The reactions of some of our "very close" friends since the outbreak of the most recent Rohingya crisis have compelled me to ask myself as to where all our good friends have gone. Hardly have we faced such a crisis situation encompassing the bilateral as well as the international domain. And hardly have we been left so high and dry by those whom we thought we could count on during a crisis such as this. While our diplomatic capacity has been put to the extreme test, and we could have fared better in this regard, our capability to deal with a humanitarian catastrophe of a magnitude never experienced in the past, is being severely stretched.
It is time to ponder deeply on the long-term implications of the Rohingya issue. It is not merely a question of more than half a million refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh. The recent influx of a huge number of refugees from Myanmar and the enormous socio-economic problems they pose should not blind us to the other associated fallout of the issue; the eventual political profile and the likely security tenor of the region cannot be lost on our foreign policy planners, if there is any such group, and the foreign office mandarins.
An ethnic minority—more than seventy-five percent of them—has been uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to flee Myanmar to Bangladesh. For Myanmar it is the final solution as far as the Rohingyas are concerned. About that we should never have been in doubt, more so after the exodus from Rakhine in 2012. The question is: how long can Bangladesh host these people without suffering the inevitable consequences? The essential point that international public opinion, particularly the regional countries, must be made aware of is, should the military junta presiding over a sham democracy be allowed to get away with what has been recognised by the UN as ethnic cleansing? The Rohingya issue has the recipe for increased discord within that country and outside it, which will be exploited by groups with ulterior motives. And this is why we must employ all our diplomatic efforts to persuade Myanmar to take its people back and create conditions to ensure the safety and security of the Rohingyas.
The Rohingya issue is a shocking reminder that there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. And all the three of our good friends—Russia, China and India—have acted on their own national interests. The blood of the Rohingyas has little to do in shaping their policy when juxtaposed to the strategic and economic benefits of supporting Myanmar on this question.
Since the commencement of the recent violence on the Rohingyas, Suu Kyi and her government have been dispensing one lie after another. And it was a continuation of that in her shamefaced brazen speech on Tuesday. She wants the world to believe that she does not know what is causing the Rohingyas (she prefers to call them Muslims, although a large number of Hindu Rohingya families have been made victims of the state persecution) to leave the country, and needs more time to find out the “real causes”.
Although the speech has drawn, justifiably, the criticism it deserves from around the world, three of Myanmar's staunch supporters have demonstrated approbation of Suu Kyi's narrative through their comments on her speech. When after all the killings and the violence perpetrated on the Rohingyas India feels “encouraged” by her speech and China reiterates its support for the Myanmar government's action in Rakhine, and Russia doesn't find any “evidence to justify” the accusation of ethnic cleansing, it is geopolitical and economic expediency that is talking, not principles of justice or human rights.
It is also time for us to ponder why a state that has been until recently a pariah has succeeded in garnering support for its genocidal acts from the most important international and regional powers. Why is it that the military leaders of this pariah state have been given red carpet treatment in major capitals of the West, and Suu Kyi, warmly welcomed at Buckingham Palace and the White House, while they were presiding over the persecution of an ethnic minority? Perhaps the one word answer to this is realpolitik. All ideological and moral considerations have been completely cast aside for the sake of their own national interests.
Given that we are virtually isolated on this issue, a robust diplomatic offensive must be launched, but we see no sign of it. We understand that an Awami League delegation will be in Beijing shortly to meet CPC leaders in Beijing. But one would much like to see government delegations also visit the capitals of some of the countries that can have influence on the Myanmar regime. We need to drive home to the Russians that what is happening in Myanmar is not its "internal affair", as opposed to what the Russians think it is. After all, a situation that forces nearly half a million of its people to seek shelter across the border cannot be an “internal affair” of a country. China must be made to realise that their short-sighted support for Myanmar for economic considerations alone will only create a fertile ground for extremists to exploit, and that would not leave China's sensitive regions unaffected. And India must be persuaded to understand that blowing hot and cold in the same breath only compounds problems. While it has merely voiced concerns “over violence resulting in the outflow of a large number of people from that state”, its use of the “extremist” card as a handy tool to prepare grounds for expelling the Rohingyas from its territory has very serious implications for Bangladesh. Expel them to which country we ask?
And Bangladesh, for one, must realise that realpolitik is still as relevant today as it was when first enunciated in the 1520s. That to use your strategic leverage is not only pragmatic, not doing so is foolish. That asking for a just price from your neighbours for their use of your resources is not only not uncivil but a practical proposition too. Regrettably, the policy of friendship towards all does not necessarily beget the same reciprocity. And it is only in times of your need that you discover who your real friends are, as we have done to our great shock this time.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.