Just over one month ago, Myanmar began an intensive campaign to slaughter and expel the Rohingya. Since then, Bangladesh has received over half a million Rohingya refugees.
Our government has asked the international community to pressure Myanmar to take back the refugees, and to create safe zones for them in Myanmar. Unfortunately, Myanmar enjoys the protection of China; China is likely to use its veto to block any UN resolution aimed at creating safe zones.
Even if safe zones can be created, it is far from certain that the Rohingya refugees will be willing to return to Myanmar. They watched as their young men were lined up and shot; they watched as their teenage girls were gang raped, then shot.
The Rohingya are not going to trust any promises made by Myanmar; many of them returned to Myanmar after being driven out in the 1990’s, only to be driven out again.
It should be pointed out that during the Bosnian war, the “safe areas” created by the UN around towns like Srebrenica were attacked by Serb forces; 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in the Srebrenica "safe area."
UN resolutions created safe areas, but UN member states were not willing to deploy their armed forces in numbers sufficient to protect those areas. The international community is not likely to repeat the mistake of creating imaginary “safe areas;” the only safe area is a state which is protected by its own army.
Insurgents like ARSA will not be able to liberate Arakan from Myanmar. Bangladesh won independence in just nine months because we are disconnected from Pakistan; Pakistan could not easily reinforce or supply its troops in Bangladesh. Arakan is connected to Myanmar, making it easy for Myanmar to overwhelm ARSA with tanks and warplanes. ARSA will not win a free Arakan; the Rohingya will only be willing to return if Myanmar grants them full citizenship. Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, and Myanmar must be forced to restore it.
Under pressure, Myanmar has recently said it will allow refugees to return after it verifies that they were once residents; however, it has not offered to restore their citizenship. Myanmar is not negotiating in good faith; it knows that as long as it does not extend citizenship to the Rohingya, they can be driven out again.
Unless safe zones can be created and protected, it is not likely that the Rohingya refugees will be willing to return
The only possible solution lies in tough diplomacy. Bangladesh should impose a trade embargo on Myanmar, and should announce that this embargo will only be lifted if Myanmar repatriates the Rohingya and restores their citizenship. Bangladesh should also try to convince sympathetic countries (including the US, EU, Japan, and powerful Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Malaysia) to impose trade sanctions on Myanmar until it agrees to allow Rohingya refugees to return as citizens.
Trade sanctions were instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa; they offer the best hope of ending apartheid against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Even if we are able to convince like-minded countries to impose trade sanctions on Myanmar, it will probably take a decade (or two) to persuade Myanmar to abandon apartheid; until then, the Rohingya refugees will not be able to return to their homes as citizens. In the meantime, we should do what is right; we should welcome these unfortunate people, who have nowhere else to go.
We should firstly register all the Rohingya refugees, and ask richer countries in Europe and North America to host as many as they can; it’s not fair to expect Bangladesh to host all of them. We should ask the international community to provide food, education and health services to the refugees who are minors.
We should give the adult refugees the right to live and work anywhere in Bangladesh so that they can support themselves. We should ask the international community for funds to train them to make them more employable. Rohingya children born in Bangladesh should be allowed to become citizens of Bangladesh.
Equally important is what we should not do. We should not prevent them from buying sim cards; they need cellphones to contact their surviving family members. We should not confine them to a camps on a remote island where it will be impossible for them to find employment and integrate with our society.
A generation ago, India hosted millions of Bangladeshi refugees who had fled the violence of the Pakistani army; the refugees returned after Bangladesh won independence.
The Rohingya have fled Arakan, but there is no chance that the ARSA insurgents will be able to win a free Arakan state; they have no home to which they can return. The only thing we can do in good conscience is to make them feel welcome in our country.
Kazi Zahin Hasan is a businessman, and a member of the board of directors of the Dhaka Tribune.