We need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of the Rohingya crisis
The White House had a clear stance on demanding Myanmar’s human rights improvements during the administrations of 41st President HW Bush and 43rd President GW Bush. Bush Senior sent generous financial aid to the Rohingya refugees and pressed Myanmar on human rights and democracy expectations.
President Clinton passed an investment sanction against Myanmar towards the end of his term. However, President GW Bush took a much stronger attitude against the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and not only imposed investments sanctions, but his administration also banned selling weapons to Myanmar.
In the quest for democracy, the Obama administration may have rushed into diplomatic negotiations with Myanmar and missed out on preventing the crisis, a crisis that didn’t go out of control during the 16 years of both HW Bush and GW Bush.
An American top diplomat and former Obama-nominated ambassador Derek Mitchell in Myanmar acknowledged to Politico that the US didn’t predict the extent of the Rohingya crisis while being deeply engaged in rebuilding the relationship with Myanmar.
The inconsequential economic importance of the Rohingya people may have kept them in their blind spot as the US engaged with Myanmar. Could this be a freefall from here and become another major crisis like Syria?
Nothing is off-limits to a warmonger dictator who wants to stay in power and avoid legal prosecution from the International Criminal Court. Becoming friends with the enemy of an enemy is one of the most commonly used tactics by transgressors.
It is silly not to expect that the Myanmar military may collaborate with the antagonist in Bangladesh to commit terror attacks either in Bangladesh or in Myanmar. Various extremist groups that operate under the shadow of political opposition may seize such an opportunity against the ruling Awami League in Dhaka.
Terror attacks before critical elections usually catch voters by surprise, who then vote for nationalists. The Myanmar government may use such an opportunity to gain sympathy before the 2020 election. The point, however, is we need to stop the violence.
Myanmar can distort Bangladesh’s image by portraying themselves as a victim of Islamic terrorism out of Bangladesh, propaganda that helped in the past to embolden popularity among the hate groups. Killing their own people is nothing new to the military junta, but if Myanmar becomes friends with the Bangladeshi right-wing extremist groups who are adversaries to the secular Bangladeshi government and hires them to commit or claim on terror acts, Myanmar will justify their genocide once again in the name of fighting terrorism.
Myanmar’s large military power can easily attack civilians within Bangladesh, falsely claiming them as emerging targets. Myanmar’s rulers are in desperate need of a distraction before facing an international tribunal for committing genocide against the Rohingya people.
It’s prevalent that Myanmar has excellent international outreach since Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers built that for decades and now have aligned their resources together with the military power, calling out the unarmed Rohingya civilians as the terrorists.
The Bangladeshi government has also been diplomatically unconscious between 2012 and 2014 while Myanmar was committing the genocide against the Rohingya and gained full diplomatic access to Washington.
Compared to other nationalities and ethnicities, international organizations which work on Bangladeshis and the Rohingya people are few and far in between. Even ethnic Burmese people are more frequently hired and engaged with in those organizations.
If Bangladeshi people who have much higher stakes in the crisis are not included, Rohingya interest will be terrifyingly abandoned by these organizations as soon as some Bangladeshis are labelled with terrorism and an all-out war breaks out.
International peace organizations must understand the micro-level complexities in this crisis and engage with the Rohingya and Bangladeshi people who are most vulnerable to this. The crisis is endemic, but Bangladeshi leadership hasn’t been able to utilize this imminent threat to restore a sense of urgency among the Bangladeshis and Rohingya people around working towards a stronger and more diverse country.
Bangladesh does not have strong international advocacy groups to help if any war breaks out in the Myanmar border area. We need to prepare to keep life moving during catastrophes. After witnessing Syria, we should not ignore such a possibility.
Crisis management should include Bangladesh’s large population and emphasis on securing all religious minority interests. Myanmar has a powerful military and strong international alliances. Bangladesh shouldn’t count on any immediate military support from any country in case of military aggression from Myanmar since there is no such arrangement and ally to advocate for Bangladesh at any global stage.
By the time the international community may even agree on a possible intervention, the human losses in Bangladesh may be overwhelming, just like it was in Syria.
Mazher Mir is an Advisor to the ASEAN Council and the William H Seward Center for Economic Diplomacy.