Rethinking our approach

Resolving the Rohingya crisis will require new strategies

After the influx of the Rohingya in August 2017, Bangladesh's policy towards Myanmar has mostly been Rohingya-centric. The main focus of the policy is to repatriate the Rohingya and for that Dhaka has been consistently engaging with Nay Pyi Daw. At the same time there is a concerted and systematic effort from Bangladesh to sensitize the international community in this context.

The main players of that time, apart from Tatmadaw or Myanmar military, were the government led by Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the United Nations, the international community, and various international legal organizations. The scenario changed drastically after the coup on February 1, 2021. When the military took over, new players emerged and it had an overarching impact on the equation of the overall repatriation process.

The new players are the Arakan Army in Rakhine, self declared exile government National Unity Government (NUG), and the new Myanmar government ruled by the military. The Suu Kyi-led political government was removed from the picture while the political force in Rakhine Arakan National Party became weak.

There is a strong need to have a new arrangement or equation for the repatriation of the Rohingyas staying in Bangladesh. Arakan Army and NUG have already showed their sympathy towards the Rohingya while the Myanmar army, like before, have no interest in the ethnic minority group. It should be mentioned that NUG is formed by Suu Kyi followers, but earlier these politicians never showed any sympathy towards the Rohingya.

In this new scenario, there is a necessity to have new strategies to implement the Rohingya-centric foreign policy. It seems that it would be difficult to repatriate the Rohingya without taking the new players on-board. Say, for example, it would be impossible to repatriate the Rohingya without consulting the Arakan Army as well as a need to have the blessings of NUG.

New policy in 2016

The Rohingya have been subject to systematic repression since the 1960s. As a result they fled to Bangladesh in 1979 and again in 1992. In those two instances, repatriation within a short period of time was possible due to a comparatively weak Myanmar and favourable positions taken by China, India, and Asean countries.

In 2012, the Myanmar government instigated sectarian violence in Rakhine. The Rohingya started to pour into Bangladesh in small groups from that time. It started to get bigger in 2016 when the military started an operation -- about 100,000 Rohingya fled because of it. In response, Bangladesh changed its foreign policy and acted appropriately.

An important pillar of Bangladesh's foreign policy is that it does not take any position if there is any vote on country-specific resolution in international organizations like the UN. The policy changed in 2016 when the UN put forward a motion to form a “fact-finding mission” to investigate human rights violation in Myanmar and Bangladesh voted “yes.” A senior Myanmar diplomat that time said: “We thought that Bangladesh is our friend.”

Before 2016, Bangladesh never took any position on any resolution related to human rights violation in Myanmar, However, Myanmar never valued the positive gestures showed by Bangladesh.

Rohingya influx in 2017

On Aug 25, 2017 Myanmar military started it's “clearance operations” with intentions of genocide to get rid of the Rohingya population from Rakhine. The excuse they gave was that the Rohingya attacked several police outposts in different location in the Rakhine province. Within a month, over 0.7 million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to save their lives. The UN human rights commissioner at that time termed it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Bangladesh, in response, adopted new foreign policy with two important factors: The first one was to engage with Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya and the second one to sensitize the international community and courts for not repeating the same incidents and to bring those responsible to justice. Bangladesh created enough international pressure that Myanmar was compelled to sign a repatriation agreement within three months in November 2017.

New player: Arakan Army

Three communities live in Rakhine: The Arakani, the Rohingya, and the Burmese. Out of them the number of Arakanis are over two million, Rohingya about 1.5 million, and out of them over one million are now staying in Bangladesh. The number of Burmese of population is very small and mostly they live in the southern side of Rakhine.

The political party -- Arakan National Party -- had been active for a long time in Rakhine but they failed to meet the expectations of the Rakhine people. The separatist force Arakan Army was formed in 2009 and its leader, Twan Mrat Naing, is relatively young. He was born in 1978 and is now one of the most influential ethnic leaders in Myanmar.

At the beginning the Arakan Army took the help of Kachin Independent Army to train themselves and engaged in war with the Myanmar military in Kachin in 2012. According to media reports, it has over 30,000 trained soldiers and more to be trained. Out of the trained soldiers, 70% have combat experience.

The Arakan Army now controls the north side of Rakhine. The South side of the province, where most of the Burmese reside, is controlled by the Myanmar military. The middle part is controlled by the Arakan Army at night and Myanmar military in day time. After the coup in 2021, the Arakan Army, like others, did not protest. There was an informal understanding between AA and the Myanmar military, but the mistrust started to grow among Tatmadaw when the Arakan Army made a move to become politically influential. In the meantime, Arakan Army leader Twan Mrat Naing, in a media interview, showed his sympathy towards the Rohingya.

The armed conflict between AA and Tatmadaw started in the middle of this year and as a result mortar shells fell inside Bangladesh few times. If one considers the military might and political influence of the Arakan Army, there must be an arrangement with AA before considering any form of Rohingya repatriation. Arakanis are the majority in Rakhine and it would be wise to have discussion with the strongest political forces there to have smooth repatriation.

National Unity Government

The National Democratic League won the national elections in November 2020. The parliament was supposed to convene on Feb 1, 2021, but on that day, the military made its move and captured power through a coup while Suu Kyi was arrested. NLD supporters formed a strong resistance and, in the process, National Unity Government was formed in exile. NUG, from the beginning, started to have an arrangement with ethnic minority groups to have more support base inside Myanmar.

It is opposite to the policy pursued by Aung Suu Kyi government.

Different countries and entities established informal contact with the NUG. There was significant development on Sept 19 this year when the Malaysian foreign minister had a formal meeting with NUG at the sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York. The NUG has already shown sympathy towards the Rohingya. They even wrote a letter to the International Court of Justice informing them that they would accept the verdict of the Rohingya genocide case and are ready to give rights to the ethnic minority.

After the coup, many Myanmar people died or were injured in the hands of the military. But now the NUG is gaining ground inside the country. According to a report published in Mizzima, a Myanmar paper, about 17% of the township is controlled by the Myanmar military, while 52% are controlled by the NUG. The rest are contested by both the parties.

In a sense, the coup in Myanmar has failed. Earlier, Tatmadaw  ruled the country with strong hand, but this time they are facing resistance in different parts of the country. The political force is getting stronger day by day. Even though Tatmadaw still enjoys support from China and Russia, it would be difficult for Myanmar army to stay in the driving seat for long due to internal conflict and international pressure.

In this backdrop, it is imperative to engage with political forces like NUG for long-term benefit of Rohingya repatriation.

Bangladesh's foreign policy

For repatriation it is crucial to engage with NUG and Arakan Army, at least informally. If Bangladesh engages with them, for obvious reasons, it would not go over well with the Myanmar authorities. But, does that really matter when there has been no progress in repatriation front in the last two years?

On the other hand, if China or any other regional country expresses their views on the issue, Dhaka can always explain how important repatriation is for its national interest and it would engage with other parties to make the process smooth. If China is asked to choose between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the east Asian country would pick Naypyidaw and the policy-makers in Dhaka know it, but even then it does not take any bold steps.

But, at the same time, we have to keep in mind that taking a bold step does not necessarily mean to poke one's nose in the internal affairs of another nation or use arms against them. Bangladesh needs to build up international pressure and look for non-violent strategies. There is a frustration among Asean countries as Myanmar has failed to implement the five-point proposal agreed by Myanmar general Ming Aung Hlaing. It is high time to engage with them with a new mindset. At the same time, it is important to engage with China and India with new narratives and explain to them how their interests would be better served by resolving the Rohingya crisis.

There is a strong urge in our diplomacy to adopt “good policy.” The reason behind it is, even if it fails, one can defend it by saying the intention was good but at the end there was no proper outcome. Bangladesh needs to maintain a good, neighbourly attitude towards Myanmar. At the same time, Dhaka needs to engage with all relevant stakeholders to attain its national interests. 

One must understand, even if Arakan Army and National Unity Government are defeated this time around, the spirit of democracy and the fight against oppression will never be kept down while Bangladesh would still benefit from its “good policy” stance. 

Sheikh Shahariar Zaman is a senior contributor.