Dangerous Liaisons

Courier Briefing
Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

A Rohingya woman cries after being stopped by Bangladeshi border guards at a makeshift shelter at Ghumdhum, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sunday, Aug.27, 2017. Several hundred Rohingya trying to flee Myanmar got stuck in a “no man’s land” at one border point barred from moving farther by Bangladeshi border guards. (AP Photo/Mushfiqul Alam)


The crisis in Rakhine takes a decisive turn for the worse.


The advent of militancy amongst the Rohingya, famously branded by Amnesty International as the world’s “most persecuted people”, was always just a matter of time, now that we think about it with the unerring aid of hindsight. In a sense, it has all happened in front of our own eyes, under our very noses.  But we just kept looking away, never giving them a chance. Truth be told, they always seemed to be a people beaten. Too beaten to stage a rearguard, too cut off, too confined, too cornered, to stake their claim with any force.


Not anymore. Although we are still too dependent on the Myanmar government’s say-so for a truly credible account to emerge of what happened as the weekend set in on August 25, taken together with the events of October 2016, they confirm the entry of a completely new dimension into the mix, that serves to make the situation on the ground infinitely more complex: the spectre of armed resistance on the part of the Rohingya, through their resort to what the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre described as the only weapon available to the oppressed: terror.


The International Crisis Group (ICG) was the first to warn of things taking such a turn in the aftermath of the first attacks last year, that we reported in these pages. This week it warned that a disproportionate government military response without any overarching political strategy will play directly into the hands of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which continues to commit deadly attacks in northern Rakhine State.


ARSA claimed responsibility for the August 25 attacks on 30 police outposts and an army base—killing 12 security personnel—and sending both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine fleeing their homes. The Myanmar government promptly denounced ARSA as a terrorist organization and on Sunday reported it had targeted civilians.


In a statement released on Monday, the Belgium-based ICG that carries out field research to prevent and resolve conflict said ARSA was well aware that their latest attacks were likely to provoke a strong military response and a political backlash—as they did in 2016—which will greatly harm Rohingya. The ICG is also the first to identify the ARSA as the same group that was behind the October attacks – the Harakah al-Yaqin – only now using an English name.


“That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine State,” the statement said.


While suggesting the government quickly addresses legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya security concerns, the ICG also suggests that if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians.


“It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarization, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold,” it said. Although the intelligentsia within the country may agree broadly with these points, the insecure Buddhist majority within Arakan state, which ethnically is a minority at the national level, rarely breeds such level-headed thinking.


The ICG said the current crisis was neither unpredicted (sic) nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of a new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine State urgently needed a political—not just a military—response to address the concerns of all communities in the state.


“Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence,” the statement says. It also urges the government to implement the recommendations outlined in the recently-released Kofi Annan-led advisory commission’s report on Rakhine State, which was welcomed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government.


“The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so,” the ICG says. The statement also warned that the impact of failing to address the roots of the crisis will not fall only on Rakhine State but on Myanmar as a whole.


“The deepening crisis in Rakhine State threatens to sweep aside all other priorities as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar,” it says.


Engaging Myanmar


The international commission on Rakhine State led by ex-UN secretary general Kofi Annan has said strong bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar are required in addressing the challenges in Rakhine State. The Commission came up with the observation in its final report released on August 24, a day before violence broke out.


The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh could actively encourage more exchanges between civil society, think tanks, academics and the private sector to promote mutual understanding and cooperation, it said.


After one year of consultations held across Rakhine State and in other parts of the country and the region, the Advisory Commission submitted its final report to the President and State Counsellor of Myanmar. It said events in one country have a profound effect on the other, as demonstrated by the thousands of Muslims from northern Rakhine State who sought refuge in Bangladesh after the violence in late 2016.


There are profound developmental and humanitarian needs on both sides of the border, but also opportunities for cooperation that would benefit both countries, said the report, a copy of which was obtained by our sister newsagency UNB. The Commission in its report said last year has seen some efforts to strengthen bilateral engagement.


“Myanmar and Bangladesh have different narratives on the challenges along their shared border. Despite the large numbers who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, the popular perception in Myanmar is that the problem is illegal immigration into Myanmar,” said the report.


“Both countries have a clear mutual interest in cooperation. There are economic opportunities from increased trade. The flow of drugs needs to be stemmed. And, most crucially, joint action is required on security management of the border,” the report mentioned.


The commission welcomed the expressed intention of the Myanmar government to establish a Joint Commission with Bangladesh, as recommended in its interim report, to discuss bilateral relations, challenges, and opportunities of mutual interest.


Several recommendations focus specifically on citizenship verification, rights and equality before the law, documentation, the situation of the internally displaced and freedom of movement, which affect the Muslim population disproportionately.


‘Bengali terrorists’


Bangladesh has raised a “serious objection” to tagging Myanmar’s own terrorists as “Bengali terrorists” and asked its envoy here to convey the message to Myanmar authorities. At the same time, it has also proposed to go for a joint operation against militants under any tag-name or any other force on both sides — Bangladesh and Myanmar — of the border, if necessary.


Director General (South East Asia wing) at the Ministry Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury called Charge d’ Affaires of Myanmar Embassy in Dhaka Aung Myint to his office on August 28 and conveyed these two specific messages.


“We’ve a serious objection to use of the term ‘Bengali terrorists’ by Myanmar authorities after the recent incidents,” a senior official told Dhaka Courier saying it was a sort of interaction between both sides, for which the term ‘summons’ might be too strong.


The Foreign Ministry summoned the Myanmar envoy in Dhaka twice in less than a week and expressed ‘serious concern’ over the recent happenings, including the fresh entry of Myanmar nationals into Bangladesh.


Charge d’ Affaires of Myanmar Embassy in Dhaka also met the Secretary (Asia & Pacific) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mahbub Uz Zaman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the evolving situation in Rakhine.


Thousands of unarmed civilians, including women, children and elderly people from the Rakhine State, have assembled close to the border and are making attempts to enter Bangladesh. Bangladesh recalled the influx of Myanmar nationals into Bangladesh due to similar military operations in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on October 9 last year that resulted in about 87,000 of civilians crossing over to Bangladesh till July 31.


Following its policy of ‘zero tolerance’ towards violent extremism and terrorism of any form and manifestation, Bangladesh assured Myanmar of its continued cooperation in dealing with these challenges.  The attack triggered a fresh influx of refugees towards Bangladesh, whose number had ballooned close to 9,000 as Dhaka Courier went press this week, according to UN estimates.


Human after all


For the Arakan, as well as for the overwhelming part of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority population, the Rohingya are not Burmese at all. They are called “Bengali” to point out that they are post-colonial immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, most of which supposedly came into the country after Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. The Arakan have a primal fear that their dominant Buddhist culture will be swamped through demographic change, and this is one of the main reasons underlying the conflict; however, economic factors and competition for scarce resources also figure large, according to the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a Germany-based political research foundation.


Although the term “Rohingya” only became widely used in the 1950s, the Rohingya claim that the origin of their ethnonym, and thus the presence of their ethnic group in Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan), goes back to the 14th century ‒ or at least to the end of the 18th century. Muslim influence in the region goes back much further than the 18th century, and as early as the beginning of the 19th century a significant percentage of the population was Muslim. The actual tragedy of the Rohingya, however, began in the mid-20th century when, bit by bit, they were deprived of their citizenship and thus of the rights that go with it.


While Rohingya displacement has persisted for decades, it made headlines last October when attacks on border posts in northern Rakhine state triggered a security clearance operation that drove an estimated 43,000 civilians into Bangladesh by year’s end. By February this year, the estimate stood at 74,000. Many of the new arrivals in Bangladesh’s camps and makeshift sites told UNHCR about the burnings, lootings, shootings, rapes and arrests they escaped back home.


As part of the influx of refugees in the early 1990s, Mostafa is among 33,000 registered refugees living in two government-run camps serviced by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners in south-eastern Bangladesh. He has a home in Kutupalong camp and access to basic services including food assistance, healthcare and education for his wife and three children. Now in his 50s, he has learnt to speak English well and is working as a photographer in the camp.


In contrast, Sohel has no legal status in Bangladesh as one of more than 70,000 Rohingya new arrivals who are believed to have fled a security operation between October 2016 and February 2017. He lives with people from his home village and keeps a low profile. He receives ad hoc assistance if he is lucky.


A third category consists of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh between the two influxes. They live in makeshift sites and local villages, and until recently had no access to humanitarian aid.


“The current situation is not sustainable,” said Shinji Kubo, UNHCR’s Representative in Bangladesh. “Regardless of when they came and where they live, these people have the same needs and deserve equal access to protection and assistance.”


The new influx has highlighted the urgent need to verify the number and location of the new arrivals. Without this information, vulnerable refugees risk falling through the cracks while others could be receiving duplication of assistance.


“We are advocating for a joint verification of the new arrivals with our partners as soon as possible,” said Kubo. “This exercise will help the government and humanitarian agencies to better target assistance to those who need it the most, be they new arrivals, refugees who came earlier or locals who host them.”


UNHCR works with humanitarian agencies such as the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme in Cox’s Bazar. Several thousand new arrivals are believed to be hosted in the two official camps, straining the capacity of existing refugees and the infrastructure. The water supply in Nayapara camp is expected to run out by the end of March and there are fears of disease outbreaks as a result of overcrowding and poor sanitation.


Many more new arrivals are living in existing makeshift sites or new ones that have sprouted spontaneously. In Ukhiya district, a site called Balukhali has emerged in the last two months and now hosts 1,600 families, according to a local politician helping them. Located beyond some rice fields, it is a mish-mash of flimsy shelters and latrines made of thin plastic sheets, dried leaves, tree branches and bamboo.


Additional reporting by AKM Moinuddin

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