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The September 2017 response of the Bangladesh government to the unfolding crisis in Myanmar concerning the Rohingyas is certainly worthy of praise on humanitarian grounds and has duly been acclaimed globally. Intriguingly, however, this represents a sudden reversal of and stands in sharp contrast to the government’s long-held Rohingya policy. This commentary searches for recent dynamics behind this welcome reversal in policy. If the dynamics reverse, would the government’s latest compassionate overture disappear?
First, it is worthwhile to summarily recollect the Bangladesh government’s Rohingya policy since the 1990s. While the fleeing Rohingyas have been permitted into Bangladesh on a limited and sporadic basis, the long-pursued policy can hardly be termed compassionate or even sufficiently humanitarian and has drawn ongoing and widespread criticism, especially from the local and international human rights and relief organisations.
As early as 1992, during the BNP regime, the Bangladesh government barred the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from register Rohingya arrivals . Even today a large majority of Rohingyas (likely exceeding 600,000) in Bangladesh are officially treated as illegal migrants and are deprived of many rights and benefits granted under the international refugee convention. They cannot freely seek employment and residence, are denied official access to health care and education offered by UNHCR and partner organisations, and are not even officially qualified for the World Food Programme ration.
In November 2010, the government suspended the UNHCR’s programme to resettle the Rohingyas in third countries [1, 2] and outlawed marriage between Bangladeshis and Rohingyas . In August 2012, several aid agencies, namely, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Action Against Hunger (ACF) and Muslim Aid UK, were banned from the refugee camps [3, 4]. And of course, prior to September 2017, with bouts of Rohingya exodus, such as in 2012 and most recently in 2016, the government enforced a hard stance of rebuffing the majority of fleeing Rohingyas from the waters and land border [4, 5, 6, 7].
Second, the often cited rationales for the government’s less than kind actions are that Bangladesh is too poor and overpopulated to be generous to the Rohingyas, that there is security risk for Bangladesh such as religious militancy, drug addiction and smuggling, cross-border insurgency movement, etc., and a more compassionate stand would encourage more migration, the so-called “pull factor” [3,4]. Such reasoning has been voiced even at the top levels, for example, by the then foreign minister in 2012  and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself in 2012  and as recently as in 2016 .
All of these arguments may be considered to varying extents. But Bangladesh did not suddenly become much richer, the population pressure has only grown, the risk of religious militancy has at best been contained and not diminished in a transnational sense, drug addiction and trafficking has no sign of abatement, and the risk of insurgent activity, like attacks on the Myanmar border posts, is no less elevated. If these concerns did not change materially from the past, then what did?
Third, the latest bout of Myanmar violence against the Rohingyas including mass murders and rapes has been so brutal and extensive that it has led to the largest single exodus (more than 430,000) and has drawn an unprecedented level of global attention, condemnation and call for corrective action, except of course from China and India, the two mighty archrivals looking to win greater favour with the Myanmar powerbrokers . Dogged by the persistently unenviable international standing on human rights and governance failures, the Bangladesh government may thus have deemed this moment of global attention to be an opportune one to demonstrate the nation’s constitutional commitment to uphold fundamental human rights and champion the cause of oppressed people.
Fourth, unlike past episodes of large unrest, this time the stream of graphic pictures of unbearable sufferings reached many more millions of Bangladeshis, thanks to the rapid growth of wireless communication and social networks, thereby igniting mass empathy and mobilising nationwide support for humanitarian considerations to take precedence over legitimate concerns about security and economic burden. While the current and prior heads of government must have had been personally moved by the longstanding plight of the Rohingyas, the country has never before been so united in concern for the Rohingyas. Perhaps, to respect the will of the people, the current government has reversed its historical policy of minimal commitment and is now proactively championing the cause in the global arena.
Fifth, since the national emergence of the Chittagong-based Hifazat movement a few years back, the traditionally secular ruling party of Awami League has made a number of uncharacteristic anti-secular overtures and concessions to diffuse archrival BNP’s political hold on the Muslim electorate with overriding religious sentiments. Further, as the AL-led regime pushed to bring the 1971 war criminals to justice while simultaneously tackling the rising tide of internationally-linked religious militancy in Bangladesh, it might have felt the need to partially, and hopefully temporarily, sacrifice its steadfast adherence to secular values. The latest tragedy of the Rohingyas was perhaps deemed by the AL as a timely opening to further impress the targeted electorate about the AL’s commitment toward the cause of Muslims worldwide. While some may find such reasoning to be cynical, it is undeniable that the AL-led government has consistently emphasised the Muslim denomination of the persecuted Rohingyas, instead of their linguistic or cultural identity. At the recent UN meetings in New York that included an address to the leaders of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), the PM clearly and passionately advocated for help for the “Muslim” (Rohingya) brothers in distress.
To be sure, the Rohingya refugees are overwhelmingly Muslims and there is absolutely nothing wrong with advocating compassion for fellow Muslims. But what remains not so subtle is that the same Rohingya people were not historically awarded such ardent consideration as fellow Muslims.
To conclude, the admirable and much welcome reversal of the GOB’s longstanding minimalist approach to the Rohingya refugees is likely driven by a 1971-like national unity to aid the ravaged Rohingyas that in turn was facilitated by the fast expanding wireless communication and social networks. It is also possibly laced by a desire to shed the country’s negative image in terms of human rights and governance failures. An ongoing political shift of the ruling Awami League away from its unyielding secular values may also have played a role. It is nonetheless hoped that the new found national unity for the cause of humanity would continue to hold, as was envisioned by Bangabandhu and his people of 1971.