As the Rohingya crisis enters its seventh month, chances of it ending in a peaceful manner are quickly evaporating. Even staunch believers in what the UN Secretary General António Guterres offered as a solution—“a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees to their areas of origin or choice”—are not so sure this will be the case in the end. In the past six months, things have gone from bad to worse. The Rohingyas continue to trickle into Bangladesh, haunted by their memories of violence, rape, torture, and forced starvation. According to the latest estimate, the number of Rohingyas now living in Bangladesh is 11,12,895, which is close to the population of Trinidad and Tobago combined.
As the Rohingyas grapple with the sheer irony of ongoing efforts for repatriation amidst continued influx of new batches of refugees, the question that is being asked in some quarters is: does Bangladesh really have a say in what is going on? Phrased differently, does Bangladesh stand a chance against a foe with such powerful friends?
The Nobel trio—Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland, and Tawakkol Karman from Yemen—came as beacons of hope who want us to believe that Bangladesh is not alone in this fight. After visiting refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, the trio looked visibly shaken. They addressed fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, as “our sister”—bringing a personal touch into a fight that found them at cross-purposes—before imploring her to “wake up” to the reality and stop the genocide. They also called for the prosecution of those responsible for it at the International Criminal Court.
Mairead Maguire, speaking to a packed audience in Dhaka on February 28, also shed light on the bigger picture. With so much hate and anger resulting in meaningless conflicts around, “is there any hope in the world today?” She praised Bangladesh for being an inspiration in this regard, opening its doors to the helpless Rohingyas and providing them with shelter, food and water.
The zeal and sincerity with which these great luminaries of global human rights activism are campaigning for the cause of Rohingyas are heartening to watch. In the coming days, with the number of press trips likely thinning and the international community finding more pressing issues to deal with, these are the voices we will need to keep the issue alive. Bangladesh has sought and obtained support from quite a number of countries, world leaders and powerful rights campaigners, but as developments on the ground show, their cumulative effect didn't amount to more than funds for the refugees which, while hugely important, do not help the end game. Myanmar continues to be in denial, and as emboldened as the first day when it launched its latest campaign. Which, again, begs the question: what can Bangladesh do in the face of such reckless hate and against a country backed by powerful regional players?
Mairead Maguire has a simple solution: one phone call from the right party can stop the massacre and create the right conditions for the return of refugees. But in all likelihood, the right parties aren't going to do that. Charles Santiago, chair, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), posits that “investment opportunities” that Myanmar today offers, thanks to easing of trade and other economic sanctions following the (marginal) reinstatement of democracy in the country, will make doing anything contrary to its interests very difficult.
“A lot of countries see Myanmar as an investment opportunity,” said Charles Santiago in an interview with Al Jazeera, adding “they do not want to rock the boat at the international level,” call the Myanmar army to account for their action, or even question or criticise Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result, apart from perfunctory lamentations and routine talks about military sanctions by some countries and blocs, there has been no real action in these six months. No one, not even Bangladesh, is talking about economic sanctions, which could play a key role in making Myanmar backpedal on its hate campaign. The country's deployment of troops on Thursday near the Bangladesh border is another indication of just how emboldened it has become.
On the contrary, Bangladesh, despite having a few geostrategic advantages of its own, has either failed to exploit them or those were simply dwarfed by the enormous trade and investment benefits that Myanmar is offering in exchange for silence regarding its activities. Either way, for Bangladesh, there are bigger things at stake here than the Rohingya issue. The country is involved with China, India, and Russia (viewed as key players in the Rohingya issue)—and even Myanmar, to some extent—in a number of ways including trade, security and infrastructure. Cutting ties or putting any kind of restriction on them to get more mileage in this particular issue is not an option for Bangladesh. What complicates the situation is that the revenues and privileges that Myanmar obtain from its trade relations and aid and other services from pro-democracy quarters eventually benefit its military. Even in democracy, Myanmar cannot be seen in isolation from its military apparatus.
As heart-wrenching as the Rohingya case may be, Bangladesh needs to understand that no one is going to hand it a solution on a silver platter. It needs to work for it and work double time considering the huge socioeconomic cost of having an extra million people on its soil. The priority, therefore, is to strengthen diplomatic ties while aggressively advancing its geopolitical interests through greater regional and international collaboration to make its voice heard, and its legitimate demands fulfilled. This, however, is not an easy task but as Maguire stressed, “militarism and paramilitarism do not work as a solution.” The lasting solution, she said, lies in dialogue, negotiation and cooperation.
Speaking of dialogue, even Bangladesh has some listening to do. The repatriation deal that the country signed with Myanmar on November 23, 2017 was reached without prior consultation with the Rohingya refugees, who have a right to engage in negotiations over their fate. As I pointed out in a column on January 1, “details [of the deal] remain vague on several key aspects such as the rights that would be granted to the Rohingyas, how their safety will be ensured in a country with raging anti-Muslim sentiment, and locations for resettlement. Also, what guarantee is there that there will not be another security crackdown or forced exodus to Bangladesh next year, or the year after?” Anything that happens to these people after repatriation will be on Bangladesh's conscience. Bangladesh still has time to consider rescinding this deal in favour of a more inclusive solution with greater international involvement.
One thing is clear, this deal is not a response to Myanmar's policy of making Rakhine uninhabitable for the Rohingya community, which has been identified as the central motive behind its decades-long anti-Rohingya campaign. We need to work on that for our own benefit, rather than expecting a miraculous solution.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.