Following the election triumph in Myanmar of Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in 2015, the world, especially the Western world, went into overdrive heralding in the rebirth of democracy in this hitherto reclusive and military controlled country, a neighbour of Bangladesh. With the passage of less than two years, graphic evidence began to emerge of systematic ethnic cleansing that targeted the Muslim majority Rohingya community which showed that such celebrations were indeed far too premature. The long-standing intolerant character of this hard-line Buddhist majority society now manifested itself with a difference; it now had a civilian face. One cannot be blamed for believing, with hindsight, that Aung San Suu Kyi's prolonged struggle for democracy in the country that her father had helped create and for which she had suffered long periods of incarceration by the country's brutal military regime, and for which she was awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, was for democracy for the privileged Buddhist majority only; the rest did not matter. Today Aung San Suu Kyi can be rightfully accused of maligning the sanctity of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The fact that Suu Kyi agreed to participate in the 2015 elections under the strict limitations set by the country's military rulers should have signalled her intentions: she only wanted a position of privilege and prestige even if that came with her hands being shackled by military chains and her mouth being shut by every other means. Now with the latest episode of the jailing of two journalists for reporting on the state sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state, that includes rape, murder and arson, and their subsequent mass exodus to a generous Bangladesh, her reputation lies in tatters.
But does the undeserving awardee of the Nobel Peace Prize really care? To her one-time good friend former US Permanent Representative to the UN and former Governor of the State of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, she described the two journalists as “traitors”. This is the real Aung San Suu Kyi. She continues to relish the “position' and “privilege” bestowed on her by the military even though she is scared to face the global community, except outside her benefactors in her immediate neighbourhood. She could not gather the nerve to turn up at the United Nations General Assembly last year nor at the recently held Bimstec Summit gathering in Kathmandu for fear of being embarrassed. What a shame!
Her disturbing silence on the fate of the Rohingya community even before the elections of 2015 should have served as a warning that things will not change for this scorned, marginalised and persecuted lot. As the election day drew close, she was even quoted as saying that the issue is “being exaggerated” by the critics, meaning she would not even lift a finger for them. From her own narrow perspective, doing so would have seriously haemorrhaged her standing among the all-powerful military, the jingoistic Buddhist clergy and the intolerant Buddhist majority, and even among the hardliners in her own party. In the process, she became party to the final act of ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar Rohingya community and delivering on the long-held plans, first espoused by her father, that Burma, as it was called then, would primarily be for Buddhists only. The rest would either be “second class citizens” at best or stateless at worst. The shameful act of the Myanmar military authorities to photoshop a recent publication using images from the killing of Bengalis by the Pakistan military during the Bangladesh Liberation War, the heart wrenching refugee exodus from Rwanda in far off Africa and the escape by boat of Rohingyas to neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia is further evidence, if any such evidence is needed, of the execution of this Hitlerite plan.
In the face of strong criticism from the United Nations, especially its outspoken Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the strongly worded calls for action from the United States, the European Union, the UN Human Rights Commission and all international Human Rights groups, Suu Kyi goes on with life unfazed, her state of denial unaltered. She even had the nerve to publicly blame Bangladesh by name for the non-repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar—at a recent Asean meeting in Singapore quite recently.
Until now, Bangladesh has demonstrated patience in trying to deal with this issue. This even when recognising that the fallout from having to house such a large number of refugees from a foreign land has the potential of creating economic hardships, irreversible ecological damages, social disharmony and huge security risks for the country. The Bangladesh government's chosen course of actions has so far been limited to diplomatic efforts, both bilaterally and multilaterally. This might have earned us global sympathy and occasional praise. Sadly though, none of these have borne out the desired outcome. Myanmar, perhaps bolstered by support from some key regional and global powers, has remained steadfast and Suu Kyi's denial continues unabated. The Rohingyas, a whole community, continue to be victims of narrow geo-political and strategic interests of a few.
It's time now for Bangladesh to take a hard look at the whole issue and redraw her game plan. Time has now come for Bangladesh to up the ante, diplomatically, and use the tools that are at our disposal as leverage. For starters, Bangladesh should indicate clearly that she is not in a position to embark on any collaborative or cooperative venture that involves Myanmar as a partner, bilaterally or in any regional or sub-regional forum like BCIM or the Bimstec till Myanmar takes credible and verifiable steps to ensure the immediate, safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya refugees under UN supervision. Such a step could make other stakeholders take note and bolster actions by some western powers like targeted sanctions against known offenders in the Myanmar ruling establishment.
The old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” remains as valid today as it did when it was first uttered. It is now time for Bangladesh to talk and act tough. Nothing else would make any difference. If such moves put strains on our ties with Myanmar, so be it. As a nation, we wouldn't stand to lose.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.