The Rakhine State of Myanmar was historically the Arakan Kingdom, a prosperous state spanning western Burma to parts of the Chattogram Division. The Arakan Court is famously known for patronising the most prominent 17th-century Bengali poet, Syed Alaol (c. 1607-1673), well-known for his masterpiece, Padmavati, a translation of a Hindi epic poem Padmavat by Malik Mohammad Jayasi.
Arakan was conquered by the Burmese Konbaung dynasty in 1784, then ceded to the British as war reparation in 1826 after the first Anglo-Burmese war. When the British annexed all of Burma in 1886, the Arakan province became part of the Province of Burma under British India. Burma, including Arakan, also known as the Rakhine province, was split off from British India in 1937. After 1948, Rakhine became part of the newly independent state of Burma.
During the Second Word War, Muslims known as the Rohingya, inhabiting Northern Rakhine, fought the Japanese on the promise of autonomy by the beleaguered British colonial rulers. Others, mostly Buddhists, supported the Japanese. At the end of colonial rule in 1948, Myanmarisation, or a push for a majoritarian nationalism, despite the existence of some 130 ethnic minority groups in the country, led to a civil war in parts of the country.
In 1973, the military rulers led by General Ne Win declared Arakan as the homeland of the Rakhine people. However, the new dispensation did not recognise the Rohingyas, the majority in Northern Rakhine, as a distinct ethnic community. The 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar barred Rohingyas from citizenship. The Muslim Rohingyas were seen, defying history and geography, as intruders from Bengal, and even the label “Rohingya” was banned from the official lexicon.
The authoritarian military rulers looked for legitimacy in people’s eye by stoking emotions based on religious-linguistic-ethnic jingoism. This naked populism planted and nurtured the seeds of xenophobia and hate that flourished on a fertile ground.
The leaders of the democratic struggle against the oligopoly of the armed forces, including “the democracy icon” Aung San Suu-Kyi, in their political calculation, found it profitable to cast the Rohingya people as the enemy. A potent element in the brew is the economic and geo-political interests of both China and India which supersede human rights and humanitarian considerations.
China is now Myanmar’s largest investor as well as its biggest trade partner. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes plans for huge investments in deep sea harbour, road and rail link and export zone along the Rakhine coast of the Indian Ocean.
India has a common border with Myanmar in India’s sensitive north-east region. It is a contender for economic and political ties with Myanmar. This explains the hands-off stance of the two powerful neighbours of Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue and their failure to put any effective pressure on Myanmar.
The Myanmar authorities have been successful in pursuing an ethnic-cleansing project over the last three decades. It has driven out most of the estimated three million Rohingyas. Only about 10 percent—around three hundred thousand—still remain in Rakhine. Persecuted, thrown out of their homes and devoid of normal livelihood, they live in internment or prison-like conditions.
Diplomacy has failed to persuade or put enough pressure on Myanmar to budge from its denial of citizenship rights to Rohingyas and create the conditions for their return.
Initiatives have been taken to bring the complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICJ can hold states liable for their action, but has no means of enforcing its verdict. The ICC may pass judgement against individuals for crimes against humanity, but it is a long-drawn-out process, and again enforcement would be difficult without Myanmar’s compliance.
Aung San Suu-Kyi herself is reported to be planning to take the lead in the defence team at the ICJ case. She apparently intends to double down on justifying the case for ethnic cleansing.
The efforts in diplomacy, legal steps and mobilising international support must continue. But all indications are that Myanmar has no intention to restore conditions that would allow the Rohingyas to return to their homeland. Bangladesh is in the Rohingya quandary for the long haul.
One important issue facing the Rohingyas in Bangladesh is the future of their children. Fifty-five percent of the camp residents are children under 18. As children, they are claimants to specific rights of safety, protection, wellbeing and education under international treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
How are the children in the camps doing in respect of education services? According to the New Humanitarian, which tracks and reports on the situation of refugees: “Aid groups have set up more than 2,000 ‘learning centres’ for children (aged) 14 and younger, but instruction in these classrooms has mostly been limited to playtime, or basic reading and numeracy.” (November 12, 2019). And even these classes do not reach a third of the roughly 416,000 school-age Rohingyas, according to Unicef, which coordinates the camps’ education services with other aid-providers.
For Bangladesh government’s policy response, the lead has been taken by the foreign ministry officials concerned with political and security imperatives, rather than those with knowledge of children’s education rights and needs. Instead of a systematic education programme spanning pre-primary to secondary, only an “informal” education programme has been permitted to be run by aid agencies.
Anxious parents and educated people among the refugees, including teachers, have tried to fill the gap by opening their own “unofficial” schools in the tents where they live. The teachers include some who have Bachelor of Education degrees and were high-school headmasters and teachers in Myanmar.
The schools teach subjects like English, Burmese, mathematics, and history. Some teach science and social science subjects to older students. The teachers say, they try to follow the Myanmar curriculum in the hope of helping students keep up with schooling back home.
But only about 10,000 children are beneficiaries of the makeshift schools, according to the New Humanitarian report, out of many times more who could benefit. These receive no support or encouragement from the authorities and aid agencies are not permitted to assist the Rohingya volunteer teachers.
Rohingya parents who spoke with the New Humanitarian noted the contrast between the authorised NGO learning centres and the refugee-run classrooms. They would rather send their children to proper schools where the children would be taught the subjects taught in a school.
Alice Albright, Executive Director of the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral education fund provider, visited the Rohingya camps in September. In a meeting with the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education on September 12, she praised the humanitarian response of Bangladesh government and the host communities. She also warned about “a lost generation of children without education opportunities, without hope, and without a pathway to the future.”
It is difficult to understand how proper education opportunities for the Rohingya children can be an obstacle to whatever geo-political resolution that may be struck eventually. Proper education is the least that can be done for the children traumatised and deprived of their basic rights. It would enhance Bangladesh’s image as a humane nation. The children of the host communities who are paying a high price due to the refugee crisis should also benefit from the education services for children.
Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at Brac University.