Rohingya negotiations through the lens of ‘game theory’

The Daily Star  June 18, 2019

Rohingya negotiations through the lens of ‘game theory’

The Rohingya population in Bangladesh continues to grow. There are now over one million Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, and with each passing year, their number is increasing by approximately 20,000. Ominously, a recently leaked report commissioned by ASEAN suggests that Myanmar is willing to accept only 500,000 of them. This report, entitled “Preliminary Needs Assessment for Repatriation in Rakhine State, Myanmar”, prepared by ASEAN’s Emergency Response and Assessment Team, indicates that Myanmar is prepared for only half a million of the returnees. That is the official number of refugees provided by Myanmar to this team, according to AFP.

Since the Rohingya repatriation programme is at a standstill, it is time for Bangladesh government and civil society to take a fresh look at the ongoing negotiations between the parties involved and use a very potent tool utilised in economics and other disciplines, viz. “game theory”. This theory forms the core of models utilised in trade negotiations, international diplomacy, and global treaties involving two or more parties, uncertain outcomes, and strategic behaviour. Unlike a game of chess, game theory is amenable to cooperative as well as competitive behaviours and provides insights to understand and guide negotiations between nations.

Unfortunately, the UNSC has failed to take any action fearful of Russia and China’s use of their veto powers. Could we work with our allies to persuade Russia and China to relent on their insistence that it is a matter of the two countries only? What leverage do we have with them?

The essence of game theory is captured in a paradigm known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. For instance, two friends, Karim and Rahim, are arrested by police on suspicion of bank robbery. To force a confession from them, the friends are isolated from each other and offered a deal. If either Karim or Rahim confesses but the other does not, then the confessor gets a reduced sentence of one year for cooperating with the police. The other gets a life sentence. If, on the other hand, neither confesses, they each get two years. Now, imagine Bangladesh and Myanmar are engaged in a game similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the following paragraphs, I will lay out some of the threads needed to build a complete model for the current situation.

The key issues are not in dispute. There are three parties: Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas would like to go back, Myanmar has expressed its intention to facilitate the repatriation, and Bangladesh is eager to go to any length to help with the process.

There is another aspect related to it. According to a report published online, “If other refugee crises around the world are a reasonable guide, it is rare for people who flee the conflict to return home very quickly.” A UNHCR study done in 2004 concludes that the average refugee could stay in exile for 17 years, although that number has recently been disputed by the World Bank.

So, Bangladesh needs to reassess what resources it has available to expedite the repatriation. To take an extreme case, are we ready to use force to advance our goals? No, according to Major General Abdur Rashid (Ret.) of the Institute of Conflict Law Development Studies in Dhaka. “Myanmar remains our neighbour,” he said, emphasising the economic benefits of an understanding with Myanmar. “There is no point in fighting them and we need to maintain a good relationship. We need dialogue.”

The government has so far taken only conciliatory steps including harnessing international diplomatic support, marshalling financial commitments from UN and international agencies, and the Middle East. However, other options are: a Security Council (UNSC) vote, threats of economic sanctions, support for insurgents in Rakhine, Shan, and other states, etc.

Unfortunately, the UNSC has failed to take any action fearful of Russia and China’s use of their veto powers. Could we work with our allies to persuade Russia and China to relent on their insistence that it is a matter of the two countries only? What leverage do we have with them?

Another issue: what is the next move from Myanmar? Procrastinating on the Rohingya problem is favouring Myanmar. Clearly, Bangladesh has to consider whether it is playing a two-party or multi-party game. According to columnist Mahmud Hasan, it is the latter, and we need to develop a strategy for that.

Taking all of the above into consideration, let us look at an outline of a simple model through the lens of the game theory which will provide us with an idea of how many Rohingyas Myanmar will take back and the modality, including the number of refugees who will be eligible. Each country has two or more strategies available to them, but the outcome is influenced not only by the strategy chosen but also by what the other does. For example, if Bangladesh resorts to aggressive diplomacy (S1), Myanmar might react by either taking a more conciliatory approach (T1) or refuse to engage in any meaningful negotiations and seek assistance from its friends, if it has any (T2). On the other hand, Bangladesh could play hardball: stop any further negotiations with Myanmar and mobilise international opinion to pressure Myanmar. This is S2. In response, Naypyidaw may decide to adopt T2 and ignore the rest of the world.

Each of these strategies has possible consequences or outcomes, both for Bangladesh and Myanmar. To follow up on our hypothetical example above, if Bangladesh adopts S1, and Myanmar goes for T2, the international community might help with more money for the refugees while Myanmar could find itself facing some international sanctions. However, there is a downside for Bangladesh too with S1 and T2. Bangladesh faces many hurdles which it needs to overcome, and we have to factor in Myanmar’s underestimation of Rohingyas, endless delays, acting in bad faith, and denial of citizenship and equal rights.

Unlike a zero-sum game or situations where one party can gain only if the other party loses, it’s not so in most game-theory applications. Our goal—to repatriate the Rohingyas back to their homeland—can be turned into a win-win outcome. Given the lengthy and uncertain time frame, Bangladesh government must address a pertinent question: what are the strategies available to exert pressure on the government of Myanmar to provide a timetable to take the Rohingyas back? As with any negotiations, Bangladesh government must be willing to ramp up the pressure and declare, or subtly imply, that “no options are off the table!”


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.

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