Professor CR Abrar, an expert on migration and refugee issues, has taught at the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University for around four decades. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, he talks about the Rohingya crisis, problems pertaining to their repatriation, the deterioration of law and order in the Rohingya camps, camp management, the position of the global community and emerging regional threats.
A 'physical arrangement' instrument had been signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar in January 2018 for the repatriation of Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh. Four years have passed since then but no one has been sent back to Myanmar.
This agreement was supplementary to the repatriation-related agreement signed in November 2017 with Myanmar. Unfortunately, despite this initiative and the expectations at a government level, it has not been possible to send back a single Rohingya till date. The reason behind this is that Myanmar was never committed to repatriation. They took full advantage of certain inherent weaknesses in the agreement. Due to their own interests, the powerful countries did not put as much pressure on Myanmar as was needed to resolve the Rohingya problem. The repatriation process has thus not materialised.
The agreement has said that Rohingya repatriation would be resolved within two years. At the time, many quarters had questioned the success of such a bilateral agreement which lacked any international guarantee. Their misgivings seem to have come true.
That is how it seems. Myanmar has failed to duly honour the trust with which Bangladesh signed the agreement as a good neighbour. It is said that a certain country that is a staunch supporter of Myanmar and a friend of Bangladesh played a role in the signing of this agreement. So that country too must share responsibility of this agreement not being implemented. That is why it can firmly be said that international involvement was essential in the signing of such a repatriation agreement.
After military rule was declared in Myanmar, many felt that the repatriation process would be easier. Why had they thought that?
If anyone had thought that the military rule following the military coup would make repatriation any easier, they were absolutely mistaken. As soon as they took over power, the new military leaders who were involved in the genocide, sent out positive messages about repatriation as a means to enhance their image on an international level. This never had any moral or realistic ground. So I see no reason to have any confidence in this. We must keep in mind that there was not an iota of difference between the military rulers and Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD Party on the Rohingya issue and there still is no difference. They simply change their tune occasionally when they come under pressure.
We do not hear of any discussions on Rohingya repatriation nowadays. Have we kind of given up?
It is a matter of great regret that there has been no progress whatsoever in the repatriation process. Even so, we must remain vocal in our demand for repatriation at various international and bilateral forums. At the same time, we must be realistic in realising that this repatriation will not take place any time in the near future. The two main reasons behind this are, the stand of the big powers not being conducive to this and the ongoing civil war between the Myanmar armed forces and supporters of the exiled National Unity Government, representing the Burman majority.
Also, the Arakan Army's armed activities against the Myanmar central government have increased in the Rohingya-populated Arakan region in recent times. In such a complex circumstances, it perhaps would not be right to expect that Rohingyas will be able to return to their homeland until the Arakan region comes under control of any single winner. And so we need to think afresh about the management of Rohingya refugees.
Do you think the Bangladesh government has any sort of shortcomings in its diplomatic activities at an international level concerning the Rohingya issue?
No matter what they may say about human rights and the rule of law, when it comes to international relations, all countries give priority to their own interests. A glaring example of this is the continued support given by various countries to Myanmar ever after the Rohingya genocide. The US, Russia, China, India and other countries continue their investments, trade and other activities with Myanmar due to its geopolitical importance and its natural resources. Such blatant support by these big countries towards a country accused of genocide, it extremely disappointing. These circumstances have pitched Bangladesh into the face of a serious challenge.
The security and law and order situation within the Rohingya camps is not at all good. A Rohingya leader was even killed inside the camps recently. Can any special initiative be taken regarding the security and management of the camps?
The law and order and security issue at the Rohingya camps has been a cause of concern for quite some time now. But the killing of a Rohingya leader within the stringent security arrangements of the camps is particularly significant. Earlier too there had been news reports of several refugees being killed. And in recent times there have been frequent fires breaking out in the camps. Just as it is essential to provide the families affected by the fire with adequate assistance, investigations must also be carried out to catch and try the persons responsible. Such measures are preconditions to improving law and order in the camps. If such measures can be taken, the Rohingya who have taken shelter in the camps and all persons involved in the camps, can have some sense of relief.
As there are no visible signs of any progress being made regarding repatriation of the Rohingyas, what initiative can the government take regarding the camps in these circumstances?
As I said, there is hardly any likelihood of the Rohingyas being sent back any time soon. What must be kept in mind is that this poverty-stricken community, deprived of education and awareness, can easily be used by others for various misdeeds. Given these circumstances, it has become essential to take initiative to build up an aware, creative and productive community. This requires education, health, skill enhancement and income generating activities. It is the global community that must take responsibility for this.
Naturally, various groups, like religious militant groups, human traffickers, drug traffickers and arms traffickers, will take advantage of the Rohingya's weaknesses and try to involve them in their crimes. That is a danger. But there is no scope to view these Rohingyas in the camps as the main perpetrators of such crimes. Before the huge influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in August 2017, such criminal networks had already been active in Cox's Bazar and Teknaf and reports of their crimes would appear regularly in the local and national press. Undoubtedly, in order to tackle such a situation, the Rohingya community sheltered in Bangladesh must be made aware and active, and their trust must be won.
These refugees, victims of the genocide experience, must be viewed through a humanitarian lens, not a lens of national security. After all, it was with this mindset that the Bangladesh government gave them shelter, for which Bangladesh won a position of special honour in the international arena as a sensitive and empathetic country.
You said that the Rohingya problem should not be viewed through a national security lens, but through a humanitarian lens. But centering Myanmar and Arakan, various armed groups are active in this region. There are allegations that a section of the Rohingyas is also involved in such groups. So there remains that national and international security threat.
For around 70 years now, the Burmese state controlled by the majority Burmans has been involved in various conflicts with the various ethnic groups there. In some cases those conflicts have had fallout on the neighbouring countries. In comparison, the Arakan region had been relatively stable and the Rohingya community had been living in peace. Towards the end of the seventies, the military rulers of the country took up various plans to exterminate the Rohingyas. Then the citizenship law in 1982 became the main weapon of repression against the Rohingyas. This law was used to render the Rohingyas stateless. In 1978 and 1991 there had been extensive operations to exterminate Rohingyas in the Arakan region. This continued later too, considered to be a slow burning genocide.
In recent times activities of the Arakan Army, controlled by the Buddhist community in Arakan, have stepped up. China is particularly perturbed by these activities of the Arakan Army against the Myanmar state because they have big investments in the Arakan region. Also, if the Rohingya problem is prolonged, a section of the Rohingyas may take up arms to face the repression and oppression from the Myanmar state on one hand, and the anti-Rohingya activities of the extremist Buddhists in Arakan. This will lead to further instability in the entire region.
Many feel that the shadow of the US-China global conflict may also fall on this region. What impact will this situation have on the Rohingya problem?
I do not see any fundamental difference between China and the US on the Rohingya issue. The position of the two countries is almost the same. Both the countries support the Myanmar government. China has overtly taken a position in favour of Myanmar. While the Biden administration was expected to take up a fresh policy regarding Myanmar, it failed to do so. It is clear that, despite the Democrat-controlled Congress' pressure to change the US stand on Myanmar, the Biden administration is maintaining the Trump administration policy in the interests of the US oil company Chevron and other US corporation with investments in Myanmar. So the Myanmar administration is in a favourable position in all considerations and this is not likely to change any time in the near future.
There is no progress in the repatriation process, the Rohingya refugee issue is also losing importance in the international arena. Given these circumstances, what should Bangladesh do now?
Undoubtedly Bangladesh is in a serious crisis with the Rohingyas. The presence of the Rohingyas is having a detrimental effect on the people of Ukhiya and Teknaf as well as the environment there. While the main expenses of the refugees are being borne by the international community for the time being, there is no guarantee that this will continue, given the prevailing restive global conditions. A marked lack of empathy towards the refugees is emerging which can make their condition worse.
We must keep in mind that the Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh to save their lives from the genocide, just as we fled to India and to Arakan in Burma in 1971. We were fortunate that the liberation war ended in nine months.
In order to ensure national security, we must maintain a humanitarian outlook towards the refugees. They are deprived of education and work, they are frustrated and alienated. Such a community can usher in danger for any society or state. As I said, such a community can fall prey to evil quarters.
Also, over the past four years Bangladesh has invested in this moral capital, gaining a sort of 'soft power' in the international arena. So rather than a hurried makeshift decisions on such a sensitive issue, it is necessary take up realistic, morally strong, appropriate and far-reaching planning.
Thank you too