Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Many such hills in Teknaf and Ukhia have been dug into and cleared of trees to set up the Rohingya camps
Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Many such hills in Teknaf and Ukhia have been dug into and cleared of trees to set up the Rohingya campsReuters

Today, Tuesday, 25 August, marks three years since the genocide of Rohingyas in Mynamar’s Rakhine state began. On 25 and 26 August 2017, the Myanmar army and police unleashed brutal atrocities and oppression on the unarmed civilian Rohingya population.

Due to the various restrictions imposed by the Myanmar government and its lack of cooperation, it is difficult to determine the actual number of the victims of this extreme persecution. However, according to various surveys, at least 24,000 civilian Rohingyas were killed and 18,000 Rohingya women and girls raped by the Myanmar army, police and local Buddhist extremists. Villages after villages were burnt to ashes.

Fleeing from the killing, rape and arson, over 800,000 Rohingyas crossed over to Bangladesh. Prior to the genocide, already over 300,000 persecuted Rohingyas had taken shelter in Bangladesh in various phases. Around 1.1 million homeless Rohingyas are now living in overcrowded conditions in and around the camps set up in Teknaf and Ukhia of Cox’s Bazar district. Due to high birthrates, this number has now exceeded 1.2 million.

The Myanmar army claims that they conducted the ‘clearance operation’ in response to an attack by an armed organisation, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on 25 August 2017 on police and army outposts. And that is why, they claim, many fled out of fear across the border into Bangladesh. However, their claim is hardly plausible. There is clear evidence that these units of the Myanmar army had gathered at this southern part of Myanmar at least three weeks before the operation. Does that mean the army was aware that ARSA would attack them exactly on that date?

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There had been no such attacks carried out by this so-called outfit before or after the incident. That is why one cannot dismiss the contentions of those who believe such an outfit does not even exist and that the Myanmar army created this drama in order to carry out their operation. Other than a few blind supporters of Myanmar, everyone can clearly see that the Myanmar army deliberately unleashed the killing and oppression on the Rohingyas to drive them away.

The one and only solution for the Rohingya problem is to allow them to return to their homes, ensuring their safety and rights. There can be no differences over this. Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina stated this in no uncertain terms at the UN General Assembly. But the meetings and discussions, agreements and exchange of lists over the past three years have yielded no results whatsoever.

Two positive tasks were accomplished, though, last year. One was the case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Myanmar’s top army officers. The other was Gambia’s case filed at the UN’s Intentional Court of Justice (ICJ), against Myanmar on charges of genocide. However legal procedures are lengthy. And it is not so simple that the Rohingyas who have been driven away from the homes, will be able to return immediately even if Myanmar is proven to be guilty of genocide. So what can Bangladesh do to resolve this crisis?

Even if it yields no results, our bilateral efforts must continue so that Myanmar cannot say that Bangladesh is not cooperating. Ways to revive bilateral talks that had stalled because of coronavirus, can be looked into. What must be avoided at all costs is token repatriation of 400 or 500 families.

At a diplomatic level, the most important task for us to undertake is to ensure that the world, impacted by the pandemic and the post-pandemic economy, does not forget the Rohingyas.

Firstly, those whose names will be on the repatriation list will not want to return voluntarily because they are well aware no safe rehabilitation awaits them. Secondly, this will just give Myanmar scope for publicity, but will not solve the problem in any way.

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The main thing is to ensure that the environment in Myanmar is conducive for the safe return of the refugees. There are no indications that the government or the army of that country has any such intentions.

At a diplomatic level, the most important task for us to undertake is to ensure that the world, impacted by the pandemic and the post-pandemic economy, does not forget the Rohingyas. The UN General Assembly is ahead. The matter must be raised in the speech of the prime minister (or the head of the Bangladesh delegation) and also at every possible opportunity to remind the international community about the predicament of the Rohingyas and the need to address the atrocities committed against them.

During the recent visit of the Indian foreign secretary, our foreign secretary requested him to raise the issue at the UN Security Council and the Indian foreign secretary assured him that India would do so. India will be a non-permanent member of the Security Council for the next two years. We are aware that the Security Council cannot take any stern action against Myanmar due to the stand of China and Russia, but if a proposal can be submitted appealing for due measures to be taken, that too can be considered as a small achievement.

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And diplomatic efforts must be kept up to motivate the countries of the West to play a more effective role in pressurising Myanmar. Efforts must also be made to soften the stance of China and Russia so that they can at least play a positive role in resolving the problem rather than simply extending their full support to Myanmar.

Bangladesh wants a peaceful resolution to this problem. But we must remember that the other side must want the same. That is not in our hands. We must remain prepared for any situation and our security forces must keep this in mind.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2018, the prime minister had proposed that a safe zone be created in the Rakhine state in order to accelerate the return of the Rohingyas. Before the ‘ethnic cleansing’ carried out by the Myanmar army, the Rohingyas had been the majority in the Mongu district of North Rakhine and Rathidong of Sittwe. Based on the proposal of the prime minister, Bangladesh can raise a detailed proposal about establishing a safe zone in these areas and mobilise international support in this regard.

As the Myanmar army has lost its reliability, an intentional observers’ group can be formed, comprising ASEAN countries, to monitor the situation and ensure the Rohingya’s safety. Myanmar and its supporters will definitely not agree to this, but even so, there may be strategic gains if the matter is visibly tabled.

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None of the mentioned initiatives will yield results overnight. The crisis will be a prolonged one and the Myanmar army will use the time to change realities on ground. That is why it is extremely important for Bangladesh and the Rohingyas to preserve evidence. The experiences of what the refugees had witnessed and suffered must be carefully and accurately recorded in detail, in writing, audio and video. Written records must be made of the addresses of each and every on them, before they were driven away from their homes. Satellite pictures must also be preserved of those areas, before and after the operations. This is important because the Myanmar army is wiping out all traces of the Rohingya villages and constructing other structures in those places so that these areas cannot be located on ground.

The government can also take help from local and foreign NGOs and human rights organisations in this regard. According to the 2018 records of Human Rights Watch, the Myanmar army has razed to ground at least 55 Rohingya villages. Amnesty International has said that military installations have been raised in many of these places. There is also talk of industries being set up in these areas with foreign investment. If accurate information can be collected, then potential foreign investors may be dissuaded from setting up industries on these sites.

Lastly, hope should not be lost because of the lengthiness of the process in resolving the crisis. We must accept the fact that it may take 10, 15 or 20 years to resolve the crisis. Psychological and pragmatic preparation must be made accordingly. We must see that the refugees can live tolerable lives. Also, special initiative must be taken to address the problems of the local host community so that their emerging frustration and anger is abated.

Bangladesh wants a peaceful resolution to this problem. But we must remember that the other side must want the same. That is not in our hands. We must remain prepared for any situation and our security forces must keep this in mind.

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary. This article appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir.