The Rohingya crisis has been tough on Bangladesh. First, because of the sheer scale of the influx from Myanmar and its continuity and second because Bangladesh has had to witness them from up close which always makes it more difficult.
The only exceptions to this must be those who commit such atrocities themselves, en masse, as factions within Myanmar are alleged to have done as pointed out by the UN, US, UK, France and a number of human rights organisations among countless others. Which is why sceptics find it so hard to believe that those making the decisions in Myanmar have, or are willing to, act in good faith with Bangladesh in regards to repatriating and ending the violence against its minorities, which has harmed Bangladesh's interest in many ways, while rendering homeless more than 600,000 men, women and children now living, if it could be called that, in makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
Another reason why this crisis has been so hard on Bangladesh is the lack of substantive support it has received from many of its close partners, particularly India and China, the two most influential in the region. Although even then, one cannot help but admit that this lack of support, to some extent, is of Bangladesh's own making, as its inadequacies and weaknesses over the years have left it with very little diplomatic leverage.
Nevertheless, the most positive recent development in regards to this crisis has been China's proposed peace plan, which both Bangladesh and Myanmar have formally agreed to. The first phase of this plan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “is to effect a ceasefire on the ground, to return to stability and order, so the people can enjoy peace and no longer be forced to flee.” The second and third parts of the plan are to facilitate an orderly return of those who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar to their homeland, and “to work toward a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation.”
Moreover, according to the “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State” signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar (on November 23), the two countries also “have agreed” to outline some “general principles, policy aspects and modalities” needed “to ensure smooth conduct of return of displaced Myanmar residents from Rakhine State expeditiously and their integration into Myanmar society.” These “general guiding principles” are 19 in number and seem vague at first sight.
And this lack of concretisation could pose major problems moving forward as many have already pointed out, especially given the current state of relationship between the two countries and the lack of sympathy that the Myanmar government has shown towards Bangladesh, even in response to Bangladesh's immense patience in dealing with Myanmar's seemingly outright hostile activities. Such past attitude by Myanmar also puts into question its sincerity in adhering to the arrangement, which states that the two countries reiterate “their firm conviction to resolve their problems amicably and peacefully through bilateral negotiations on the basis of mutual understanding, accommodation, trust and goodwill and maintain peace and tranquillity on their borders.”
While it is difficult to say that Bangladesh has shown anything other than a willingness to amicably and peacefully resolve the issues it has with Myanmar, the same cannot be said about Myanmar thus far. Although the latest agreement does provide Myanmar with the perfect opportunity to prove its critics wrong, and re-establish some of the trust and goodwill it has lost with Bangladesh.
But given Myanmar's lack of concern in the past for the interest of Bangladesh and the minorities that have fled from its own territories, how likely is it that Myanmar is willing to make the necessary compromises and take the required steps to establish permanent peace in the region? Critics say not very. However, the truth is that only time can tell.
What is interesting though is that according to reports, Myanmar's army has replaced the general in charge of Rakhine State, Major General Maung Maung Soe—transferring him from his post as the head of Western Command in Rakhine—only a couple of weeks back. Moreover, the impetus that China has provided could also prompt a shift in its position. For example, according to Song Qingrun, a research fellow at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, “China's thinking is to resolve the Rohingya issue through development in Rakhine State” (“Decoding China's proposal to address Rohingya crisis”, November 22, China Global Television Network).
Referring to the Chinese foreign minister's comment about China building an economic corridor with Myanmar—starting from China's southern Yunnan Province and going down to Mandalay in Myanmar, before splitting east to Yangon and west to Kyaukpyu, a town in Rakhine State—Song explained that “China will use its capital, technology and other resources to help Myanmar to develop the poor area and decrease the causes of their conflicts.”
Whether the Myanmar authorities see things quite like this is difficult to say. But what is certainly true is that what Myanmar must now be aware of fully is that should Myanmar make an about-turn again—after China has tried to act as a mediator—it will also be irritating China, something which it can ill afford to do, particularly in the face of such widespread criticism from everyone else. Thus it is difficult to see how Myanmar can now afford to refuse China's request to stop the violence, and not work with Bangladesh to take back its nationals.
However, what Bangladesh (and China too, simply in the interest of regional stability) must remain insistent upon is that this time the violence against minorities in Myanmar must permanently be brought to a halt. That too should be included in the negotiations.
And lastly, on November 24 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reportedly said that conditions in Rakhine State “are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns” for more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees. This the Myanmar authorities must address as it cannot expect those who have fled to return to the horrific conditions that they had escaped from in the first place. And neither should it expect that by delaying the process of addressing these issues, it would be able to pull the wool over Bangladesh's eyes this time.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.