With little support from the international arena, what is the future of the Rohingya in Bangladesh?
On October 5, Vikram Doraiswami, the newly appointed Indian High Commissioner to the country, arrived in Bangladesh. He told reporters at the land port in Akhaura: “Bangladesh is one of India’s closest friends, and thus we are eager to continue and enhance our bilateral relationship with this neighbouring country.”
Beijing is now more interested in keeping Bangladesh as a development partner through the continuous effort of distancing Dhaka from Delhi. Recently, Sino-Indian relations with Bangladesh are looking great, but the reality is different.
Close ties to Myanmar
Bangladesh is depending on China and India, the two powerful countries in South Asia, to repatriate the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. But these two countries have not only been non-cooperative, but have also been playing double standards with Bangladesh on the problem, and the two countries are competing with each other to be closest to Myanmar.
As a result, the Rohingya are now becoming victims of the geopolitics of India and China. And no one knows how long Bangladesh will carry this burden, which had first started in 1978. The Rohingya took refuge in Bangladesh after the Myanmar military junta’s crackdowns at various periods, but the largest number entered in August-September 2017, when the Myanmar military and local Buddhist militia started the “clearance operations” from August 25, 2017.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 723,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim ethnic minorities have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 due to killings, rapes, and torture in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
But the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited Myanmar during that tricky time when the country and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi were under sharp condemnation from the international community for her silent support of the military atrocity. Indian media stated that the purpose of his visit in the first week of September 2017 was to expand the strategic and economic partnership.
Recently, Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar to further strengthen military and economic ties. Modi did not utter the word Rohingya during his visit to Myanmar; similarly, the Indian foreign ministry said nothing about the Rohingya.
India does not even want to be disliked by Myanmar by calling the Rohingya refugees. In a statement issued by the Indian foreign office on the outcome of the Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Dhaka last August, they were described as internally displaced persons.
A foreign office source said that they objected to the use of the word “forcibly” in a joint statement issued on the outcome of the foreign ministers’ tele-meeting held the week before, while they “reiterated the importance of the safe, speedy, and sustainable return to Myanmar of the forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine State of Myanmar.” Later, they agreed to use it in exchange for adding a word in favour of India on investment issues.
On the other hand, China has been advising Bangladesh to resolve the Rohingya issue bilaterally with Myanmar rather than internationally, and has assured that it will play the role of a mediator, but it has done virtually nothing. On the contrary, whenever the United Nations wants to take any action against Myanmar, China has used its veto power in favour of Myanmar. Myanmar was
ruled by the British for almost a century, and now it seems to be practically ruled by China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar last January, vowing to keep his poor neighbour close to Beijing and away from the United States and India. During Xi’s visit, the two countries signed dozens of agreements on infrastructure investment. At the top of his list was the completion of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which would give China direct access to the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal. It would then be able to open a new westward gateway for Chinese trade by providing alternative routes to the disputed South China Sea and the Malacca coast.
The world was a little hopeful that the Rohingya might be given justice when Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, appeared before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in December. She defended the military junta, saying it was an “internal conflict” between the Rakhine army, Rohingya “militants,” and armed separatists. She said individual soldiers would be punished if they were found guilty.
In its interim ruling in January, the ICJ ordered Myanmar’s leadership to respect its legal obligation to prevent genocide and to “take as much action as possible within its power” to stop the killing or harming of the Rohingya. The court ordered Myanmar’s military not to destroy evidence of the crime and to submit a progress report on the matter. The court is expected to send its findings to the UN Security Council.
The atrocities continue
Myanmar’s military junta has yet to stop the killings, according to reports from various international organizations. Satellite images show the military bulldozing the ruins of the Rohingya village of Kan Kya, which burned to the ground three years ago, erasing its name, and other destroyed village names from official maps. The Myanmar government has not reported back to court or conducted a credible investigation into the allegations.
Meanwhile, the eyewitness testimony of two soldiers who took part in the Rakhine operation confirmed the worst situation for Myanmar. They detailed how the military carried out massacres, dug mass graves, destroyed villages, and raped women and girls. One of them, Zhao Naing Tun, said that his superior told him: “You kill everyone, child or adult.”
The Guardian reports that a proposal was made last month by Britain calling on Myanmar to comply with the ICJ’s demands, implement an immediate ceasefire, allow humanitarian access, and include Rohingya voters in the November national elections. Eight members of the Security Council voted in favour of the resolution, but China vetoed it.
Meanwhile, Myanmar went back to its old character of lies and told the 75th session of the UN General Assembly that Dhaka was supporting terrorism in Myanmar and that Bangladesh did not want to return the Rohingya. Bangladesh has categorically rejected Myanmar’s false and distorted information about the Rakhine State’s incidents and Rohingya repatriation.
In a counter-statement to the UN, Bangladesh has denied allegations that Bangladesh harbours terrorists, saying it adheres to a zero-tolerance policy on terrorism, financing of terrorism, and any other form of terrorism. Bangladesh’s record in tackling all forms of terrorism while protecting human rights is lauded in all quarters. Myanmar should look at itself in the mirror. The record of inhumane treatment of ethnic minorities in Myanmar is not new.
Regarding the repatriation of Rohingya, Bangladesh said that the repatriation initiatives were initiated twice in November 2018 and August 2019; but unfortunately, not a single Rohingya agreed to go back home. They have not received any assurances from Myanmar that there will be no more torture.
350 Rohingya have allegedly returned to Myanmar voluntarily. Bangladesh wants to know in the light of Myanmar’s demand -- who are those 350 people? Where are they now? Does the return of 350 of the 1.1 million people show evidence of improvement in Rakhine State? Bangladesh said in a statement that it was ready to repatriate the Rohingya and called on Myanmar to immediately ensure the safety of its citizens, and called on the international community to assist Myanmar in ensuring this.
Meanwhile, the decision to move some refugees from the Cox’s Bazar camp to Bhasanchar has created new tension in the country. There is a report that a group of members of the Bangladesh navy has been accused of beating 306 Rohingya in Bhasanchar as they protested to return to the camps in Cox’s Bazar. But ISPR called the allegations by the Human Rights Watch “unrealistic.”
The Rohingya were taken out of the camps in two phases last May. They were detained while entering Bangladesh by boat. International organizations and NGOs working with the Rohingya are opposed to the relocation of the Rohingya to Bhasanchar. Their argument is that in all countries of the world, refugee camps are located in border areas. There is a tendency in the minds of the refugees to return to their homeland; but given the opportunity to live in Bhasanchar, they will not want to return to their homeland.
Observers alleged that NGOs and international organizations working for the refugees themselves are inciting the Rohingya to stay in Cox’s Bazar and not in Bhasanchar. Because Bhasanchar is a remote area, NGO officials do not want to go there. On the other hand, due to space constraints and environmental disasters in Cox’s Bazar, there are several social problems, so there is no alternative to sending the Rohingya to Bhasanchar.
In the beginning of October, several Rohingya were killed in reported “gunfights” between rival groups in Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar. The gunfight took place between groups of Rohingya “criminals” over “establishing supremacy in the area.”
Despite the International Criminal Court’s position, the world’s most powerful countries are not taking the initiative to impose arms embargoes on Myanmar, as well as financial sanctions and seizure of wealth, freezing accounts, or blocking lucrative trade and investment agreements. They cannot exclude their political and commercial interests with Myanmar.
Beijing’s political support and the veto-driven defense policy of the UN awarded Tatmadaw generals even more opportunities for carrying on their atrocities. America and Europe are not putting too much pressure on Myanmar for fear of losing profitable business deals. It seems that Bangladesh has committed a crime by sheltering the Rohingya, and the international community is trying to hold Bangladesh hostage in this situation.
Anis Alamgir is a journalist and columnist, famed for live reports from Iraq and Afghan wars. He can be reached at [email protected]