The Prime Minister and the Rohingyas

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 21 September 2017 delivered her speech in the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN Headquarters in New York. (Photo-PID)


In September, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came forth with a concrete plan on what the world must do to assist Myanmar’s Rohingyas in their struggle for survival. In her five-point plan, spelt out in the course of her address at the United Nations General Assembly in September, the Bangladesh leader echoed not just the concerns of her country but also those of the rest of the world on the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas by the Myanmar authorities. In clear terms, the speech was in sharp contrast to the neither-here-nor-there remarks made by Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the Myanmar media earlier. In broad measure, Sheikh Hasina’s speech, unlike any other comment made at the global level on a situation which gravely affects Bangladesh, can be regarded as a road map to a resolution of the conflict.


The Prime Minister’s address came against the background of what has been seen in Bangladesh as inaction by such nations as Russia, China and India on the issue. The government has consistently prided itself on its foreign policy, a significant plank of which has been a maintenance of balanced ties with its neighbours. In recent times, it has gone for energy deals with Moscow, bought submarines from Beijing and reached border and trade deals with Delhi. Bangladesh’s expectation, therefore, was that these three countries would bring their influence to bear on the situation created by the influx of Myanmar’s Rohingyas into its territory. That expectation has not been met, which has now raised the question of whether Bangladesh’s foreign policy is now in need of restructuring.


By far the most important segment of Sheikh Hasina’s address at the UNGA related to her proposal for the creation of a safe zone for the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. That is the place where these people have lived for generations, despite everything the army-controlled government of Myanmar may say today. With as many as 800,000 Rohingyas now in Bangladesh, it is of the utmost importance that conditions be speedily created to compel the authorities in Naypyitaw to realize the seriousness of the conflict their policies, in theory and on the ground, have led to. It says something about the dire conditions Dhaka is faced with that the number of refugees who have streamed into Bangladesh in the past two months far exceeds the number that came into Europe over the entire period of 2016. For its part, the UN resident mission in Dhaka has served warning that Bangladesh ought to be prepared for conditions to stretch out in the coming days.  In other words, for Bangladesh the challenge today is how to buck the consequences of the Rohingya situation and keep its development momentum going.


In these past months, the Rohingya situation has assumed a dimension that has been rather dramatic in the making. The position of the Bangladesh government initially was to deploy its security forces along the frontier with Myanmar in order to prevent the entry of the persecuted Rohingyas into the country. It was a position that aroused a huge degree of criticism both at home and abroad, on the ground that the refugees needed to be treated in humane manner in line with international principles and convention. The government’s position changed when it became evident that it was in no position to prevent the Rohingyas from coming in, on rickety boats and on foot. Soon the authorities decided to put in place facilities for the refugees and are now in the process of mulling measures that will have the Rohingyas given shelter in a designated area near the south-eastern beach town of Cox’s Bazar. It is a measure of how politically exercised the government is about the situation that Sheikh Hasina travelled to Cox’s Bazar prior to departing for New York to assess conditions. Earlier, speaking in Parliament, while she was critical of the atrocities being perpetrated on the Rohingyas in Myanmar, she avoided making any criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi. Sheikh Hasina clearly is in little mood to close the door to any future dealings with Myanmar, which is why she has apparently thought it prudent to refrain from associating Suu Kyi with the persecution of the Rohingyas and has instead pointed the finger of blame at the Myanmar military.


A natural corollary to all that has been the Prime Minister’s suggestion relating to the creation of a safe zone for Rohingyas in Myanmar. Obviously, the first point in Bangladesh’s view, for such global institutions as the United Nations is to impress upon Myanmar the grave violation of human rights perpetrated in Rakhine. And then comes the need for pressure to be exerted on the regime, for it is yet a regime in Myanmar despite Aung San Suu Kyi being in the forefront of the country’s leadership, in order for it to acknowledge the Rohingyas as its own citizens. For Bangladeshis, it is properly irritating that the more than a million Rohingyas who have lived in Myanmar for generations — as illegal immigrants in the opinion of the Myanmar authorities — are endlessly being depicted by Myanmar as Bengalis who have been living illegally in Rakhine state. The Myanmar position is for Bangladeshis a travesty of history, a point the UN will need to put without ambiguity to Myanmar. For Bangladesh’s political classes and civil society, that step should be followed by measures to ensure that the Rohingyas are accorded constitutional guarantees of security and autonomy within Rakhine in ways that will for good put a stop to the persecution they have gone through periodically at the hands of the Myanmar military.


The Rohingya issue is no more an internal issue for Myanmar as far as Bangladesh is concerned. It has now taken a serious international dimension which the world must pay attention to. A failure on the part of the global community — and one especially expects more to be done by the US, Europe, India, China and Russia — to take note may eventually throw up a situation that can only complicate matters for the region as a whole. The fear is that even as the Bangladesh government remains engaged in ferreting out Islamist militants from their hideouts in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country, clandestine rightwing groups may seek to capitalize on the Rohingya problem, mainly through recruiting these uprooted Muslims for fanatical missions that have in the past left Bangladesh’s reputation as a peaceful society dented considerably.


The question now is patent: Will the Bangladesh authorities, with their limited resources, both in terms of security vis-à-vis preventing calamitous consequences arising out of the Rohingya influx and an economy that has always been under pressure owing to a multiplicity of factors, be able to face the situation alone? The answer should be obvious, which is why the immediacy of intervention by the international community in a resolution of the crisis is today an imperative.


Besides, let it not be forgotten that the government faces a general election at the end of next year. A vociferous political opposition is already gearing up to take on the ruling Awami League on the Rohingya issue.

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