Will the Rohingyas ever return to Myanmar?
Since the massive exodus of Rohingyas from Rakhine to Bangladesh in 2017, a lot has been written and said about the plight of these unfortunate people. After nearly two years, it appears that the outraged world community has forgotten about this persecuted ethnic minority.
Regarding the repatriation process of Rohingyas, Myanmar has been stalling continuously. Given the fact that majority of Rohingyas are Muslims, whose language is related to Chittagonian and who share similar physical features with Bengalis, with time these people will eventually be assimilated into the local Bangladeshi population. It appears that both Aung San Suu Kyi and her Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing are in a cosy situation now that this ethnic community has been driven out of Myanmar. For them, there is practically no scope for these people to return to Rakhine.
Understandably, the diplomatic démarche that Myanmar has undertaken to thwart the return of Rohingyas is quite well-known. The three big countries that have given support to Myanmar against repatriation of Rohingyas have two arguments: religious antagonism and that Rohingyas are a part of overpopulated Bangladesh. Sandwiched between Hindu-majority India and Buddhist-majority Myanmar, Muslim-majority Bangladesh is in an unenviable situation as far as its population is concerned. Both India and Myanmar look upon Muslims of Bangladesh with great deal of suspicion.
BJP is well-known for its anti-Muslim stance, especially its policies since it came to power in Delhi. Delhi's antipathy towards Rohingya Muslims was more than evident when it threatened to drive out 40,000 Rohingya refugees who took refuge in India, provoking sharp criticism from the United Nations. India has invested heavily in developing the coastal belts around Sittwe to gain access to the northeastern states of India. Furthermore, having a foothold in Rakhine will give India sway over the southern Bay of Bengal. The other aspect that Delhi openly believes is that Muslim-majority Bangladesh is bursting along the seams with its rapidly growing population. The statements coming from Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat in 2018 and top BJP leaders are not political rhetoric—rather they clearly expose Delhi's worries over overpopulated Bangladesh.
Having served in Bangladesh missions in Yangon and Delhi, I have often come across government officials and journalists inquiring about the population growth of Bangladesh. The underlying point was that Bangladeshis were spilling across the borders into neighbouring India and Myanmar.
Contiguous neighbour China has high stakes in Myanmar and has blocked UN resolutions against Myanmar. China not only has growing business and military ties but has also invested enormously in Rakhine state as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Here, like India, China wants access to the Indian Ocean through Rakhine and the Bay of Bengal. It is well-known that Beijing is at odds with its Uyghurs Muslims and it is clear that China has consciously overlooked the state-sponsored crimes against the Rohingya Muslims by Naypyidaw. Then again, Myanmar's narrative that inhabitants of overpopulated Bangladesh have spilled across the borders into Myanmar has caught the attention of Chinese diplomats.
Strangely though, while China and India are competing for strategic influence over Myanmar, both Beijing and Delhi are on the same page over the Rohingya issue.
Russia is also having difficulties with Muslim-majority Commonwealth of Independent States. Moscow has no love lost for Muslims and probably sees the Rohingya Muslims as a source of trouble in Rakhine. Besides, Myanmar's military procurements from Russia have no doubt played an important role in Moscow supporting Naypyidaw against Dhaka.
The recent rise of Arakan Army in volatile Rakhine has added a new dimension to the instability in the state. The Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) has suffered serious losses when this unknown insurgent group attacked several Tatmadaw outposts since January 2019. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Arakan Army are cooperating with each other to fight the Tatmadaw.
On the Bangladesh side, there are some disquieting developments. Living in relatively safe conditions in Bangladesh, the Rohingyas are unwilling to return to Rakhine, where the situation is completely insecure. Then again, many international NGOs working to provide succour oppose their return to Myanmar. The longer these refugees are in Bangladesh, the better it is for some of these NGOs. There are allegations that INGOs are engaged in profitable businesses doing little for the Rohingyas. Bulk of the available funds are being spent for the comfort and travel of NGO functionaries.
But the most disturbing development has been the decision of Bangladesh government to relocate some 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char. This is evidently very good news for Naypyidaw. Aung San Suu Kyi and General Hlaing will take it as victory—that Bangladesh has accepted the Rohingyas as part of its population.
Rohingya refugees herded in Teknaf area have been trying to break out of the camps to either get out of Bangladesh or to get assimilated into the Bangladeshi population. There are reports of police arresting Rohingyas at Bangladeshi airports and from boats in the Bay of Bengal. Having nothing much to do, these refugees are increasingly getting involved in all kinds of criminal activities—drug smuggling, women trafficking and, above all, becoming susceptible to radicalisation.
Myanmar has actually launched a non-military aggression against Bangladesh to destabilise the country socially, economically, environmentally and politically. The only way this aggression can be tackled is to get stringent UN Security Council sanctions against
Myanmar. For that to happen, Bangladesh will have to get all the five permanent members of the Security Council on its side. But China and Russia have repeatedly blocked any statement from the UN Security Council. Fourth Joint Working Group meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar was held in Naypyidaw on May 3, 2019, but no concrete movement on repatriation was seen.
Procrastinating on the Rohingya problem is favouring Myanmar. Clearly, Bangladesh is caught up in a complicated geo-political game involving big powers and is doomed to host the Rohingya refugees indefinitely.
Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government.