Mid and long-term focus on the Rohingya crisis

Selim Jahan | Update:

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf. ReutersThe Rohingya crisis today stands as a local, regional and global problem. It is undoubtedly an emotional one, but the crisis is far more than a matter of emotions. It is a matter of conscience too. It is not just a matter of rhetoric, but of reasoning too. It is not just to be condemned, but to be analysed as well. It is not just a matter of the present, it has a past too. It is not merely local, but regional. It is not short-lived, but long-term for sure.

However, our focus must not be diverted from the immediate, urgent and imperative tasks. These are essential and do not depend on any mid or long-term programmes. These tasks must be done and must be done now and continuously be carried out. These are driven by humanitarian compulsions. These urgent and imperative tasks are in three categories.

First of all, our ‘save humanity’ context must not just be maintained, but must be established on firmer ground. In context of the Rohingyas, humanity today has been dashed to the ground and the lives of thousands are at stake. Distressed humanity is at our doorstep, seeking help. Bangladesh has drawn the distressed close, giving no second thought to its own paucity of resources. These factors are overshadowed by the compulsions of humanity.

The humanitarian stance adopted by Bangladesh regarding the Rohingya refugees, is a reflection of our values, our history. This must be upheld. We must give the refugees their due dignity, ensure their human rights and treat them as guests, not as burdens. They are not refugees or infiltrators. They are simply people in distress, and need no other label. Humanity is vast and expansive. Politics is small and limited.

Secondly, the state machinery that has pounced like terrorists on its own people, deserves all condemnation. It is set on wiping out an entire race, forcing the people to flee from their own land. A state’s obligation is to provide safety to its citizens. But when a state turns from its role as protector to that of an aggressive opponent, we will condemn it with words of hatred. We condemn the people who are in a frenzy of driving away their fellowmen. Such desecration of humanity must be condemned today, tomorrow and for all times to come.

Thirdly, international condemnation is essential to stop this ethnic annihilation. The international community must take up immediate measures to provide the refugees with security, food, protection, shelter and other necessities. They must also take up political and diplomatic efforts. The international community has not always acted positively at times of various crises and have been criticised for unnecessary delays in taking action. It is time to make amends.

Five factors must be given due attention in the mid and long-term in order to ensure the above-mentioned three tasks:

One, it is imperative to look back in history to resolve the presence crisis of the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas have been residing in Myanmar from the 15th century, mainly in the Rakhine state. The 1.02 million Rohingyas, mostly Muslims, constitute only 2 per cent of Myanmar’s population. The Rakhines make up 40 per cent. The Rohingyas have been citizens of Myanmar for centuries and this is their country. Myanmar is going all out to prove there are Bangali and that Bangladesh is their motherland. They have accordingly taken up a policy of persecution to drive them out of the country. Following the Goebbelsian method of propaganda, they have managed to create an anti-Rohingya mindset among the majority. As a result, Rohingyas today are aliens in their own land.


Two, it is only natural for a long-persecuted and oppressed population to become rebellious and for extremist outfits to emerge. It has been no exception in Rakhine.  When Rohingyas fled from oppression into Bangladesh in 1979-80, Islamic politics entered the Rakhine region. And Iran’s Islamic revolution, the rise of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Muslim unrest in Kashmir and Palestine, all served as triggers to the process.

Three, efforts to taint the Rohingya crisis with a religious tinge must be rejected. It is the humanitarian aspect that comes first and foremost. Giving it a religious angle will serve to deepen the crisis for both the Rohingyas and for Bangladesh too.  Highlighting their identity as a religious minority will serve to overshadow their identity as Myanmar citizens. This will give the Myanmar authorities scope to deprive them of their rights as citizens. It will also give space to the extremists among the Rohingyas.

Four, it is no secret that for various reasons, China and India’s stance regarding the Rohingya crisis does not go in our favour. What is to be done? There are many things to be done and our prime minister has set the stage for this in her words and actions within and outside of the country. Her visit to the Rohingya refugee camps within the country and her recent speech at the United Nations had highlighted the commitment of Bangladesh. She presented specific proposals at the UN, including unconditional halt of the ethnic cleansing and violence in Rakhine, ensuring protection of all regardless of race or religion, forming a security zone in Myanmar under UN supervision, and immediately sending an investigation team of the UN Secretary General to Myanmar.

Certain mid-term tasks can be adopted in this regard. Firstly, Bangladesh’s diplomatic missions abroad can arrange for talks with the governments of the respective countries in order to mobilize public opinion. Diplomacy is not a short race, but a long journey. It is not a sudden flash, but a continuity.

Secondly, efforts to arrange for funds and relief for the refugees must be stepped up though bilateral and multilateral discussions with international agencies. The UN can be kept at the centre of this.

Thirdly, Bangladesh should put to use America’s recent strong support for the Rohingyas.

In the fourth place, we have very good relations with China. It is possible to change China’s present stance by means of a high level visit to clarify Bangladesh’s stand on the Rohingys issue.

Fifthly, erroneous views and misleading information within Bangladesh must be changed and a pragmatic, positive public opinion must be moblised.

Six, a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis is imperative. They are citizens of Myanmar and Myanmar must ensure their rights and security. Two proposals of our prime minister need to be given due consideration - safe repatriation and rehabilitation of all Rohingya refugees, and unconditional implementation of the Kofi Annan commission’s recommendations.

Such tasks are not easy, but they are not impossible either. Even more complex and explosive situations around the world have been resolved. So why for in the case of the Rohingya crisis?

We have only two options ahead of us. One is to say, ‘nothing can be done’ and sit tight playing a blame game. The other is to adopt a constructive mindset and work towards resolving the crisis. The decision is ours. One must just keep in mind that an attitude of hopelessness leads to nowhere. At the end of the day, achievements have to be earned by taking correct decisions.              

* Selim Jahan is an economist and columnist. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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