Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s quick conclusion that US President Donald Trump will be of no help when it comes to the ongoing Rohingya crisis was a conclusion drawn in unnecessary haste.
It is, of course, possible that Trump is indeed as heartless and useless when it comes to the refugee crisis as feared by the Bangladeshi PM, but it is also possible that, during their brief interaction, when the Bangladeshi leader brought up the heaviest of topics, Trump simply cut and run out of fear of saying something less-than-intelligent.
Over the last 10 months, Trump has shown that his positions often sway depending on who gets to talk to him last.
Don’t we remember Trump’s tweets against Qatar right after Saudi Arabia started its infamous blockade? Trump was too eager, too quick to throw Qatar under the bus back then.
Yet, breaking news today says that Trump not only changed his position on Qatar but also single-handedly stopped a Saudi Arabian attempt for military intervention inside Qatar. This just proves that no one should ever take Trump’s instant reactions seriously.
Under relentless attack by the western media and various Western governments including UK, Sweden, Canada, and Australia, it is now obvious that Myanmar’s untenable and inhumane position on the Rohingyas is currently on Russian and Chinese life-support.
Given such favourable conditions, if Bangladesh plays its cards right, the Trump administration can be swayed in Bangladesh and the Rohingya’s favour.
The art of persuasion
The first thing would be to let the Trump administration know that the premature removal of US sanctions on Myanmar was Obama’s decision, with out-sized and unrealistic expectations bestowed upon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Bangladesh should also make the case that the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar was not some isolated event, it was part of a grand scheme of sanction removals and appeasement conjured by the Obama administration with Cuba and Iran besides Myanmar. The Obama administration obviously had its own sound logic in support of these moves, but that’s beside the point, now that Trump is president.
Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, and Obama -- these words will be music to Trump’s ears. He will conclude on his own, more likely than not, on Bangladesh’s side.
And no matter how much Trump says he hates the media -- he really doesn’t. This is a president who loves the media, plays the media, and lives the media.
The fact that the international press is unanimously going after Myanmar, and that Myanmar is the top-most globally trending news on both Twitter and Facebook, creates a unique opportunity for Bangladesh to help Trump discover a project with spectacular “media ratings” for a great cause, where the press will shower him with laurels if he lands on the right side of history.
This is the time to use the growing international momentum against the tyrants in Myanmar
Myanmar’s greatest export
The US has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Myanmar -- this should be another statistic that Bangladesh should present in any discussion with the Trump administration.
In fact, one out of every four refugees that the US had admitted over the last 10 years came from Myanmar. 160,000 refugees from Myanmar settled in the US since 2007, higher than the number of refugees from Iraq or Somalia.
These are mostly refugees of Karen, Chin, and Kachin ethnicities, but there are some Rohingyas in that mix as well. The fact that the current Myanmar regime is ethnically cleansing Christian Karens alongside Rohingya Muslims should bolster Bangladesh’s case against Myanmar to the conservative Trump administration.
Despite preferential trade agreements and GSP facilities from Obama, there hasn’t been much trade between the US and Myanmar. As of 2016, the US-Myanmar total trade stands at $438 million, with $194m in US exports to Myanmar, compared to the US-Bangladesh trade which stands at $6.8bn, with $895m in US exports to Bangladesh.
The US does not even appear in any of the top 10 charts for Myanmar’s foreign direct investors, military-hardware sellers, trade destinations, exporters, or importers. Instead, Myanmar seems to be turning into another North Korea, with economic stagnation, worsening human rights, and outsized reliance on China and Russia. According to some reports, they may have also tried to acquire nukes from North Korea.
The largest export that Myanmar made over the last ten years to the US, even after getting all these sweet trade deals, was 160,000 Karen and Chin refugees.
The tide is turning
Although the White House has been somewhat cautious in its statements regarding the Rohingya, messages coming from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the US Representative to the UN Nikki Haley have been fairly positive.
It is technically possible that the US may take a stronger stance now that the harshest sanctions on North Korea have already passed with both China and Russia’s votes.
There have been clear indications in the recent past that the West is hardening its stance over Myanmar: The UN has just declared it will be conducting a full-blown investigation. The UK just stopped co-operation with the Myanmar military. France’s president just used the term “ethnic cleansing” in his message on the Rohingya crisis.
Therefore, this is not the right time for Bangladesh to say that we are willing to share our meals and accommodate the Rohingya, which is something we are obviously doing already. This is rather the time to use the growing international momentum against the tyrants in Myanmar and fight to secure a safe return home for the refugees.
To achieve that goal, continuous persuasion of the president of the US should definitely be on Bangladesh’s agenda.
Shafquat Rabbee is a social media commentator.