This is the darkest hour for the Rohingya people.
A quarter of their community in Myanmar has fled their native land in the space of 10 days.
Cyber propaganda attacks and lockouts of human rights observers cannot hide the Myanmar government’s crimes against humanity.
Ethnic cleansers in Myanmar need not disguise their racism any more. Aung San Suu Kyi not only stands beside them but puts her own reputation to the flame with Trumpian accusations of “fake news.”
Four decades of state-sponsored persecution and violence have served their purpose.
Having gotten away with apartheid and pogroms for so long, it was quick and easy for the generals to use a pretext to put that minority of Rohingya remaining in their ancestral homeland in fear for their lives.
The Rohingya are not the only persecuted ethnic or religious group in Burma. But being relatively small in number and marginal by location, power, and religion, they have proven the simplest to subjugate.
Now more than ever, Bangladesh needs to step up to help those seeking refuge.
This needs a paradigm shift. Carrying on as before is neither desirable nor sensible.
Damned for what we do, damned for what we don’t
International law and morality make ensuring a safe right of return and holding perpetrators to account the most important end goals, but it is difficult to expect either to be accomplished any time soon.
The real top priority for Bangladesh has to be looking after the people to whom it gives refuge, as best as it possibly can.
For everyone’s sake, the Bangladesh government needs to accept that, in the foreseeable future, the Rohingya do not have a safe home to which they can return.
The government should take ownership of this issue, at home and abroad. Otherwise, it will be left as before. Bangladesh will be damned for what it does and damned for what it doesn’t.
UNHCR, foreign aid agencies, international human rights bodies, and countries and charities preaching Muslim solidarity will, by default or otherwise, control global perceptions. Internationally, it will remain more likely for Bangladesh to be criticised for not doing enough (or as much as others) to help Royhinga people.
And justifiably so, if some parts of officialdom, media, and politics keep speaking about Rohingya people in Bangladesh the way they do.
Changing the narrative
Purely as a problem, to be spoken about with loaded tropes about “them” being unappreciative to Bangladesh, or worse being more prone to having criminals in their midst, or needing to be segregated physically, or denied legal paths to citizenship.
This is not a party political point, Burma has been driving out Rohingya since the 1970s and similar rhetoric has been spouted throughout whoever has been in charge of Bangladesh.
It is time to change the narrative.
As host to the greatest number of both long-term and newly-arrived Rohingya people, Bangladesh has a right and duty to speak up on their behalf.
With the UN General Assembly in session this week and world attention drawn by Aung San Suu Kyi’s disgrace, now is the time for Bangladesh to take centre stage to make the case for solidarity.
To help give the government authority to maximise its impact, Bangladesh should immediately give full citizenship rights and passports to all Rohingya refugees born in Bangladesh or resident over 10 years.
Actually, international conventions mandate and some countries do indeed offer speedier legal paths to citizenship for refugees (subject to provisos about no criminal records/good conduct etc) and all I am suggesting is that Bangladesh do the same.
But I appreciate this suggestion looks counter-intuitive at best, and more likely sounds like giving into the ethnic cleansers, but hear me out.
The Bangladesh government needs to accept that, in the foreseeable future, the Rohingya do not have a safe home to which they can return
We know that, ever since it stripped Rohingya of citizenship, that Myanmar’s government has pedaled all manner of racial myths and falsely called them Bangladeshi migrants. But now so many have no likely prospect of return, nothing positive remains to be achieved by keeping people in limbo.
We have to pay the physical costs of space, shelter, and resources anyway, this symbolic one won’t add to that burden.
It’s not as if there is a practical military option available for meaningful humanitarian intervention, is there? Bangladesh has no choice but to help those here and arriving as best we can.
Bangladesh taking centre stage
Conferring citizenship rights offers swift benefits such as grabbing international attention. It also neutralises the catch 22 imposed by Myanmar’s myth-making and may even help diminish the attention given to those who mainly showboat and grandstand on the misery of the Rohingya, rather than provide practical support.
At a stroke, the rug is also pulled from any officials who prey on Rohingya by denying or seeking bribes for fundamental rights (such as existing legal paths to citizenship via marriage). Giving refugees a greater stake in society can help both them and the nation economically, and make the Rohingya better able and equipped to return should and when that day comes.
It tells the world that Bangladesh takes its responsibilities seriously and pragmatically. We are prepared to acknowledge our own errors. Whether it be in the past treatment of Rohingya people, the slow progress the government is making to implement the CHT Accord, or in bridging the canyons of everyday inequality within our homes and cities, far too much remains to be done.
And this is precisely why we need this type of paradigm shift.
Holding out the prospect of a secure future as citizens in a welcoming land until such a day that it is safe for refugees to choose to return, is the right thing to do. That should be enough reason to do so.
The immediate practical benefit will be to help the government present the strongest possible case before the UN and global media to demand justice for victims of crimes against humanity and seek more funds to help house them in Bangladesh. Such leadership poses political risks of course. But better to be damned for doing the right thing, than not to do so at all.
By doing the right thing, Bangladeshis will gain added reason to feel pride and show our region a better type of patriotism.
The world is in need of a new Statue of Liberty. Bangladesh should take the lead.
Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.