Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Putting the pieces of the puzzle together
Lieutenant General Md Mahfuzur Rahman (LPR)
Rohingya refugees helping each other after cross the Bangladesh-Myanmar border after fleeing the Myanmar military’s atrocities. Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
One of the most puzzling questions that has yet to be answered is, how did the Myanmar Army get away with such large scale atrocities against the Rohingya? To solve this conundrum, one needs to go back to the military's deliberate and planned strategy that led to the horrific clampdown that forced thousands of Rohingya to flee the place they called home.
The dominant elite in Myanmar's polity share the belief that the Rohingya are recent migrants, and therefore, are not part of Myanmar's ethnic citizenry. The majority population is therefore hostile towards them. They are seen as a community that has a high fertility rate and are resented for intermarrying with ethnic locals. An accepted narrative is that the presence of the Rohingya will result in large scale Islamisation from the west border. Such notions have shaped the collective perception of Rohingyas being a security threat that justifies military operations to "free Myanmar" of them.
China's pipeline project brings 24-hour electricity supply to Myanmar. - Global Times
In 2011, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing took over as Chief of Defence, Myanmar. In one of his strategic directives, he categorically mentioned, "We have an unfinished job". Following his takeover, hate speech against the Rohingya increased. Myanmar's media started demonising the Rohingya and building aggressive public opinion against them, saying that they were Bengalis who had migrated to Rakhine state in the recent past. Some Buddhist militant monks, under the leadership of Ashin Wirathu and the 969 (Anti-Muslim) movement, rekindled the issue by professing that in the future, there will be Islamisation in Myanmar from the west (Rakhine/Bangladesh).
In 2014, a group of our senior officers from Bangladesh was attending a strategic level international course in Beijing, and in one of the discussions, a very senior Chinese General asked one of our officers about the importance of the Rohingya in Bangladesh's domestic politics. If there is a situation, was Bangladesh serious enough to go into armed conflict with neighbours on the Rohingya issue? (We know the answers to both these questions).
In 2013-14, the Myanmar-China gas pipeline was commissioned from Kyaukphyu (Sittwe-Rohingya dominated area in Rakhine) to Kunming (China). China has spent billions of dollars for this project. Energy is the "Centre of Gravity" for China, so energy security is very important for the rising state (there was a similar situation in Yadana Gas Pipeline from offshore of Myanmar in the south overland to Thailand. In that episode, thousands of Karen were tortured and expelled by the Myanmar military from around the gas pipeline site—they were either internally displaced or took shelter in refugee camps in Thailand). Along with the gas pipeline, a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline project in Rakhine was under construction and completed in 2014-2015 awaiting commission.
In 2016, in the name of a "clearing operation" in the hills of Rakhine, Myanmar Security Forces carried out atrocities on Rohingya civilians, and around 90,000 Rohingya refugees took shelter in Bangladesh. As I understand, this was a preliminary operation to observe the reaction and study the pulse of world bodies, and especially Bangladesh.
In April 2017, two Myanmar senior generals came to Dhaka for a discussion with their defence wing at their embassy in Dhaka. They kept it low key.
In May 2017, the oil pipeline—the more important of the two pipelines—was commissioned (running parallel to the gas pipeline). In July 2017, information of a military build-up in Rakhine state was coming to our intelligence community. Bangladesh's security concern was expressed to Myanmar. Myanmar's government was also reminded of the 2016 incident during which, in the name of clearing operations, Rohingya civilians were targeted and there was an influx of refugees into Bangladesh. However, in the second week of August 2017, it was confirmed from the Myanmar counterpart that there would be a security forces operation on the Mayu Range against dissident groups and insurgents. It was also mentioned that it had nothing to do with civilians and there would be no repetition of the 2016 situation.
In June 2017 and July 2017, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia and India respectively, meeting with strategic leaders and holding discussions on various issues.
The Myanmar military build-up was completed by the third week of August 2017. The Kofi Annan Commission Report was published on August 24, 2017. A number of issues related to the Rohingya were addressed in the report. It included how the Rohingyas were waiting for decades for their civil and political rights to be recognised. Despite this positive development, Myanmar claimed that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out attacks on over 30 security forces camps simultaneously in the early morning of August 25, 2017, where some members of the security forces were killed. Following this, Myanmar Forces, who were already concentrated there, carried out massive "ethnic cleansing" campaigns against Rohingya civilians in the name of operations against Islamist terrorists. There are four issues that arise from this so-called ARSA attack.
Firstly, why did ARSA wait to attack Myanmar Security Forces' camps till their full build-up had been completed?
Secondly, why did ARSA launch its attack against well equipped regular forces' positions with machetes and locally made guns (ARSA weapons were exhibited by Myanmar Security Forces in the media)?
Thirdly, Myanmar claimed they had a number of casualties. However, it was never followed by military funerals. The media did not cover such events in Myanmar at the time (in April 2021, the media covered a customary military funeral ceremony of casualties from the Myanmar Security Forces inflicted by a Karen group in the Thailand border).
Fourthly, ARSA conducted attacks very early in the morning of August 25, 2017, and the Myanmar military conducted their large scale coordinated operation in the same morning of August 25, 2017 (in the military, we understand such a large scale operation takes quite some time for planning, preparation and logistics build-up). After this so-called ARSA attack on the morning of August 25, Myanmar was very quick to come on record saying, "Since, the situation is unstable in Rakhine, so Kofi Annan Report cannot be materialised now". At the same time, they convened a national committee to prepare their own report.
In the first week of September 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar. He appreciated Myanmar for measures taken towards peace and national reconciliation, and also expressed concern about the various incidents of terrorism and extremism-inspired violence.
In November 2017, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited China. During discussions with President Xi Jinping, the General thanked China for standing at the forefront of Myanmar's side on the Rakhine issue (Rohingya issue).
These developments are important for understanding the situation and also to fathom what is coming next. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in May 2021 reiterated in an international media interview that there is no option of taking back the Rohingya. Meanwhile, we are also hearing from the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi's party) led Unity Government (UG) that once democracy is restored and they are back to power, they are willing to absorb the Rohingya into their society, and even take legal actions with regard to the atrocities committed against Rohingyas. This is a positive gesture, but we have to remember, the UG is offering this under the present circumstances and in exchange of support from Muslim countries, as well as the secular communities of the world. We also need to remember who is calling the shots in Myanmar. As long as the two permanent members of the UN Security Council support the junta in Myanmar, they are going to continue there. Bashar al-Assad in Syria is a case in point. In the foreseeable future, it will not be surprising that when the dusts settle down in Myanmar and the junta is stable, the remaining Rohingya (may be 400,000 to 600,000) in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine State, shall be expelled in due course.
So what can Bangladesh do to prevent this? At the outset, we need to remember that we are dealing with a very smart and cunning set of professionals, and an organisation like the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). We cannot treat the Rohingya issue as a routine matter. We need to activate unified political, economic, diplomatic and military lines of operation to prevent the junta from expelling the rest of the Rohingya population.
Being a student of Security Studies and a follower of the Structural Realism school of thought, I understand that the international system is quite anarchic, and it is imprudent to entrust one's security in others. From that perspective, here I would like to discuss only a part of the preventive military line of operation. We need to develop a credible deterrence force, with appropriate punitive power to deter potential threats. When we say a credible deterrence force, besides other things, some of the equipment used should be more effective than that of the potential adversary. I want to end by citing Singapore's example. When President Lee Kuan Yew was developing Singapore, his number one agenda was "stability, development, economic emancipation and better life for people". Same as ours. However, Lee Kuan was also developing a credible deterrence through the armed forces. People questioned Lee Kuan's strategy as being contradictory for a small developing country like Singapore. Lee Kuan answered, "If we have a credible deterrence force, we would be left alone, and if we are left alone, then we can go ahead with our number one agenda." In August 2017, we (Bangladesh) were not left alone.
Md Mahfuzur Rahman is Lieutenant General (LPR).