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Intractable dimensions created by the Rohingya presence

Muhammad Zamir | Published: September 15, 2019 20:34:50


Rohingya refugees cut hill to make their makeshift shelter near Balukhali in Cox's Bazar, September 4, 2017.        — Photo: Reuters

Since late 1977, Bangladesh has had to be a gracious host to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims when they sought sanctuary here from ethnic cleansing, rape, arson and murder carried out against them by communal Buddhist monks of Myanmar.

Such injustice, communal and religious hatred and racial discrimination happened because the Myanmar Administration did not bother to be consistent with international laws, regulations and the principles of human rights.

Myanmar has got emboldened because of its potential in the form of energy resources and territories that can be used by some neighbours for improving their economic and geo-strategic interests. This geo-strategic paradigm has also led a few others to hold Myanmar's hand because they can sell armaments and defence equipment to that country. These countries are all sitting in the same dining table with a confident Myanmar, sharing aspirations of that country's armed forces, cloaked in the garb of a so-called elected democratic civilian government.

This one-sided approach has evolved and gained in strength through false gestures demonstrated to the rest of the world in the name of democratic governance. This process has been further strengthened through the lifting of economic and other sanctions that had been in place on Myanmar. The USA, Canada, EU, Australia and other developed countries were confident that after democracy had been restored Myanmar would abide by international legal norms. They thought that the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations would be carried out. Unfortunately, they failed to see the truth and the many potholes that hid the reality.

It has since become very clear that Myanmar might have an elected government and a so-called civilian Administration but the reins of power are still held by their arrogant armed forces. The government is now nakedly supported by radical and communal Buddhist monks of the Ma Ba Tha group who have their own agenda with regard to the promotion and creation of a completely Buddhist State without the presence of ethnic minorities belonging to any other religious faith. The leader of this ultra-nationalist group who advocates racism and communalism is always accompanied by heavily armed personnel in keeping with their unholy alliance with the Myanmar Army.

The government of Myanmar and other administrative authorities presently practise a format where no one is allowed to even the utter the word 'Rohingya' in the context of the affected population. It was sad to see such a hindrance was created for even Pope Francis during his visit to Myanmar from 27 November 27 to December 02, 2017. The Pope very carefully avoided using the term 'Rohingya' during his statements in that country. Myanmar authorities believe such a measure will help their younger generation to forget that such a population ever existed in their country. One should not forget that Hitler did the same with regard to the Jewish population in Germany during his Nazi rule.

It was such a dynamics that led to the diabolic events that started two years ago in August, 2017. There was the alleged attack by Rohingya militants on some Myanmar law enforcement outposts resulting in casualties. This eventually led to systematic oppression, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape and arson and the creation of more than 7,90,000 illegal migrants who left their Rakhine homes in Myanmar to enter the adjacent south-eastern districts of Bangladesh - Cox's Bazar, Ukhiya and Teknaf. This happened at a time when Bangladesh was suffering from massive flooding throughout its northern and north-eastern regions.

MAGNANIMITY VS FOUL PLAY: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was consistent with her magnanimity. Makeshift structures were built for these Rohingyas so that they could find safety and shelter. A coordinated effort was undertaken by the government and several international and local organisations to ensure that this suffering mass would receive food, health-care, reasonable water supply and sanitation and also special care for their children. This also included facilities where the children could carry on with their educational requirements. The host community demonstrated their goodwill by coming forward through an interactive engagement.

Different institutions related to the United Nations and many other international and local organisations (including BRAC) were also permitted to be associated in the looking after of the displaced Rohingyas.

The subsequent months revealed a gradual growth in the number of Rohingyas living within the different camps in this sub-region. There were also many deleterious effects that started having toxic effects on the affected region.

Careful surveys carried out by different government agencies have revealed that the total number of the Rohingya population has now crossed one million - and that includes more than half a million children. There has been the birth of nearly 90,000 Rohingya children in different camps. There have been efforts to persuade the Rohingya women in these camps to follow family planning methods but that has met with failure. The gradual expansion of the camps meant to provide temporary shelter to the Rohingyas has led to destruction of nearly 200 hectares of arable land. About 5000 acres of land has also, according to UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), been rendered useless because of sandy soil flowing down from the denuded slopes. The denuding of vast tracts of the hillside of the required vegetation has seriously affected the use of such forest area by wild animals. Besides, this displaced Rohingya population has now become busy in drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling and in other nefarious activities in the Cox's Bazar area.

There have been several bilateral discussions between Bangladesh and Myanmar officials in Dhaka as well as in Myanmar. The effort was directed to the possible early repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas to Myanmar. Digital Identity Cards of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh camps were prepared with the help of Bangladesh authorities and international organisations. The latest endeavour featured a joint venture undertaken by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the RRRC (Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission).

At the same time in these bilateral meetings Myanmar was informed of the five demands that had been put forward by the Rohingyas from their camps. That included - (a) citizenship for the Rohingyas with equal opportunities, (b) security for the Rohingyas after their return with monitoring facility of such security arrangements by international actors, (c) return of land forcibly taken away from them and proper compensation for damage that had taken place, (d) justice for the violence perpetrated on them and (e) rehabilitation of those living in internally displaced camps in the Rakhine State in Myanmar.

These were indeed tall orders. In an interview with German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) towards the end of August which was published on  September 04, 2019, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has pointed out the reality: "Myanmar authorities have agreed to one of these demands: provide safety, security and mobility to the Rohingya people. Demands such as granting citizenship to Rohingya, punishment for people involved in the Rohingya massacre, recognising Rohingya as an ethnic group, and allowing them to return to their own homes have not been met."

There have been two attempts to repatriate the Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Both were symbolical - one on  November 15, 2018 and the other on  August 22, 2019. Both attempts failed as those identified as acceptable for return decided not to take that step because they had not received any assurance of being accorded Myanmar citizenship. Matters came to a head on August 25 with Rohingyas convening a protest meeting in the Kutupalong Camp with digitally printed banners and placards written in English pressing their five-points demand and refusing to move out of Bangladesh.

There were fiery speeches by Rohingya activist Mr. Mohibullah and other Rohingyas. Instead of supposedly being a prayer meeting, the gathering assumed a political nature. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas turned up in a particular uniform dress code. The disappointing aspect was that the Bangladesh authorities appeared to have been totally ignorant that such a development was about to take place. It was evident that the coordination required for holding the meeting had required funding and that had obviously originated from external sources. Foreign and many local NGOs (non-governmental organisations) working in the Rohingya camps have since been identified as having helped the Rohigyas hold the meeting and encouraging them not to return to their homeland. These include US-based NGOs Adventist Development and Relief (ADRA) and Al Markazul Islam (AMI) and also the Rohingya Refugee Committee (RRC) and the Voice of Rohingya and Arakan Refugee Society for Peace and Humanaity (ARSPM). They have been identified as being responsible  for creating a negative mindset among the Rohingya population in these camps about their possible transfer to housing facilities built for them in Bhashanchar. It has since been discovered that hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have been helped to obtain mobile phone SIMs, Bangladesh Citizenship ID Cards and sometimes even Bangladeshi passports.

In view of the above evolving circumstances it is good that the government has now taken some significant decisions: (a) identifying those organisations who are instigating Rohingyas not to return to their homeland, (b) banning their entry or operations within the Rohingya camp area, (c) incapacitating the use of the SIMs obtained by the Rohingyas illegally, and (d) building strong barbed-wire fences around the camps to stop Rohingyas from leaving their camps and becoming a source of anxiety for the host community. In addition, many of the officials of the RRRC have also been transferred out of that region.

Bangladesh has done enough. It is now the turn of the United Nations as well as  the European Union (EU), the USA, Canada and Australia to be more active in ensuring repatriation of the Rohingyas, now temporarily sheltered in Bangladesh, to Myanmar, their homeland.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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