• Tuesday, Jun 02, 2020
  • Last Update : 12:32 am

Forget the quick fix

  • Published at 06:00 pm October 15th, 2017
  • Last updated at 01:34 am October 16th, 2017
Forget the quick fix
One year has now passed since Rohingya insurgents  launched the first of their coordinated attacks against security outposts in Rakhine state of Myanmar. Since then, over half of the ethnic group's 1.1 million population have been forced over the border into Bangladesh by a scorched earth campaign which the UN has described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Last week, the de facto leader of the Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi, broke her long silence on the refugee crisis. To this outsider looking in, however, her words rang hollow. It is difficult to foresee how her stated aim to help resettle the Rohingya can be squared with the atrocities committed against them by a military over which she has no control. After withholding their citizenship and rights for decades, the Myanmar junta has washed its hands of the Rohingya in the final stitch of a painfully familiar pattern. The cycle of oppression  In 2006, shortly after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections and took over Gaza, the Israeli health ministry began calculating the minimum number of calories needed by the 1.5 million inhabitants of the strip to avoid malnutrition. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” said Dov Weisglass, an adviser to the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Driven by a fear of revolt or a sense of supremacy, over time such oppressors turn the screw on the oppressed. They deny them their basic human rights and push their thresholds for misery to the very limits of human existence. Witness the persecution of the Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims by China, the rejection of Tamil demands for self-rule in Sri Lanka, and the suppression of Kurdish claims to statehood across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Suffocated and humiliated, the situation of the oppressed becomes so hopeless, they lash out with whatever limited means they have left. Such “acts of aggression”, however, serve only to embolden the oppressors. Despite being “put on a diet”, Palestinian groups continued firing locally-made Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel. After a brief truce in 2008, Israel responded with F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters. Now Gaza is the “largest open-air prison in the world”. Food and other essential supplies cannot get in, and the Palestinian people cannot get out. It is the Rohingya of Myanmar, however, who are often described as the most persecuted of all the world's peoples.  They are a nation devoid of both a state, and the hope of ever achieving one. If any solace is to be sourced from their present situation, it is that they have at least been able to flee. The short-term solutions   During her speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for the creation of a “safe zone” for the Rohingya people inside Myanmar. In stressing the need for a “quick and permanent solution” to the crisis, she no doubt has one eye on the national exchequer and the other on the next parliamentary polls due by early 2019. But unfortunately for the prime minister -- and tragically for the Rohingya -- this is a crisis with no quick fix. The so-called “safe zone” is perhaps the most convenient end point for Bangladesh. But irrespective of whether Aung San Suu Kyi is sincere in her resettlement pledge, there are numerous obstacles lying in the way. At the most literal of levels, these include the land mines callously laid by the Myanmar military along the shared border, but it also means securing the haven from interference by all those forces hostile to the Rohingya plight. Even if the zone could be made “safe”, there is the possibility that with their livelihoods destroyed, the Rohingya will never again be able to support themselves within the borders of Myanmar. On top of all this, is the human emotional aspect: How many of the Rohingya would even want to return to the scorched land where their parents and siblings were murdered?
Instead of exploring ways to repatriate or isolate the problem, the government must put itself at the centre of the solution
The other option being discussed at government levels amounts to a form of internment within Bangladesh. Until the Rohingya can be biometrically registered, it is right for the government to seek to keep all the refugees in one place. But the construction of a “rehabilitation camp” on a previously uninhabited sand bar in the Bay of Bengal sends the wrong message to the Rohingya, and to the world. Even the lepers banished to the Hawaiian island of Molokai were given opportunities for employment, while the “inmates” of Gaza have tunnelled into Egypt. Sooner or later, the Rohingya confined to Bhashan Char would begin to feel as worthless as before, and then what? The integration ideal The third option requires the largest leap of faith on behalf of the Bangladesh government, and an underlying acceptance that the Rohingya problem cannot be exported or contained. In the 46 years since independence, Bangladesh has already absorbed four large waves of refugees from across the Teknaf river: In 1978, 1991, 2012, and today. They can be sent back, but when will they return? As PM Hasina herself said after visiting Ukhiya in September: “If we can feed 160 million, we can feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees.” There are many destitute and hungry people within Bangladesh who would dispute that claim, and with good reason. But for how long do you need to feed a population before they can begin to feed themselves? More than that, with the right investment and support, how long will it be before they can produce enough to also feed others? The estimated total influx of refugees in the past 12 months still represents only 0.6% of the Bangladeshi population. The PM should know that the Rohingya need not be a long-term burden on the country. So rather than petitioning the UN for a “safe zone” inside Myanmar, the PM should be courting Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and regional and world leaders, for international assistance to facilitate the proper and permanent integration of the Rohingya people into Bangladesh. Instead of exploring ways to repatriate or isolate the problem, the government must put itself at the centre of the solution. Citizenship must be offered to the Rohingya, conditional on a basic proficiency in the Bangla language. The additional roads, schools, hospitals, and houses they will use can be paid for by international donors initially, and maintained thereafter by a rise in tax on the most offensive fiscal target: the heaviest-polluting industries. To manage all of this, the government should set up a ministry for the integration of the Rohingya, ring-fencing its finances for external scrutiny. Perhaps the best way to think of how this might be viewed by the Bangladeshi electorate over the next 12 months, is to imagine how the opposition factions could possibly campaign against it. The Islamist parties, especially, would be hard pressed to complain about state-sponsored help for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Of course, many attitudes will need to be softened, and old prejudices reconsidered. Valid concerns remain, also, over how Bangladesh safeguards the minorities it already has. But by granting the Rohingya people national citizenship for the first time and by clearing their pathways into society, Sheikh Hasina can secure her place on the right side of history, just as Aung San Suu Kyi sees it re-written against her. The most persecuted people on the planet have been a nation without a state for too long. It’s time to give them one. Phil Humphreys is a British journalist and former Bangladesh development worker now residing in Berlin.
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