August marks the second anniversary of the arrival of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In Myanmar, the Rohingyas are hated for their language, faith and complexion, three of the commonest markers of racism.
In Buddhist Myanmar, populated by the fair or yellow complexioned “Burma”, speaking a Tibeto-Burman language, the Rohingyas have all the hallmarks for becoming a target of ethnic hatred. It’s easy to identify and exclude them.
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They had arrived in Bangladesh twice before, in 1977 and 1992. But they could return due to international pressure on the Myanmar government. However, this time, the scenario is more grave and many see little chance of their returning.
Bangladesh has done much to draw attention to the situation including by raising it at the UNSC. But the outcomes are discouraging with less chances of resolution than it seemed when the deluge first came.
Two years later, the refugees’ going home seems a very remote possibility. Bangladesh does not have any superpower backing. For its part, Bangladesh doesn’t evince interest in global affairs for others to take interest in its affairs.
Bangladesh is stuck with a geography that makes it strategically non-significant. It plays no role in the global war and peace equations. It does not have any mineral or other resources. So, it barely matters.
Had it been a nuclear power or a producer of significant Islamic terrorism, things could be different. Ironically, Bangladesh has handled its jihadist threat so well that the world knows that for its own sake, Bangladesh will quell any such challenge. It has the capacity to do so. The contingent threat of the Rohingya refugees which many had thought would lead to Islamic extremism, never occurred. So why bother?
Will Rohingyas Return?
The Rohingyas are a largely powerless group, mostly poor and illiterate. They have made it thrice to Bangladesh now. Over the years, Myanmar has become an attractive target of foreign investment which gives it clout. It is also militarily strong making it confident about chasing the Rohingyas away.
The common assumption is that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her political friends are in power through elections. But this is only partially true. She never was fully in charge of the State and is not so now. The tussle between Suu Kyi and the military has always been there and it is the military which engineered the Rohingya crisis. The military did it to undermine civilian power and also to gain popularity in a country where hating Rohingyas is almost a national passion if not an obligation.
The military acted on its own to kick off the ethnic cleansing campaign followed by occasional acts of killing and rape. Together, they have been described by many, including the UN, as perpetrators of genocide.
However, to the people of Myanmar, the army’s actions have been a sign of its patriotism. It had expelled the “enemy”. While the Rohingyas may not be a physical threat, they are “outsiders” who have no space in Myanmar. The armed forces have thus proven their capacity to the people and are trusted to do the right thing. Thus the army has managed to retain its political clout and relevance. It is popular.
It is therefore more of an internal political strategy than anything else because the Rohingyas are not an economic, social or political threat. They are poor non-citizens, not occupying expensive land. Nor are they an insurgency threat. In fact, they are one of the few ethnic minorities who have no insurgency force. Even the Rakhines have their armed militants some of whom are, reports say, camped, ironically, in Bangladesh.
However, the Myanmar army did overestimate its cards regarding China. Several international experts had remarked that Myanmar had got China in its grip as the latter has directly invested in Myanmar and so are forced to back Yangon. But international/ Western investment has significantly declined in Myanmar since 2017 which has made China the biggest investor. The result is an increase in Chinese clout. This has enhanced Myanmar’s dependence on China.
So, even if the Myanmar government of Suu Kyi wants to take the Rohingyas back, the army won’t allow it as it is the one pulling the strings. It’s clout lies in showing that. Unless the military is dislodged from its present position in Myanmar, the Rohingyas may be also be parked in Bangladesh for long.
Is Bangladesh Still In Denial?
When the Rohingyas first came, Bangladesh downplayed the threat stating that it could manage the refugees. Two years later, the mood changed and many who matter are despondent saying that the Rohingya refugees will cause a major problem if not a crisis eventually.
The China-sponsored Bangladesh-Myanmar bi-lateral agreement has, as expected, croaked. Prof. Imtiaz Hossain, an expert on the topic, said at a recent seminar, that Myanmar can act the way it has because major powers including India and China are backing it. He said that only “creative diplomacy” can lead to a repatriation. That “creative” approach awaits spelling out.
Perhaps China could influence Myanmar to take some Rohingyas back, but what would China gain in return for this? China also knows that the terrorist threat is limited with no interest of any outside powers to foster it, unlike in 1992 when there was an outside interest. So, Beijing is relaxed.
What Bangladesh authorities underestimated was the local backlash which coupled with Yaba drug trade and other issues had made the refugee camp zone very volatile. Several cases of violence including killing have been reported. If locals feel they are paying a price for the Rohingyas camping there, there will be more stress. The heady days of taking care of helpless refugees without paying a major price are nearing an end.
The article appeared in the South Asian Monitor on August 31, 2019