It is undeniable that the Rohingya problem imposes a huge security burden on Bangladesh. The international community is unable to realise the fact that we are sheltering a population of the size of three electoral constituencies, and that in real-estate terms means two or three upazilas. The sheer magnitude of it is incomprehensible. But not only that, more than half of the refugees are children suffering from severe malnutrition.
In fact, security was the reason why Bangladesh was extremely cautious about allowing refuge to the Rohingyas when they faced persecution, although not of the same scale, in 2012. And many of them were forced back, as was attempted unsuccessfully this time too. It would not be misplaced to take issue with those who tend to think that the Rohingya problem is a border issue that has graduated to a humanitarian issue eventually and might become a security issue in the long run. The magnitude of the problem and its true character must be grasped. It was never a border issue and was always a security and humanitarian issue.
And we had commented in this very column in 2012 to the effect that one had perhaps not heard in the past our foreign minister being more forceful on any other bilateral issue, involving our security and national interest, than when vehemently refusing to allow the Rohingyas refuge in Bangladesh. But the question is, what kind of security are we talking about?
The Rohingya issue was never a border problem; it was most certainly a humanitarian issue with severe security ramifications. But did we really think seriously about security in dealing with Myanmar on this problem in the last decade in particular? While it was the primary concern of ours to see that the Rohingya refugees were repatriated in toto to their own country, we did not project the matter strongly enough internationally to persuade the military in Myanmar to accord the Rohingyas the right that was theirs – jus soli – the right of the soil. It is not a fact that these people had moved into a new country. They were citizens of a country, the territory of which had been appropriated by Myanmar. It was not the people of Arakan that had moved in large numbers from one 'country' to another; it was its border that had moved over three centuries towards the east. So how can they not be citizens of a country the Rohingyas and their forefathers were born in?
And while we were satisfied that some of the refugees had gone back, we should have alerted the world to the impending catastrophe and what that might mean for Bangladesh. But the more sceptical amongst us might question the efficacy of such an effort given that the UN has itself bottled two contemporary reports on the Rohingyas. Its attitude is fairly representative of the attitude of the international community on this matter in the past. One of the reasons for according red-carpet treatment to Myanmar leadership, while the Rohingyas were being persecuted, was that the West did not want to step on the toes of its favourite girl. The ostensible reason was that she was the window of opportunity for the democratisation of Myanmar. The real reason was more parochially strategic and economic. So, for Bangladesh, it might have been a difficult venture to make the world see through the ultimate objective the Myanmar military had set itself—of denuding Rakhine of the Rohingyas, but nonetheless worth a try. Nothing palpable was done.
Again, in this very column, we had also written that we would go wrong if we acted on the premise that the Rohingya was Myanmar's problem alone, and it is exactly because we are its neighbour that our stake is so much higher. What happens in Myanmar impacts our security and we should be more concerned to see that the situation is not exacerbated. And that is exactly what we did not do. The consequences are there for the world to see and for Bangladesh to suffer.
Regrettably, the role of the international organisations and the global community should have been more forceful. One had hoped that these organisations would be more vocal and brought to bear more pressure on the Myanmar government to address the root cause of the problem.
But we would go wrong again if we bought the story which Myanmar military is selling to the world. That the Rohingyas are a bunch of terrorists, and it is the terrorists that they are after. The hoax of ARSA attack on the military camps has been exposed by a UN report that suggests that the preparation of military operation in Rakhine predates the so-called ARSA attacks on August 25.
Yes, the Rohingya issue can and will become a security threat. Some countries still wrongly consider the matter to be an internal affair of Myanmar and would like to leave it to resolve the problem. The logic, given the ground reality, is mindboggling. Is it wise to expect the final denouement of a problem to be peaceful, just and equitable when the main stakeholder – the Myanmar government – is the cause of the problem?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.