In handling the Rohingya crisis, it is time Bangladesh prepared for the long haul
In the wee hours of February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military -- the Tatmadaw -- declared a one-year state of emergency and arrested democratically elected leaders of the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), including Myanmar’s former de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, thereby putting a nail on the coffin of Myanmar’s fledgling democracy.
The commander-in-chief of defense services, Min Aung Hlaing, notable for engineering Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population that led to its largest influx into Bangladesh in 2017, launched a vicious military crackdown on anti-coup protesters, leaving more than 700 dead thus far.
Myanmar’s façade of democracy has been removed, exposing the dark underbelly of its military’s atrocities. Now that the architects of the Rohingya genocide have taken the reins of the country, any hope of repatriation of the 1.1 million refugees is more or less dashed.
In Myanmar, military regimes and their political proxies have historically ruled, on the back of the Rohingya, in alliance with the extremist elements of the country’s majority Buddhist population.
Although General Min Aung Hlaing spoke favourably of repatriation in early February, it is likely that his military regime merely wants to avoid further sanctions from the US and the EU.
In Myanmar, the military is on its last legs, having lost to the NLD in the last four of the five elections; the brutal crackdown on the anti-coup protesters is a clear manifestation of its desperation as well as defiance. Repatriating the Rohingya would be the last thing this regime would like to do, lest it further irk the country’s Buddhist majority, not least because it is also the very architect of this humanitarian crisis.
Moreover, repatriation itself is not the be-all-end-all. Aside from humanitarian attention, the “Rohingya problem” largely requires a political solution, followed by country-wide reconciliation. Without reforming the 1984 Citizenship Law, which rendered the Rohingya stateless, the repatriation process is unlikely to succeed as there is no incentive to stop the refugee exodus.
Admittedly, Bangladesh lacks the political and diplomatic leverage to compel Myanmar or the global powers to meaningfully address the crisis. This was evident when the ICJ ruled in 2020 that emergency measures should be taken against the Myanmar military; but after a closed door meeting, the UN Security Council decided against taking action under Article 94 (2).
Thousands of Rohingya children are growing up with little to no access to education. Both governments refuse to allow their curriculum to be used in the camps, where livelihood opportunities are also extremely slim. Movement restrictions and police surveillance have further turned the camps into prison cells.
If the government curbs its restrictions on mobility and trade activities, self-reliance of the Rohingya can in fact have a positive impact on the local population’s economic agency, as seen in other parts of the global South.
While the government fears that local integration of the refugees will enrage the host community, the Rohingya have been quietly integrating into Cox’s Bazar since the 1990s. Because such integration was not government-facilitated, it fuelled more resentment among the local population. Bangladesh ought not to repeat the same mistake.
Since the adoption of the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the Rohingya crisis has severely tested the offerings of the UN Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). And a common finding is that the GCR is pre-occupied with funding whereas the problem facing Bangladesh also requires technical expertise, political mobilization, third country resettlement, and other solutions. If Bangladesh chooses to engage in multi-year planning, government officials need to urge their global partners to move beyond the financial concerns.
If Dhaka plans to modify its “care and maintenance” approach towards the Rohingya, it needs to curb restrictions on the activities of donors and humanitarian partners in exchange for an assurance that they will continue to hold the Myanmar government accountable and shed light on the regional characteristic of the crisis that can potentially destabilize South Asia.
Since all eyes are currently on Myanmar, diplomatic efforts to shed light on the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya could help further isolate the regime in the global arena and enjoy some strategic support in the multi-ethnic country as well.
Bangladesh government’s current policy reveals a glaring contradiction in its logic. Despite being fully aware that the crisis will not be resolved in the near future, the policy-makers continue to plan for near-term repatriation.
In light of the impracticality of Dhaka’s year-to-year plan with a focus on repatriation to the exclusion of all else, it is time the policy-makers undertook a multi-year action plan, which would effectively mobilize government capabilities and donor funding, in a bid to cushion the inevitable long-term impact of the refugee population on the host community, elevate the living standard of the persecuted Rohingya, and generate collective political will by taking the full advantage of Myanmar’s recent internal political turmoil and the international goodwill currently at the host government’s disposal.
Nisath Salsabil Rob works at Showtime Desk, Dhaka Tribune.