'No clear future for the Rohingyas in sight'

Rahman Nasir Uddin
Prothom Alo

Rahman Nasir Uddin, professor of anthropology at the University of Chittagong, has been involved in research on Rohingyas for more than two decades. He has authored the book 'The Rohingya: An Ethnography of Subhuman Life,' published by Oxford University Press. He spoke about the Rohingya relocation and other related issues in an interview with Prothom Alo.


The relocation of Rohingya refugees from Cox's Bazar to Bhashan Char has drawn mixed reaction. The media has given a positive picture of the relocation, but the UN and certain rights organisations do not support the process. What is the actual picture?

The international community was in no way involved in the relocation process. That is why the UN, the European Union and several human rights organisations raised objections to this. On 12 November last year, five international rights organisations sought permission to visit Bhashan Char but the government didn’t allow that. The UN wanted to send a technical evaluation team but they were denied permission too. The government, however, said the UN didn't seek any permission officially.

Another reason of their objection is that Bhashan Char is only a 20-year-old island and was never inhabited before. They raised the question whether relocating Rohingyas to such a remote island would put them at risk. Undeniably, the relocating the Rohingyas to Bhashan Char reflects the goodwill of the government, but it would have been better if the controversy could have been avoided.


Thousands of Rohingyas living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps face all sorts of sufferings. On the other hand, Bhashan Char has all sorts of infrastructural facilities and is relatively quite livable. So why has this relocation to Bhashan Char raised questions?

Most of the Rohingya think Bhashan Char is a low-lying island and big flood or tidal surge will wash away the people and the houses. They feel life is insecure there. Besides, 306 Rohingyas who returned from Malaysia and had been living on the island since May 2020, had spoken negatively about the place. That discouraged others. Also, family and community are very important to the Rohingyas and these ties grew stronger at the refugee camps. They fear relocation will snap those ties. Besides, several NGOs have also discouraged Rohingyas from going to Bhashan Char. After all, leaving modern facilities in Cox’s Bazar to work at Bhashan Char will be difficult for many national and international NGOs.


Bangladesh shelters nearly 1.1 million (11 lakh) Rohingyas. Every year 60,000 children are born in the refugee camps. What is the socioeconomic impact of this burgeoning population on the country?

The government has to spend a large chunk of the taxpayers' money on these 1.1 million Rohingyas. Nearly Tk 900 billion has been spent in 3 years from August 2017 to August 2020. This will increase in future. On one hand, the number of Rohingyas is on the rise, but on the other, international assistance is dropping. This will create serious economic pressure. Besides, the environment and ecology of the entire Cox’s Bazar including Ukhyia and Teknaf faces destruction. The labour market for the locals is shrinking, grazing grounds for the cattle is disappearing, and the law and order situation is worsening. The question of regional security also looms large. These issues will certainly have socioeconomic and security implications for the country.


Why hasn't it been possible to hold Myanmar liable for its involvement in genocide, ethnic cleansing and displacing people? Has the international community's role been adequate? How far will International Court of Justice (ICJ) be able to hold Myanmar liable?

Russia and China are supporting Myanmar blindly on the Rohingya issue. They have veto power as permanent members of UN Security Council. For this reason, despite its efforts, the Security Council couldn’t take any decision against Myanmar. The role of international community is not adequate. They have put more pressure on Bangladesh regarding management of Rohingya refugees, repatriation and the relocation to Bhashan Char, than they have put on Myanmar. They hold meeting, make statements and cry out again human rights violation, but can’t put any effective pressure on Myanmar. Even if the ICJ verdict favours Rohingyas, it’s not certain how long this will take. I don’t think the verdict will play a big role in protecting the Rohingya’s human rights in Myanmar. However, if Myanmar's genocide is proved at the ICJ, their trade, military and development cooperation with many countries may become shaky.


India has provided only humanitarian assistance in the Rohingya crisis, no strong political support. India has been elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Can Bangladesh expect a more effective role from India?

Emotion is not the basis of foreign policy. The interests of the state come first. India doesn’t gain from siding with Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue. It has economic and geopolitical interests in Myanmar. India has plans to expand market in this region. It also has a military and strategic policy to challenge China’s dominance in the region. So we can’t expect any effective role of India on Rohingya issue in future.


A repatriation deal was signed hastily in 2017 with China's the mediation. Now talks are on also with mediation of China. Is there actually any progress?

Bangladesh's media gave wide coverage of China's reassurance that it would play a role in starting the repatriation process after the 8 November election in Myanmar. Nothing happened. So we can’t depend much on China’s meditation. A second repatriation attempt with the meditation of China was made on 22 August 2019. That failed too. Have China taken any responsibility at all? Have they ever talked sternly to Myanmar? China has no scope of adopting a neutral stance. Above all, everything in Rakhine, including large economic and industrial zones and the deep seaport, has Chinese investment. I see no logical reason for China going against Myanmar and siding with Bangladesh to solve the Rohingyas crisis.


Despite being vocal against the allegations of repression against the Rohingyas, the US, UK and European Union continue trade and commerce with Myanmar, giving the country preferential trade facilities. Do the Western countries think that pressure would send Myanmar closer to China?

I partially agree. When you close the door for someone, he or she will go to the door that remains open. The western world speaks against Myanmar on Rohingya oppression, but they continue trade with the country, not only because China. The profit-oriented nature international capitalism is evident here. The Rohingya issue had made it clear that the question of human rights in the capitalist world is just eyewash.


In which region do Rohingyas belong to ethnically? Why does Myanmar claim Rohingyas do not belong there?

Rohingyas, in fact, are the people of Arakan. Their ancestors have been living as Arakanese Muslims there for over a thousand years. After Rohang became Arakan’s capital, its habitants gradually took the name of Roayanga or Rohingya as an independent race. Rohingyas are mixed race of Arab, Persian, Pathan, Mughal, Bangali, etc. In 1982, Myanmar took away the citizenship of Rohingyas by making up a false and fictitious narrative. They say the Rohingyas migrated to Arakan from Bengal after the British occupied Arakan in 1824. Myanmar said that those were there before 1824 will get the citizenship. But, historical documents and witnesses prove Rohingya has been living in Arakan for more than a thousand years. The 1982 citizenship law of Myanmar makes the Rohingyas stateless.


Do Rohingyas risk losing their language and culture?

Of course they do. Difference in dialects is clear between the Rohingyas who came to Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991-92 and those arrived in 2016 and 2017. Normally language and culture of a minority group face a crisis after regular interaction with a larger population.


Bangladesh has engaged in bilateral talks with Myanmar. UN is working with the international community too. Since there is no progress on bilateral talks, a tripartite process starts with China’s involvement. Overall, how do you see the diplomatic efforts of Bangladesh to overcome the crisis?

Bangladesh has continued diplomatic efforts very intelligently. If Bangladesh avoided bilateral talks with Myanmar for the sake of multilateral talks, Myanmar would say “we want a solution, Bangladesh doesn’t." Moreover, a solution is not possible for Bangladesh through bilateral negotiations with Myanmar. It has been proven in the past that Myanmar doesn’t keep its word. Over the last three years, Bangladesh failed to manage the support of eight countries -- China, Russia, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Vietnam -- which have been siding with Myanmar in international forums. Bangladesh couldn’t secure the support of four South Asian countries -- India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh needs to strengthen diplomatic efforts in these places. More parties siding with Bangladesh in intentional forums will strengthen its position further. The good news is that nine countries changed their vote from 'abstention' to 'yes' on a resolution on the human rights of Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, at the plenary session of UN General Assembly on 31 December.


A huge number of Rohingyas now lives outside Myanmar, with the largest number in Bangladesh. What is the future of these refugees?

Frankly speaking, there is no clear future for the Rohingyas in sight. Rohingyas living outside Myanmar and Bangladesh, especially in western countries, are very organised and active. It’s very effective to build public opinion around the world. But these people will have no future for as long as Myanmar does not restore the citizenship, dignity and security of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh in a sustainable manner.

Bishwajit Chowdhury is joint editor of Prothom Alo. This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna