The Daily Star, Dhaka August 21, 2012
Bangladesh’s refusal to allow in a fresh influx of Rohingya refugees has had a positive externality: it has brought to the world’s attention the plight of half a million Rohingyas who live in squalid conditions in camps on Bangladesh’s southeast borders.
The New York Times, for example, published six articles on the Rohingyas between June 10 and 19 compared to eleven in the last thirty years. From The Wall Street Journal to The Sydney Morning Herald, major newspapers across the world have expressed concern towards the stance that Bangladesh has taken. With pictures of refugees on boats trying to reach Bangladesh’s shores popping up in international media, Bangladesh appears as a state without a conscience. Thus, Dan Morrison wrote in his recent piece in the New York Times: "It’s a pity that Bangladesh, itself born in 1971 amid a massive refugee crisis, should be so unwilling to help." But one must also concede that allowing them entry is only a stop-gap arrangement that could lead to continuation of the problem.
The United States, the United Nations, and numerous human rights organisations were quick to send messages requesting that Dhaka allow the Rohingyas in. Many Bangladeshis are sympathetic to the Rohingyas as well, and would like their government to protect them. However, to focus on this specific demand and to expect a state whose capacities are already stretched to continue hosting refugees indefinitely is to ignore the historical conditions that produced this problem in the first place.
The Rohingya crisis began in 1974 when the Burmese military government took away the Rohingyas’ citizenship, claiming they were economic migrants who travelled to Myanmar during British rule. This ethnic group is, thus, stateless, with the Myanmar government not only refusing them citizenship but also engaging in ethnic cleansing. Backed by China and North Korea, Myanmar has not been held to account for its repression of minority groups.
Bangladesh has been the primary host to those fleeing such repression ever since. While refuge in Bangladesh saved their lives, the conditions the Rohingyas faced, and continue to face, are dire. Bangladesh barely has the resources or the capability to provide even the basic necessities. The half a million Rohingyas living in official and unofficial camps in Cox’s Bazar along Bangladesh’s southeast border with Myanmar live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, in makeshift homes, with little access to clean drinking water and proper food. Moreover, they are subjected to maltreatment by local law-enforcement authorities as well as by locals who see them as a threat and as competition for the limited resources and jobs that exist in this already impoverished country. The perception that the Rohingyas are there "forever", given their stateless status, only serves to further marginalise them.
Thus, the Bangladeshi position is a contradictory one: on the one hand, it engages in "quiet diplomacy" in its interaction with the Myanmar government, but on the other, it continues to refuse Rohingyas entry into Bangladesh, hoping that it will force them to go back "home" and deter further influx.
The Karen are a Myanmar ethnic minority group who began fleeing Myanmar in 1984. Like the Rohingyas they continue to face state repression. These refugees are resettled in advanced industrialised countries – most notably in the United States and Australia – where they are rehabilitated and integrated into society. Refugees from Myanmar’s neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia have also benefitted from similar programmes. Why haven’t the Rohingyas been similarly accommodated by the West?
Here lies the hypocrisy. While the world is quick to point fingers at Bangladesh for its inhuman stance, it is Islamophobia that prevents a real solution from being enacted. My interviews with UNHCR researchers indicate that after 9/11 there is reluctance in resettling Rohingyas in countries like the United States because of "potential links to Islamic terrorism" given that they are Muslims.
This is a time when Myanmar is opening up to the world; there are hopes of a democratic government; opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has reached out to minority groups and even visited Karen refugee camps in Thailand. Amidst all these positive changes in Myanmar, however, there seems to be no mention of Rohingyas. Instead, there is fresh violence perpetrated against them, which is causing yet another refugee-flight into Bangladesh. Closing the border may be Bangladesh’s cry for attention at a time when perhaps there is an audience, in Myanmar and internationally.
There are signs of democratic change, with Suu Kyi gaining political ground and negotiating with the military government. Although segments of Myanmar’s population would like to see Rohingyas as Bangladesh’s "problem", democracy advocates should be aware that democratic transition in Myanmar cannot be complete without addressing the plight of its minorities, including Rohingyas.
In the past six months, the likes of Hillary Clinton and Manmohan Singh have made official visits to Myanmar. Investors from across the world are swarming to take advantage of Myanmar’s oil, natural gas, gems and forests as it liberalises its economy. The world is watching Myanmar keenly. This scrutiny should extend to Myanmar’s continued refusal to take responsibility for the plight of the Rohingyas.
What better time to draw attention to Rohingyas than now, when it is in transition and all eyes are on Myanmar?
For almost thirty years, Myanmar has refused to accept Rohingyas as its citizens. It is time for Myanmar, Bangladesh, the UNHCR and the Rohingyas to come to an understanding about both a short-term and a long-term, durable solution.
While the Bangladeshi government has a responsibility to ensure that Rohingyas are not victimised by locals or by law-enforcement authorities, the solution is not only about Bangladesh opening its borders to give Rohingyas shelter. The root of the problem must be addressed, for which Myanmar needs to be held accountable if democracy is to have any meaning. It is about coordinating efforts across countries and international organisations; about recognising that nationalistic and racist elements are an impediment to any kind of resolution; about shedding biases, prejudices and Islamophobia; and about demanding that the world that is now eyeing Myanmar, to explore and exploit, has a responsibility too.
Navine Murshid is an assistant professor of political science, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, and a member of the Bangladesh Development Initiative.