Published:  12:09 AM, 04 October 2019

The conflict in Myanmar that hurts Bangladesh

The conflict in Myanmar that hurts Bangladesh

As most readers already know, a humanitarian crisis was caused in the Bangladesh-Myanmar borderlands in the summer of 2017 as about seven lakh Rohingya refugees entered the Cox's Bazar region of Bangladesh after fleeing violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

My assessment with a team of South Asia experts on the Rohingya crisis was published in a brief by the Atlantic Council, coinciding with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's address to the General Assembly on September 2019.

The brief pointed out concerns which necessitated why the government of Bangladesh and the international community should work amicably to address the enormous humanitarian crisis facing the country.

In this article, I wish to state three things: Firstly, I want to clarify how the legacy of colonialism has given birth to the conflict in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

Secondly, I want to remind the readers that following the ethnic cleansing and the exodus of the Rohingyas in 2017 from Rakhine, the people and the government of Bangladesh were initially enthusiastically responsive and helpful towards the incoming refugees, but this initial enthusiasm waned over the next two years.

Thirdly, while concluding, I want the readers to ponder how the challenges of this crisis can possibly be addressed in the long-term.  

Colonialism and the conflict

in Rakhine

The statelessness of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar is rooted in a colonial legacy that has extended to the modern political realm. The Rohingyas arrived in the Rakhine region of Myanmar from neighbouring East Bengal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while the area was under British colonial rule.

Present-day Myanmar's citizenship laws and censuses have widened the rift between the majority and minority ethnicities. The nation's colonial legacy has been exploited by Burmese Buddhist nationalists who use the British conquest as the historical milestone for labelling ethnic groups to certain territories of the country, and in turn, justify their ethnic and religious superiority over the Rohingyas by deeming them as outsiders.

In 1982, the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) amended the 1948 Citizenship Law and prepared a set of criteria to decide who are genuine citizens of the country, kick-starting the modern-day fixation regarding who had lived in Burma or Arakan (now Rakhine) before 1823.

Ever since then, the Rohingyas were frequently threatened and forcefully relocated or evicted by the military, border security forces, and local Buddhist Rakhines, forcing many to flee to Bangladesh.

These events were regularly accompanied by murder, sexual abuse, and destruction of villages. The persecution was so extensive that the Rohingyas are practically stripped of political identity. Furthermore, since the violence and eviction of the Rohingyas from Rakhine in 2017, most have become stateless refugees and identify with a culture revolving around withstanding persecution and dreaming of one day returning to their homeland.

Bangladesh's welcome and disenchantment

In 2017, the Rohingyas looked favourably on the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as she had not only opened up her country's borders to the incoming refugees but also visited the camps. Her government had tried to internationalize the Rohingya refugee crisis on multiple forums.

Although the Rohingyas were in no way in a "good" situation and the refugee camps in which a big section of them reside were far from perfect, at that point in time they were probably in the safest place that they could be in. International NGOs and aid agencies were fairly successful in giving aid to the registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the refugees and their host communities started facing multiple challenges.

Firstly, there are reports of many Rohingyas finding jobs requiring manual labour outside of the camps, which have created bitterness among the host communities as the latter started facing economic competition.

In a recent report of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), it was found that over the past two years, poverty has increased by three percent, prices of everyday necessities have risen by almost fifty percent, and wages of day labourers have decreased.

Secondly, the impact on the environment in south-eastern Bangladesh has been humongous. According to the Forest Department of Cox's Bazar, 4,300 acres of government land that were forest and hilly areas were levelled to house the incoming refugee population.

Thirdly, there are incidences of people, particularly women and children, being trafficked out of the camps for being sold to international human traffickers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) identified 420 cases of trafficking between December 2018 and June 2019, accessing that this figure was a fourfold jump from the previous fourteen months.

Fourthly, according to intelligence officials in Bangladesh, sections of the refugees may have become radicalized and pose a domestic security threat. As a step to maintain security, the country's telecommunications regulatory body ordered cell phone operators to shut down services in the refugee camps, and there are plans on building barbed wire fenced around the camp.

 What is visible from the above challenges is that there is an apparent breakdown of trust between the refugees and their hosts in Bangladesh. To ease some of the challenges, the government of Bangladesh has an ambitious plan to resettle a big section of the Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal.

This island which was formed as a result of silt deposits is locally known as "Bhasan Char" or the "floating island" and is managed by the Bangladesh navy. This resettlement plan has not been greeted with enthusiasm by the Rohingyas who are convinced that the island is not apt for habitation and that they will be cut off from communication.

Yet the Bangladesh navy and the Architect of this massive $272 million project insist that the safety and security on the island are not reasons for concern. These contradictory narratives highlight how there is a miscommunication between the refugees and the authorities of the host country.

With international funding drying up with Bangladesh having received only $330 million out of the promised $920 million for 2019 (as of August 24), coupled with increasing economic competition, rise in domestic security concerns, and depletion of environmental resources, the possibility to rehabilitate the refugees and bring stability to this crisis situation are starting to look bleak.

Possible management of the humanitarian crisis

While the ideal scenario will be if more Muslim majority nations and Western countries open their borders for asylum and possible resettlement, the Rohingya for the time-being will most likely be restricted to Bangladesh.

Although the efforts of the government of Bangladesh and its people must not go unacknowledged in taking the bold step in first accepting the refugees and then working closely with international organizations towards rehabilitating the incoming refugee population, the protracted nature of the crisis is making many in the host country quite jittery. The gradual weakening of trust between the refugees and their hosts must not undermine the good work the nation has done over the years in assisting the refugee population.

Perhaps the international community can collaborate with the government of Bangladesh in developing plans to attract more private investors to the Cox's Bazar region and create new economic opportunities for the Rohingya refugees and their Bangladeshi hosts. Another option can be to engage the Rohingya elders in dialogue.

The Rohingyas have a distinct respect for the elderly in their community, and thus consulting with that segment of the population about what to do next may mitigate the concerns of the refugees, possibly convincing them to consider steps which they otherwise might not take voluntarily. Whatever the case, the government of Bangladesh and its people need to sit back and carefully revaluate future plans before implementing them. 

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow in the "Rethinking Civil Society" project at the University of York (UK)

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