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Minorities in the neighbourhood

  • Published at 07:10 pm March 14th, 2017
  • Last updated at 02:57 pm February 12th, 2018
Minorities in the neighbourhood

Across the sub-regional neighbourhood of Bangladesh, ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar and parts of India are faced with the suppression of their human rights and dignity. As a de jure democracy founded on the principles of universal human rights, a response from Bangladeshi institutions, be it parliament or the government, is imperative for our national security and conscience.

The eruption of the Rohingya conflict on our southeastern doorstep is an important case point. Notwithstanding the disputes between our government and international organisations over the rights and living conditions of over 300,000 Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh needs to develop a more vocal strategy at the global level.

Countering Myanmar propaganda and advocating Rohingya rights on the international stage is in our core interests. For example, the prime minister can raise the issue of the plight of the Rohingya during her annual speech to the UN General Assembly in September. She may wish to highlight the heritage of Rakhine State as a crossroads between the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia, stress the role of Buddhists, Muslims, and Bengalis in an intertwined history and recall the promises made to the Rohingya by the founding fathers of Burma.

Indeed, the prime minister may highlight the myriad ethnic conflicts which plague Myanmar today as a whole. Aside from Rakhine State, insurgents control large parts of the Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, and Kayin States. The Christian Kachin and Chin populations are also among the worst affected in Myanmar’s internal conflict.

Xenophobia towards Muslims has been reported to have increased across Myanmar. In January, U Ko Ni, a leading Muslim lawyer and pro-democracy leader, was assassinated in Yangon. The Hindu Indian-origin community continues to be barred from participating in the country’s politics and government services. The Chinese-speaking Kokang region has seen conflict since 2015, causing thousands of refugees to move to China.

As the vision of an integrated multi-ethnic Myanmar remains elusive, Bangladesh is affected by the economic stagnation caused by conflict in its neighbouring country. A good example is the stalled progress on the proposed road and rail links with Yunnan in China, which would run through many of the insurgency affected states in Myanmar.

The southern corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway, which would run between Turkey and Thailand, has also been undermined by the security situation in Myanmar. The emergent Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine State is of deep global concern due to its potential for radical religious influences. The closed door UN Security Council session convened by Egypt last November over the Rakhine State situation underscores the gravity of the crisis.

The situation in neighbouring northeast India carries the most strategic importance for Bangladesh, including a market of over 30 million people

Myanmar is strategically important for Bangladesh as a gateway to ASEAN. As two developing nations, both countries share common strategic interests in coping with the influence of regional powers India and China. Democracy in Myanmar is in our longstanding interests. Clearly, the current dispensation in Naypyidaw is a power sharing agreement with the military and undermines democracy.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, inaction, and ignorance over the plight of Myanmar’s minorities, especially the Rohingya, have glaringly exposed the failures of the recent transition period. She has betrayed the purpose of her Nobel Peace Prize and the democratic aspirations of millions among Myanmar’s minorities.

India is the world’s largest democracy and a traditional ally of Bangladesh. Despite its strong pluralistic society, India continues to be a developing nation which has democratic deficits in its insurgency-prone states. The much criticised Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) perpetuates a quasi-military regime and culture of impunity for Indian security forces in northeast India and Kashmir.

Extra-judicial killings and torture in detention centres are still rife in these regions. There has also been a marked increase in violence towards Muslim and Christian groups across India since 2014, especially over issues such as beef bans and religious conversions.

The enmity with Pakistan has been used as a pretext for harassing members of Indian civil society by saffron vigilantes. Free speech has been stifled in several leading Indian universities and media, with an outdated sedition law used to indict students, journalists, and cartoonists.

Perhaps the situation in neighbouring northeast India carries the most strategic importance for Bangladesh, including a market of over 30 million people, a prospective user of Bangladeshi seaports, and the potential for rich mineral deposits. The region was once administered by the British Raj as part of Eastern Bengal and Assam with Dhaka as the capital and Chittagong as the seaport.

It is a natural economic hinterland of modern Bangladesh. Its population also enjoys ties of kinship with the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh. Since partition in 1947, dozens of insurgencies have engulfed the landlocked Northeast. The AFSPA was first enacted in the region in 1958.

It continues to be enforced in all seven sister states, including Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. The AFSPA deprives the region of Indian constitutional rights and renders it akin to a martial law zone. Anti-immigrant xenophobia has resulted in atrocities.

India has restricted access for foreign investors in the region. It is difficult to see how lucrative it would be to open the Bangladeshi transport network to Indian transit given the militarisation and economic isolation of northeast India. Bangladeshi companies would obviously be drawn to a region that is open, stable, and democratic, has a free market, and welcomes globalisation and foreign investments.

Parliament has an important role to play in fostering public discourse in Bangladesh regarding our immediate neighbourhood. Legislatures in the US, the UK, and India are often seen to make meaningful advocacy for disadvantaged minorities in other countries, including Bangladesh.

Resolutions are adopted calling on the executive to act through foreign policy. Bills are enacted to reflect the parliament’s will on foreign policy through statute law.

An active role of parliament in foreign policy will safeguard the conscience of the nation. It can also reaffirm our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Umran Chowdhury is an intern at Bangladesh Enterprse Institute.