The two days of talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar commenced yesterday, whose outcome was not known till going to press. However, while the current talks revolve only around repatriation of Rohingyas, the wider aspect of the issue is being overlooked. Thus in the face of continuous resistance by some countries, and the collective international efforts to secure the return of the Rohingya refugees blocked, the Chinese offer to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and its three-stage plan for a permanent resolution of the problem, is a welcome development.
China had successfully engaged itself in mediation between the two countries in the past. We recall the unwarranted friction that developed between the two neighbours several years ago related to the presence of Burmese oil rigs in Bangladeshi waters in the Bay of Bengal. If the situation was defused, it was partly due to the role played by China.
Therefore, China's call for a long-term solution to the Rohingya crisis, and to resolve the issue of more than a million Rohingya currently in Bangladesh, consequent upon the state-sponsored violence on them by the Myanmar military, is an effort by a friendly country to see the end to the crisis and return of peace in Rakhine. The Chinese offer to act as a facilitator was followed a couple of days later by its three-point proposal at the ASEM meeting where China has suggested three definitive actions as preconditions for an end to the problem.
So far there has been no official reaction to the offer; perhaps the several points we will highlight below might explain why that is so.
To begin with, a simple question that emerges is, given China's fundamental stance on the Rohingya issue, how much will its effort to act as go-between prove effective? One might question China's credentials as an honest broker given Beijing's consistent support to Myanmar on the Rohingya question, not only this time but also in the past, when all efforts by the UN to come to a consensus resolution on Rohingyas were nipped by Chinese objection. This, we are constrained to suggest, has accorded a sense of impunity to the Myanmar military. China's position has, in effect, encouraged the genocidal attack on the Rohingyas if not endorsed it.
The second point is China's emphasis on the bilateral approach, insisting on the fact that negotiations should be between the two countries only. And this is what begs the question: What is there to negotiate?
The matter is crystal clear. A million people of a persecuted minority group of Myanmar have sought shelter in our land, and they must be taken back. There is nothing to negotiate, no give and take. So far it has been our lot to take, and now it is Myanmar's obligation to take back. The problem has been caused by one country and the solution is in its hand alone. Bangladesh has been the unfortunate sufferer. However, it would be nice if our Chinese friends told us what the points they think that should be the fare for the negotiating table are. On the other hand, the obvious fact is being overlooked. It is our belief that if there are two parties to the problem it is the government of Myanmar and the Rohingyas of Rakhine State. And it would be more apt if the Chinese were to focus on that and facilitate Naypyidaw and the Rohingyas to arrive at a long-term solution.
The “bilateral” focus is a Myanmar trap, and any endorsement of the idea is like throwing Myanmar a line to get a reprieve from the tremendous international pressure that it is facing. Bangladesh is very sceptical about this approach because bilateral understandings have been very transient. The international community must be involved in whatever negotiation and understanding eventuate from the ongoing discussions. Any future agreement must not only involve the return of the Rohingya refugees, commitment to a permanent solution must be made by Myanmar, the framework for which already exists in the form of the Annan Commission recommendations, those being the outcome of an exercise done at the behest of the government of Myanmar. Anything less than an international commitment from Myanmar gives it the opportunity to give everyone the slip.
The three-point approach of China—cease-fire, repatriation, long-term solution—is a restatement of what Bangladesh has been calling on the Myanmar government to address for the last three decades. Each of the conditions stated therein is for Myanmar and Myanmar alone to fulfil. For example, the ceasefire; there is only one party that has done, and is doing, all the firing. And it is that party—Myanmar—that China should put pressure on to stop. The excuse of a coordinated insurgent attack on Myanmar security forces was a fig leaf to hide the barbarity that was to befall the Rohingyas. A bottled report of the UN that was eventually published had established that fact. And it is for Myanmar not to put conditions in the way of repatriation of the refugees, which it has tried even this time too. The fundamental reason for the crisis is Myanmar's own creation. The Rohingyas must be given back their rights including their citizenship.
Regrettably, strong language has not stopped the killings. That apartheid can and does exist in the 21st century would be unbelievable unless one saw the recent media reports on the Rohingyas in Rakhine. Their condition is worse than the people in the ghettoes of Soweto. More tangible actions must be initiated immediately by the international community. Myanmar must be prevailed upon to create conditions for not only the safe return of the Rohingyas but also their safe existence there, and the Myanmar military must be held to account for carrying out a genocide. As of now what faces the returning Rohingyas is at best ghettoisation and at worst death.
The world must not allow that to happen. And our common friends, who would really want to see these conditions created, must prevail upon Myanmar to create these conditions. Bangladesh cannot and shall not be made a party to the resolution and permanent solution to the problem. The ball is in Myanmar's court and one must not resort to subterfuge to pass it on to Bangladesh.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.