Redrawing Rohingya Strategy
Within a week of the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that provisionally recognised the group identity of the Rohingya and the unremitting persecution that the community has endured over decades, Bangladesh government announced that it will grant access to education to the Rohingya children. The decision has been enthusiastically welcomed by the refugee community as well as rights groups at home and abroad. Under the scheme, Rohingya refugee children up to the age of 14 will receive education following the Burmese curriculum, and children above that age will get skills training. Announcing the plan, the newly appointed foreign secretary of Bangladesh noted that "the government has felt the need to keep Rohingya children's hope for the future alive with extending education and skills training to them."
Long before the August 2017 influx, the government had for years stood by its decision to not allow refugee children access to education, presumably on grounds that it would create opportunities for the refugees to permanently settle in Bangladesh and may also work as an incentive for those still living in Arakan to cross the border. The recent decision is of major significance for the lives of tens of thousands of refugee children. Access to education will not only help them realise their innate potential, it will also empower them to make a distinction between right and wrong and thereby protect them from the machinations of promoters of violent extremism (something that the government and the international community are pretty concerned about) and human trafficking. Education will help the refugees to pursue livelihood opportunities upon their eventual return to Burma and also in cases of third-county settlement. The policy change is also in sync with the government's obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that affirms that every child has a right to education.
There is little doubt that effective implementation of the policy will entail, among others, mobilisation of a huge amount of resources, developing comprehensive curricula and infrastructure, identifying and securing the services of qualified teachers, and careful balancing of the educational needs of the children of the host community with those of the refugee children. No less important will be maintaining the quality of education and having the curricula accredited by the appropriate authority. This bold decision of the Bangladesh government demands an active engagement of the international community in sharing the responsibility of educating all children in the affected areas.
In an otherwise hostile global environment for the refugees, Bangladesh's granting of sanctuary to the persecuted Rohingya and rendering various kinds of assistance to them, albeit with international support, have earned it a towering moral standing. The ICJ ruling vindicated the correctness of Bangladesh's position. It is now incumbent on the world community, particularly the powerful states, to live up to their obligations and shore up efforts to bring about an end to the genocidal practices of the Burmese state against the Rohingya and help create an enabling environment in Arakan for them to return with safety and dignity as bonafide citizens of Burma. It is also the time for Rohingya strategists in Bangladesh to reflect on policies that need to be amended or framed in light of the emergent reality.
One of the first issues to address is recognise the group as "refugees". By all calculations, the Rohingya in Bangladesh fulfil the criteria to be termed refugees. They fled their country of origin (Burma) due to well-founded fears of persecution, are unable to get the protection of that county, and owing to fears, are unwilling to return. By all counts, like their preceding cohorts of 1978 and 1991-92 who came to Bangladesh and were granted refugee status, this group also qualifies as refugees. But so far, for reasons not explained, the concerned authorities of Bangladesh chose not to grant the same status to this group that endured severe conditions fleeing mass atrocity crimes including killing, rape, maiming and arson. For reasons still unknown, Bangladesh government preferred to call them "forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals", a slightly improved version from the initial tag of "illegal intruders".
The term "forcibly displaced" undermines the gravity of the crimes that this group has been subjected to. Refugees are people who flee persecution or war. They are seeking asylum somewhere outside of their home country because returning home is too dangerous. Quite unlike the "forcibly displaced", refugees enjoy specific protections under international law, including that they should not be sent back to their home country. Under the principle of burden sharing, the international community is obligated to ensure protection of the refugees. Surely, all members of the Rohingya community meet the above conditions and thus are eligible to be recognised as such. If the decision not to term the Rohingya "refugees" was taken to placate the Burmese authorities with the underlying hope that Naypyidaw would soon create conditions for their return, then time has come to revise the decision, acknowledge the sufferings of these people (which received due recognition at the highest court of the world) and term them "refugees".
No one disputes that dealing with neighbours, particularly recalcitrant ones, is a difficult task. Over decades, on the vexing Rohingya issue, Bangladesh has been extremely tolerant and flexible in engaging with its eastern neighbour. It tried to address the return of a "residual caseload" of 25,000-35,000 registered refugees from the 1991-92 influx through bilateral discussions with little progress. Out of deference to the Burmese, it did not alert the international community to the steady inflow of refugees in small bands or large groups fleeing persecution and violence in Arakan state since 1992 until August 24, 2017 (that eventually numbered about 300,000)—considering that it would complicate the ongoing repatriation talks over the "residual caseload" and cast negatively on bilateral trade and connectivity initiatives. Respecting the Burmese desire for years (quite erroneously, one would argue), Bangladesh even refrained from terming the community "Rohingya", denying the group its rightful claim to identity (which was unequivocally reaffirmed in the ICJ ruling), and till this day continues to brand the refugees as "forcibly displaced" people. Even after experiencing the huge flow of refugees after August 25, 2017, instead of viewing the Burmese policy in Arakan as genocide—the mother of all crimes (as the ICJ has provisionally deemed)—Bangladesh appeared to have been on board with the Burmese who presented the Rohingya issue "essentially as a border, law and order and human mobility question."
Notwithstanding all the above efforts of Bangladesh, instead of positively responding to the good neighbourly gestures, the Burmese state deemed those as weaknesses and persisted with its genocidal agenda, discreetly banishing the Rohingya from Arakan, freeing up the land for a plethora of mega-development projects, being aided and abetted by its international partners including those who sit and aspire to sit as permanent members in the Security Council. In the final week of August 2017, the regime went for the "final solution" by unleashing a reign of terror on unarmed Rohingyas. The scale of barbarity of the operation and the subsequent hypocrisy of the Burmese state in stalling the bilateral repatriation plan over the last two years are well-known.
Such a backdrop provides the rationale for Bangladesh to review its Rohingya strategy. The Burmese reaction to the ICJ ruling gives an indication that the country is yet to acknowledge the crimes it has committed against the Rohingya and is in no disposition to create an enabling condition for the refugees to return. The hope that has been raised by the ICJ ruling, and the opportunity it has created for ensuring justice and making the Burmese state accountable, should be harnessed to its fullest extent. The condition demands that Bangladesh takes a firm stand against its rogue neighbour and actively engages with the ICJ process. Whether the country should file a separate case in the ICJ or be a party or act as intervener in the existing case is a matter of further debate and consideration.
In the current world of brazen realpolitik, The Gambia, a small nation in a far-away land, totally unaffected by the Rohingya genocide, has played a formidable role for ensuring justice for the voiceless Rohingya victims and survivors. However, jurist John Packer has directed our attention to a major weakness of the case—that it entirely rests on that small, weak country, which may shy away from its current stance under unforeseen circumstances (such as a change in government). The situation demands that others (of the 150-odd countries that are party to the Genocide Convention) file either separate cases or become parties to the existing case to bolster the process of justice and accountability. The ICJ ruling should induce at least a few more states, particularly those who champion world peace and human rights, and also those who advocate the cause of Islamic Umma, to live up to their commitment and uphold the lofty principles. Here again, Bangladesh, as the most injured third party, can play a decisive role in banding together a coalition of the willing.
On the Rohingya question, so far Bangladesh has been unable to secure any tangible support from the much-celebrated friendly states. Time has come for the political leaders of Bangladesh to convey its people's extreme disappointment and displeasure to the concerned states for backing the wrong side on this critical issue. Bangladesh's expectation that henceforth those states would pursue an objective and balanced Rohingya policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh and Burma should be clearly communicated.
At a time when hopes for justice and accountability for the Rohingya were fading and frustration was creeping in among those who cherish right over wrong, fairness over injustice, the ICJ ruling has opened up a new vista of optimism. It has created a big opportunity for Bangladesh, a country that has garnered a colossal moral capital. Time has come to make a wise investment of that capital and play a proactive role in addressing the Rohingya genocide. Rohingya strategists in Bangladesh may also be well-advised to refrain from taking any step internally that may undermine this elevated standing.
C R Abrar is an academic and rights worker.