‘Are we heading for a Bihari-like situation?’

Staff Correspondent | Update:

Shafaat AhmadObsession with one nation, one religion and one language continues down till today in Myanmar, leading to its present predicament. The psyche of the country has been shaped by a fear of disintegration, xenophobia, military fears of uprisings and invasions and also by a strong sense of Burmese nationalism.

These observations were made by Brig Gen (retd) Shafaat Ahmad, PhD scholar on Myanmar Studies. He was speaking at a roundtable on ‘Understanding Myanmar: Managing the Rohingya Refugee Crisis.’ The roundtable was organised by Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (BIPSS) at the think-tank’s office in the capital city on Tuesday.

At the outset of the programme, BIPSS president Maj Gen (retd) Muniruzzaman pointed out that, to understand the present crisis pertaining to the Rohingyas, it was necessary to go back in history to understand the mindset of the people, the events and geo-political developments that have created the present-day situation.

“Buddhism is a binding force in Myanmar,” said Shafaat Ahmad, referring to a common saying that ‘to be Burman is to be Buddhist.’ It has been a society guided by the monks, he observed.

Pointing to the issues that boosted the extreme nationalism in Myanmar, he listed these as diarchy, education, political monks, the influx of Indian and the ultra-nationalist 969 movement.

The 2008 constitution gave enormous power to the military and obviously, Shafaat Ahmad pointed out, Aung San Suu Kyi virtually has no power at all. The foreign policy was shaped by the military and the country’s geo-strategic stakes lay with Indian and China.

There was a change in the foreign policy of Myanmar after 2001, when it shed its isolation and opened up to the world. It even held ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. There was a lifting of sanctions by various countries and visitors flocked to Myanmar. There was a new government at the helm and the leaders visited all the neighbouring countries, except Bangladesh.

In managing the refugee crisis, Shafaat Ahmad presented a brief chronology of the changing scenario for Rohingyas. In 1961, two Rohingyas were elected as members of parliament. In 2010, four Rohingyas were elected to the parliament. In 1962 the military took over. Then coming up to 1982, the Citizenship Act was imposed, denying the Rohingyas of their fundamental rights as citizens of Myanmar.

The key presentation posed questions in conclusion: What is the Bangladesh plan concerning the Rohingya refugee crisis? Are we heading for a Palestine or Bihari-like situation? Can the refugees be confined to a particular area? And for how long? And what is the involvement of the local political elements?

Commenting on the present situation, former election commissioner Brig Gen (red) Sakhawat Hossain referred to the ASEAN stand that this was an ‘internal affair of Myanmar’. He said this was the longest-ever civil war and though it affected Bangladesh, the Bangladesh government never had any tangible Burma policy.

He said the two countries that could help mediate the problem were China and India. However, neither would be interested in doing so. India had interests in its Kaladan multimodal project which ran through Myanmar. And China also had an enormous investment there. Another powerful country, Russia, had two nuclear reactor projects in Myanmar and had trained 20 Myanmar students in nuclear science for the sake of these projects. So given their respective interests, none of these countries were likely to intervene in the situation.

Former civil and military bureaucrats, media persons, academics and members of the civil society also spoke at the roundtable.

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