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Three scenarios for the Rohingya

  • Published at 06:19 pm September 20th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:36 pm September 20th, 2017
Three scenarios for the Rohingya
It will soon be over now. Since August 25, more than 410,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The flood of refugees across the border is currently at 10,000 a day. Last year another 100,000 came. All this from an original population of 1.1 million. An additional 500,000 Rohingya are already living in exile as a result of flight or labour migration since the 1970s, most in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The Rohingya have been harassed by the Myanmar army and government for decades and generations. Only a minority of the Rohingya still live in Rakhine, the province in Myanmar that used to be their home. Soon, most of them will be in exile. The army’s cleansing operations have been successful. So, what now? A successful genocide? One scenario is that the Rohingya disappear as a people. Even two years ago, the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University in London held that the Myanmar army’s actions in Rakhine had a genocide as the aim. Since then, a third of the population has been displaced. Genocide does not mean murder of all individuals, but extinction of a culture -- language, memorials, homeland. Today a majority of the Rohingya live in exile and more are on their way. Most end up in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is receiving the refugees, and the army and administration are helping them. But for how long can the country be expected to maintain many hundred thousands in refugee camps? One year, two years, 10 years? Bangladesh has a population of 160 million and the Rohingya already have shown an ability to quickly assimilate. The hundred thousand Rohingya in Bangladesh before the current crisis are part of the loose informal working class, and take part in the country’s adaptable black economy. Language-wise, the Rohingya are close to Bangalis, and in terms of religion and in other ways they can easily adapt. Many Bangladeshis are annoyed at the Rohingya contributing to a swarming proletariat, but there have been few organised protests. After a generation in Bangladesh, the Rohingya will cease as a separate identity and the genocide will be complete. A new Palestine Another scenario is an enclave of misery and turmoil, dominated by forces with different agendas. The refugees are now settled mainly in newly-established camps along the border. The Bangladesh government wanted initially to stop the flow of refugees because it feared that a larger number of Muslim refugees in the country would strengthen Bangladeshi Islamists. The government has reversed its position and the refugees now receive extensive assistance from the Bangladeshi state and international aid organisations. But the refugee population is huge and increasing rapidly.
The army in Myanmar is used to its status as an international pariah. For decades, it was criticised by international human rights organisations for its brutal behaviour
Muslim and Islamic relief organisations contribute substantially. Many of these actively engage in a gray zone between relief and recruitment. Particularly important is the country’s largest Islamist organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefazat mobilised 100,000 in 2013 in a demonstration against the government’s secular policy. The government is secular and progressive, but next year there is an election and it does not want Hefazat as a stated opponent. Therefore, last year, the government accepted Hefazat’s demand to clean school books of non-Islamic content and accepted Hefazat madrasas as equivalent of public schools. Furthermore, militant organisations with international relations are active among the Rohingya, and al-Qaeda, IS, and the Taliban have urged Muslims to take arms to avenge the injustice. The ARSA organisation responsible for the attacks that triggered the last round of army actions is led by a Rohingya raised in Saudi Arabia, and it is financed by the Saudis and Pakistan. Turkey, Iran, the UAE, and others with rival agendas have expressed sympathy and sent relief material. Local organisations are engaged to distribute the material and are gradually linked to their rivalling donors. With petro-dollars in the back pocket and international support, these local organisations may ensure that the refugee camps become permanent, dependent on subsidies from the Middle East. These will be enclaves dominated by rival militant Islamist organisations. The unrest will never go away, the refugees will be stuck. One possibility is that these rival organisations will be more interested in overthrowing the government of Bangladesh than in reclaiming land in Rakhine. Repatriation The third scenario is the least likely: The Rohingya return to Rakhine. They move back to the villages and are accepted as an ethnic minority in the country’s constitution. This is the hope of Kofi Annan and Western governments. But it is unrealistic. The real power in Myanmar lies with the army, and the army’s dominant position is justified through its alliance with militant Buddhist nationalists. Neither the army nor nationalists will want the Rohingya back. Moreover, the army in Myanmar is used to its status as an international pariah. And it is used to murderous campaigns against ethnic minorities. For decades, it was regularly criticised by international human rights organisations for its brutal behaviour, which included slave labour. Today, the country receives support from China, India, and others due to its strategic position and untapped gas fields. The Rohingya issue has also made Aung San Suu Kyi politically marginalised and she has lost her former Western support. So why would the army change course? Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental languages, University of Oslo, Norway.
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