Our perennial Rohingya problem
Update Time: 6 Dec 2017 11:29 am:
Bangladesh is facing another exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, but this time with a force that was not seen since the crisis began in 1978. There have been at least two large scale Rohingya migrations since that year. The largest number, counting up to three hundred thousand refugees, was reached in the year 1992. However, small scale migration or infiltration of Rohingyas never ceased. Now the flood gates of refugees are open once again, it seems like the Rohingya exodus from Rakhine State will continue in the foreseeable future, at least till the Myanmar authorities relent. However, the question is will Myanmar relent and stop this exodus?
Rohingya migration into Bangladesh and other neighboring countries including India and Thailand has been going on for the last five decades, for reasons that are well documented. The Rohingya were denied citizenship because they do not fall within the defined ethnicities of Myanmar, nor are they descendants of ancestors who settled in the country before 1823, at the beginning of British occupation of Arakan State. The Rohingya claim that they are descendants of people who had settled in the country since ninth century. But Their claim falls on deaf ears as the Rohingya are not one of the thirteen recognized national races.
The festering citizenship issue is further complicated by their religion (Muslim) and their language (a dialect derived from Bengali). This has prevented the Rohingyas from blending with the Arakanese, who are mainly Buddhists by religion. This difference also made the Rohingyas somewhat politically ambitious since the independence of Myanmar (then Burma) from the British. The Rohingyas formed clandestine political groups, hoping to establish a state of their own, when Myanmar was fighting guerrilla groups along the Chinese and the Thai border, including in the Arakan State.
The frequent clashes between the Burmese army and the guerrilla groups had led to the first eviction of the Rohingyas by the government in 1978, although technically on grounds of them being non-citizens.
The first repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in 1979 was possible for three reasons. First, Bangladesh chose not to escalate the crisis to the international level, but dealt with the issue on a bilateral level. Second, the Myanmar government responded positively to resolve the problem by not only agreeing to accept all refugees, but also by ensuring security for them. Third, the clandestine political organization of the Rohingyas did not obstruct to the repatriation.
Unfortunately the Rohingya issue has grown much larger in scale and complexity in recent times. While at one level, the issue can be viewed as a humanitarian crisis, the reason why the international community is anxiously watching the events unfold. At another level, the issue is intermixed with terrorism. Ironically, what was originally a state sponsored terror against a helpless minority, has now gone full circle to a terror group attacking the state. Myanmar authorities now cite the recent attack by the secretive Rohingya political group as the main cause of Rohingya sufferings.
As the situation stands now, the Myanmar authorities are not likely to relent. The attack by the so called Rohingya guerrillas has added more fuel to the fire, that was ignited by the Buddhist monks during violence against Arakan Muslims in 2012. It is ironic that a state that was shared by two communities for hundreds of years (Buddhists account for 52%, and Muslims for 42%), would suddenly be split primarily on religious grounds.
This tragic turn of events cannot stop until Myanmar itself brings the situation under control. As the history of Burma tells us, the country cannot be forced by outside powers to heed to their demands. Muslim countries of the world can express solidarity with the Rohingyas and offer financial help, but they cannot offer them security in their homeland. Only Myanmar can do that.
To do that, Bangladesh will have to deal its hands deftly, and with caution. First and foremost, it is necessary to continue our dialogue with Myanmar at all levels, including at the borders and the central. Second, Bangladesh should seek support from India in this dialogue, as a third party which is equally concerned at the Rohingya exodus.
There are more than a million Rohingyas living in Arakan. If all of them leaves, will India be spared?
The best thing going on for Bangladesh now, is that the international community is viewing our plight with understanding and compassion. The crisis needs to be portrayed as a humanitarian support, that Bangladesh is extending to the nationals of a foreign country who have fled their homes for civil unrest. But we will also need to categorically point out to Myanmar and the outside world, that we cannot offer a permanent home to the Rohingyas.
They belong to their country. Myanmar will need to change their citizenship laws, to facilitate the return of the Rohingyas to their true home.