Dhaka Courier

The illegal immigrant crisis: Rakhine and Assam


Both the Rakhine zone since the early parts of the last century and the Assam zone since the 40s have experienced unrest with Bengali –Muslims at the centre of conflict. The migrant residents of Rakhine zone called Rohingyas are hated for their language, faith and complexion, three of the commonest markers of racism. In Buddhist, Tibeto-Burman language groups dominated fair/yellow complexioned “Burma” the Rohingyas fit into all the criteria that produces ethnic hatred. It’s easy to identify them easily and thus exclude.

The result has been a process of separation of identities and ultimately exclusion followed by ethnic cleansing and in cases, genocide. The conflict has not been resolved and as is the case, contingent hazards spill over into the next region, Bangladesh and its border zone. Although the Rohingyas have been sent packing to the Teknaf and adjacent areas twice, since 1972, nobody in Bangladesh that matters took notice because they never expected such a deluge as it came in 2017. Nobody has very relevant answers why.

Why the Rohingyas are here

An insider who was tangentially involved with the policy of keeping the BD-Myanmar borders open said that, Bangladesh expected the good gesture/non-hostile decision to pay back when the civilian government was to take power in Myanmar.  This misassumption has proved costly as the military in Myanmar never actually lost power even when Suu Kyi was elected.

Not only that but they picked up the Rohingya issue to mobilize ethno phobia within Myanmar to which entire Myanmar responded. Everyone saw that it was the military which was behind the campaign so their popularity increased and effectively undercut that of the civilians including Suu Kyi.  The army was aware that this could cause some international repercussions but they were certain that no threat existed from the Bangladesh side, military or diplomatic.

If the Myanmar army misread the situation, it was regarding China. Initially, it was thought that China would not only back Myanmar but be forced to do so as China had directly invested in Myanmar and so had to back Yangoon. However, in the last two years, international Western direct investment has dramatically shrunk making China the only player ready to dirty its hands by keeping growth going in Myanmar.  It has allowed China to take the main seat and dependence on its bigger neighbour is ever higher by Yangoon.

Bangladesh was unready and underplayed the crisis

But Bangladesh was never ready for the deluge and no windfall to gain.  When the Rohingyas arrived first, Bangladesh downplayed the threat stating that it could manage the refugees and basking on the global recognition of its willingness to play host.  The early deluge of Rohingyas were for a period matched by UN and NGOs arriving but that has now began to change as  Bangladesh sees that  the Rohingyas are planning a long if not a permanent  stay and  repatriation is probably not going to happen except as a token. This became clear to many when the China sponsored BD-Myanmar bi-lateral agreement was signed. Several Foreign office sources had privately stated that the Rohingyas may not ever return.  That is a reality Bangladesh may publicly deny but by doing so, is getting sucked into another never ending crisis caused by denial.

NGO scape- goating won’t hide reality

Some in Bangladesh are looking for scapegoats and that is possible to find them among NGOs. But no matter how much abuse is heaped on them, they will not immediately disappear as the logic behind such NGO presence is largely dictated by Western fears that the situation may become Jihadi extremism friendly.  These are here not just to help the Rohingyas but help keep themselves safe as well.

In fact, Bangladesh has facilitated the entry of NGOs from the birth of the latest Rohingya crisis. This is only natural. On its own, Bangladesh can’t cope with the situation. But to blame the NGOs for trying to prevent the Rohingya return is not correct. Many if not most NGOs are linked to Myanmar NGOs too and they will simply switch their operations from one country to another if the refugees leave.  Most importantly, the Myanmar military doesn’t want them back and that’s the main issue that Bangladesh or even the UN can’t manage or push the Rohingyas back.

Local backlash was always ignored

Perhaps China could but the simple reason would be what would China gain by their return? China gains most by this status quo and probably knows that the terrorist threat is limited with no interest of any outside groups unlike 1992 when many were.  If China pushes Myanmar to accept them back- people who are no longer Myanmar citizens’- it will receive a backlash and a power like China, already unpopular there, wouldn’t want the military to look better than they are looking now. So it’s in China’s interest for them to be less pushy about repatriation.

What Bangladesh authorities underestimated was the local backlash which coupled with yaba trade and other issues has made the zone very volatile.  The dependence on local politicians many of whom are very much into extra-legal economy was never a secure bet. If the locals feel they are not getting a good deal and their wage already shrinking, there will be more stress. However, the dangers were pointed out before but many were more keen on BD’s international profile building rather than any realistic assessment.

Ye, as we talk another crisis is smoking in the hills of Assam.  Once again, the fear is, we may be caught off guard. The FM has said that they had never thought about it. Indian FM has said its India’s internal matter. Such statements may mean another crisis because the 4 million are Bengali, Muslim illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Where are they next headed?

Are we ready or are we not ready?

  • The illegal immigrant crisis: Rakhine and Assam
  • Vol 36
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Issue 8
  • DhakaCourier

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