas history is an old one. In 1979 and 1993, its military had sent a quarter million Rohingyas each time, fleeing to Bangladesh by putting in them the fear of death. On both occasions, their inhuman acts were forgotten after bilateral agreements with the Bangladesh government under which almost all the refugees were repatriated. Meanwhile though in 1982, Myanmar did something for which no one questioned it seriously, it passed the Myanmar citizenship law under which the Rohingyas were declared stateless preparing the legal ground under the Myanmar legal system to deal with the Rohingyas in any manner they liked. They did so as the UN high commissioner exposed — systematically subjecting the Rohingyas to ethnic cleansing that led the majority of them to flee the country even before the latest influx after the August 25 ARSA terrorist attack.
That was a poor excuse and caught Myanmar on the wrong foot. For the first time, opinion in the west was unanimous against Myanmar that it was determined to clean their country of the Rohingyas whose Muslim background was at the centre of its hatred for them. That predicament of Myanmar was aptly underlined by the way its once admired Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was demonised worldwide, particularly in the west. Unfortunately, at a time when Myanmar could have really been held responsible for its brutality and made to pay, it was Bangladesh’s best friends that gave it the lifeline. India ignored the ethnic cleansing totally and called the latest brutality as justified to tackle terrorism (on the basis of ARSA killing four Myanmar soldiers!) and China and Russia called what was happening in Rakhine as Myanmar’s internal affair.
The arrangement, therefore, would no doubt satisfy those that supported Myanmar but do little for Bangladesh. It would also allow Myanmar to get out of an extremely tight corner when president Donald Trump had even threatened tough sanctions against Myanmar. It should be a great disappointment for the Bangladesh prime minister who had earned international support and recognition for her role in putting Myanmar on the dock. The responsibility for such close friends of Bangladesh not standing by Bangladesh’s side at its hour of the greatest national crisis since it became independent does not speak well of the mandarins of the foreign ministry. They did not see any of it coming till it struck them on the head.
The mandarins of the foreign ministry did not wake up even after the initial shock from India, China and Russia. That was evident when at the UN, the members voted on the UN committee’s resolution on human rights situation in Myanmar with regard to the Rohingya Muslim minority on November 16. The resolution was expectedly critical of the Myanmar government. Twenty-six countries abstained, 10 voted against it and 135 voted in favour. India with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka abstained as did Japan. If that was not bad news, China and Russia voted against the resolution. Since coming to power in January 2009, the Awami League-led government gave India its two most important national interests in Bangladesh, namely land transit and security assurance while India has still not delivered the Teesta deal pending since September 2011. And while three of Bangladesh’s closest friends have gone against its interest on the dangerous Rohingya issue, it was Pakistan that voted with it on the UN resolution!
The prime minister has single-handedly achieved the most of her government’s foreign policy achievements since 2009. Her role in the climate deal in 2010 has been widely acknowledged. Her initiatives while in New York recently on the Rohingya issue had greatly helped in bringing international focus upon the Rohingya genocide. Unfortunately, her initiatives have not been reflected either in the arrangement and most definitely not in the way Bangladesh’s friends have voted or abstained at the UN on the Rohingya resolution. It was absurd that with Bangladesh having a resident diplomatic mission in almost all the ASEAN nations, ASEAN completely ignored the Rohingya genocide in its latest annual gathering in the Philippines.
Therefore, the mandarins in the foreign ministry have a great deal to answer to the prime minister and the people of the country. First, why have they been unable to reflect the realities of the Rohingya crisis in the arrangement keeping in mind that the prime minister herself called the action of the Myanmar military genocide? Second, why was it that Bangladesh’s friends have not supported it in the crisis where in their place, it was Pakistan that supported Bangladesh? Why did ASEAN totally ignore Rohingya issue in their own backyard that the United States has now joined in calling it ethnic cleansing?
Certainly, these are legitimate questions of the nation to the foreign ministry mandarins. It was great to see that the country’s envoys have been called to Dhaka for an envoys’ conference, perhaps the first such conference ever by any South Asian country. One wonders if they were asked to explain why Bangladesh’s best friends went against it on the Rohingya issue and whether they would be able in the next few months to ensure that they would be encouraged to come to Bangladesh’s side in a national crisis that is the worst in its 45 years’ history and one that the arrangement would not be able to address in a substantive and sustainable manner.
Postscript: The official title of the deal was ‘arrangement on return of displaced persons from Rakhine state’. It was not given the status of an agreement that raised serious doubts about its credibility. In fact, the arrangement allowed Myanmar off the hook and left Bangladesh with the Rohingya crisis, unresolved.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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