Revisiting Rohingya Crisis — What Lies Ahead
Air Vice Marshal MAHMUD HUSSAIN (Retd)
Revisiting Rohingya Crisis- What lies ahead, is an intellectual exercise in probability but it falls in the domain of Social Science. What is the debatable point here is that Social Science is not exact in predicting phenomena, and as such, conditions necessary for solving a problem may not be sufficient as in the case of Physical Science. So, any discussion about the Rohingyas and their future will be at the level of “Hypothesis” in the sense of epistemology. We can only make “conjectures” in the Popperian sense after the great philosopher of science Karl Popper, and leave the future either to refute or validate our conjectures.
Given the focus, I will be dealing with the crisis from strategic point of view primarily centered upon the question of security dilemma both for Rohingyas and state-actors directly involved with the crisis.
In the study of inter-state relations, the players who define the outcome of a crisis are called the actors. In case of Rohingya crisis, there are principally three group of actors operating at local, regional and global levels. So, that makes Rohingyas the pawn on the grand geopolitical chessboard.
At the global level, it should be examined in the context of the rivalry between the United States and China. As recently as 21 March 2022, the US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken has condemned the atrocities on Rohingyas by the military junta of Myanmar as genocide and crimes against humanity. This time the US condemnation has come with stronger words along with its recognition of the exceptional generosity of Bangladesh in hosting over 1 million Rohingya refugees, including Bangladesh’s efforts to vaccinate thousands of Rohingyas as part of its national COVID-19 vaccination campaign. The US government has also come up with stronger measures by slapping sanctions on five military leaders including Myanmar’s military dictator Min Aung Hliang, military-affiliated cronies and businesses, and a military unit for committing genocide, crimes and ethnic cleansing against Rohingyas. The US ally Europe has followed somewhat ambivalent approach in dealing with Myanmar. While it condemns the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingyas, its trade relations with Myanmar remains good after China and Thailand. EU’s contention is that any economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar do not affect its military to change policy for the political settlement of the Rohingyas, yet Europe’s support in terms of humanitarian assistance in Rohingya crisis is reckonable.
However, when crimes against humanity become an international issue, and its bells are rung at the eardrums of global conscience, norms and institutions need to play aggressively to make justice a tool for change in behavior of the social system. In November 2019, Gambia filed a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on behalf of the 57 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries underlining the critical importance of bringing justice for Myanmar. It is predicted that the ICJ hearings are the next step in the landmark case to break the cycle of violence and impunity in Myanmar. If it is so, the Human Rights Watch believes that “the case could build a pathway to justice, not only for the Rohingya, but everyone in the country”.
However, the challenge to Rohingya crisis, at the international level, comes from another great power, China. China-Myanmar bilateral relations have been strong; Burma was the first non-communist country to recognize the Communist-led People’s Republic of China after its foundation in 1949. Facing growing international condemnation and pressure, Myanmar has cultivated a strong relationship with China to bolster itself; in turn, China’s influence has grown rapidly. China has made a conciliatory move through a three-stage plan between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the protracted Rohingya crisis. Though the United Nations was not a party to this Chinese-sponsored bilateral agreement for repatriation, it has accepted it. But the question remains, ‘without international intervention there is very little possibility of the Rohingyas being taken back’.
At the regional level of geo-politics, Rohingya issue has raised strong security tensions along religious lines in South Asia. This fits deftly into the strategy of India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in September 2017 to defend Myanmar military’s crackdown against the Rohingyas in its alleged fight against terrorism is evidence of the level of alignment of India’s foreign policy with Myanmar in the issue.
The atrocities against the Rohingya forced nearly a million people to flee Myanmar and take refuge, the vast majority in Bangladesh but also in India. India hosts about 40,000 Rohingya refugees. The Indian government has called the Rohingya “illegal immigrants” and a “threat to national security”. The Indian Supreme Court in 2021 upheld the deportation of Rohingya refugees. The deportation of Rohingya refugees is to be seen in the context of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA grants citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who arrived in India before 2015. The legislation excludes Muslims —— including the Rohingya, who have been called the most persecuted minority in the world. At the regional level, while the Bangladesh government has demonstrated an extraordinary tolerance in dealing with the Rohingya crisis, the Indian government’s action is a symptom of communal revulsion. The government of Bangladesh feels that India’s support for the Myanmar regime hurts Bangladeshis, and at the same time makes it difficult to organize regional consensus for dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas to Rakhine. It is interesting to note that while the United States labels the military actions against Rohingyas as “genocide”, India, Washington’s strategic partner in South Asia is on the same side with China when it defends Myanmar military’s atrocities against the Rohingyas as a war against terrorism.
At the regional level, there is another actor, ASEAN. Its response to the crisis has been mostly ineffective. The inaction by ASEAN is explained by the organization’s reluctance in dealing with complex human rights issues. Since it follows the principle of non-interference into the domestic affairs of its members, its sympathy with the Rohingya is limited to only lofty words of diplomatic linguistics. So far political will is concerned, ASEAN cannot be expected to do anything meaningful in near future. Unlike the United States, Europe, China or India who are players in this crisis, ASEAN is contented to the role of a spectator.
At local state level, it is Myanmar and Bangladesh whose narratives matter. Bangladesh wants a safe repatriation of Rohingyas back to Rakhine. From moral standpoint, this is justified. Bangladesh has provided temporary settlement to the Rohingyas, and is strongly raising the Rohingya repatriation issue as the stay of more than a million Rohingyas for long in the camps may turn out to be a serious security concern, and a financial burden for Bangladesh.
In Myanmar, there are three actors —- the Myanmar military called Tatmadaw, the general public and the elected civilian government. First, it is very unlikely that the military will be relenting for repatriation after committing genocide against the Rohingyas. Second, in the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s fine novel The Glass Palace, when the first British cannons were fired in Mandalay, the first population to feel the imminent insecurity to life were the “Kalas”. Kala was a pejorative word in Myanmar for Indians. This derogatory prejudice is used today to describe the Rohingya. So far the attitude of general public toward Rohingyas is concerned, they identify them as “Bengalis”, meaning that they are trespassers from neighboring Bangladesh, more precisely from Chattogram. The underlying problem for the general public is that Rohingya is not included among the officially recognized 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar. Third, the possibility of independent elected civilian government to render justice to the Rohingya is for future to tell because in Myanmar, the army is the state.
Rohingyas from Myanmar are entering Bangladesh. Photo: Internet.
We have seen how the actors at the global, regional and state levels are playing with the Rohingya issue. Every actor is playing in its own national or group interest. So long the military junta is in power, safe repatriation is ambivalent. At the end, it is only Bangladesh who is taking the physical, security and moral share of the suffering of the Rohingyas. Bangladesh is committed to peace, but it alone cannot resolve the crisis.
Had Myanmar been full democracy where the military operated under civilian control, the situation in which the Rohingyas find themselves would have been different. This is easily said than done. So long the military is in power, it will always find excuse to perpetrate adventurism into domestic politics in the name of state security.
Displaced people are the most aggrieved, hence the violent section of society. With most countries denying Rohingyas their legitimate rights, the extremist groups among them will turn to support from radical organizations both at home and abroad. In the rampage of Ramu in a series of attacks on Buddhist monasteries, shrines and houses in 2013 in response to the desecration of a Quran, though in a distant past, was instigated by the psychopathic inertia of replacement or annihilation of the “other religious community” embedded in the “zero-sum” mentality of hatred. The same zero-sum mentality led to the assassination of prominent Rohingya leader Mohibullah last September by allegedly Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Katupalong suggesting that the armed group is active inside Bangladesh to threaten local security. ARSA is accused of running narcotics, murdering political opponents and instilling a climate of fear in the camps.
Rohingyas’ involvement in trafficking, smuggling, gun running, prostitution, and other illegal activities have increased fear and anger among the locals and themselves. Human security aspects in the scarcity of food, sanitation, medicine, education or entertainment materials directly affect the social balance of human existence in the camps vis-à-vis local population. What is even worse is the environmental insecurity rendered by the deforestation of land in setting up camps in a land-deficit country like Bangladesh.
Rohingya crisis also poses a security concern in Bangladesh’s foreign relations with China and India when the domestic politics are factored into the larger canvas of regional imperatives. The tragic part of the crisis is that global politics has also prevented the plight of Rohingyas from being “securitized”. The post-Cold War era grand politics has eventually turned China, Russia and India playing their cards in numerous UN resolutions that has not helped in ensuring safe return of the Rohingyas. On 6 October 2018 and February 2019, twice Myanmar updated its map showing St. Martin as a part of their sovereign territory in global websites. On both occasions, the Government of Bangladesh handed over a strongly worded protest to Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka. The ambassador said that it was a mistake. But there could be another plausible explanation to such blatant act. Traditionally, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations had been lukewarm. Myanmar might be harboring a psychological feeling that both India and China need Myanmar for future supply of energy and natural resources. Such feeling breeds self- satisfaction emanating from the fact that both China and India played an ambivalent role to the advantage of Myanmar when it pushed vast numbers of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 2017.
The Unchiprang refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, seen in Nov. 2018, houses thousands of
Rohingya refugees. Photo: Salman Saeed, abc News.
Rohingya refugees. Photo: Salman Saeed, abc News.
Challenges to security implications to Rohingyas spill into political, socio-cultural, environmental, economic and foreign relations affairs, both domestically, regionally and internationally.
In conclusion, I would like to predict that the outcome on the following questions will determine the future of Myanmar in reframing the Rohingya question:
First, how the United States fits Myanmar into its Indo-Pacific grand strategic plan.
Second, how persuasive China is in pressurizing Myanmar to implement the “three stage repatriation plan”.
Third, how strong is the international pressure on Myanmar to restore full democracy in its domestic politics.
Fourth, how persistent and forceful the logic is in convincing South Asia by taking India on board that Rohingya crisis has the potential to turn into a serious regional communal security challenge.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the "Burma's Path To Genocide" exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, March 21, 2022 in Washington. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AP
Fifth, how close and cooperative the Foreign, Home and Defence Ministries of Bangladesh are in not merely coordinating but also in integrating the material, intellectual and interdependent capabilities of each other to offset the prescience of Tatmadaw. It will be naïve to deal with Tatmadaw only in liberal terms. Tatmadaw is a military organization, and put rhetorically, it understands only the language of the military, and unless the opponent is capable enough to beget a sense of military threat in response to its adventurist policy, Tamadaw will always be on lease to play the chicanery of a game-changer.
In all of the above questions, Bangladesh will have to play the first and most significant role. In that role, its policy must be guided by the principles of realism and the need for peace. We want peace, but we must do good to listen to what Robert Gilpin, a renown political scientist says, “If peace were the ultimate goal of statecraft, then the solution to the problem of peaceful change would be easy. Peace may always be had by surrender to the aggressor state. The real task for the peaceful state is to seek a peace that protects and guarantees its vital interests and its concepts of international morality”. That is why in our foreign policy, the element of liberal norms must be spiced with the tools of realism in dealing with Rohingya crisis.
In the meanwhile, the protection of the Rohingyas must be complemented with providing education, medical services and income generating activities to protect them from becoming physical, moral and ethical threats for Bangladesh. Unless we do so, the effectiveness of “local settlement” as it is called in the language of international law in hosting the Rohingya refugees will degenerate into serious national security threats, both internal and external.
Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain is a retired air force officer. He served as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Brunei Darussalam from November 2016 to September 2020. He served as the Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB). Presently, he is working as the Distinguished Expert at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University (BSMRAAU).