Since August 25, 2017, more than 10,00,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh. This Rohingya refugee crisis is among the largest, fastest movements of people in recent history. The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, are escaping what the United Nations has described as genocidal violence that follows decades of persecution and human rights abuses.
It happened when the militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Myanmar, mostly equipped with swords, machetes and small arms, allegedly staged a coordinated attack on approximately 30 police posts and an army base in restless Rakhine State. Since these attacks, Aung San Suu Kyi's administration had granted increased power to the Tatmadaw (the armed forces of Myanmar) in Rakhine. Subsequently, the Tatmadaw have launched clearance operations that have displaced many Rohingya. They have instigated widespread burning of civilian villages and have perpetrated a number of crimes against humanity.
These atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya are the latest in a long history of violence and suppression enacted by the Buddhist Burmese majority. The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants by the Myanmar government, despite evidence that the Rohingya have inhabited Myanmar continuously for hundreds of years prior to colonial rule. Rohingya had been denied citizenship since the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law and are subject to severe limitations on their freedom of movement, employment and religion.
The ARSA, previously known as the Faith Movement, arose in response to rampant anti-Muslim violence in 2012. There are no credible links between the ARSA and any known terrorist organisation, despite Myanmar's assertion to the contrary. ARSA is seen by some analysts as a "paper tiger that… will only prove a justification… for more severe military operations". With reports of widespread ethnic cleansing in response to the latest ARSA attack, these appear to be legitimate concerns.
The sudden outbreak of violence is a dramatic change in a conflict that had simmered in Rakhine State since last October. The ARSA staged coordinated attacks on three military posts on 9 October 2016, which were promptly followed by disproportionate reprisal operations from the Tatmadaw, displacing many civilians, killing hundreds and causing widespread food insecurity.
Myanmar's security forces had been accused of killings, rape and torture against the Rohingya. The UN had been advocating a fact-finding mission to investigate these allegations, which the Myanmar civilian government had emphatically resisted, whilst simultaneously denying journalists and a majority of aid groups access to Rakhine.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate, struggled with ethnic tensions in Rakhine state since coming to power in 2016. Aung San Suu Kyi and her ministers had vehemently denied any persecution of the Rohingya and, tried to deflect further allegations levelled by the UN against the government Kofi Annan-led, commissioned investigation.
Even though the commission was explicitly told by the government not to investigate alleged human rights violations, the wide-ranging report urgently recommended addressing restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement, religion and citizenship. Although Suu Kyi had promised to implement the commission's recommendations, the likelihood of this occurring was doubtful as the Tatmadaw, which had been consistently critical about the recommendations, still retained veto power over government decisions.
Although Suu Kyi had no real power to overrule military operations against the Rohingya, her silence and accusations against aid groups as being complicit in the violence were reprehensible. As a result, there had been numerous calls for Aung San Suu Kyi to return her Nobel Peace Prize but the demand was symbolic, ignored Myanmar's domestic political reality and would do nothing for the Rohingya. Indeed, it is the international community who has the power to influence the Tatmadaw, although unsurprisingly the global response to the Rohingya crisis had been inadequate.
The Rohingya crisis and the international community have yet to decide on an effective response.
The longstanding Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and its subsequent fallout have generated massive human rights violations, triggering a humanitarian disaster. It is not only an internal matter for Myanmar, it has also destabilised?the regional tranquility in South and Southeast Asia and triggered a global outcry. In this write-up, it will be illustrated why major states, such as China, India, Russia, and the US, have adopted a policy of overlooking the Rohingya crisis. The world Muslim community has intentionally excluded the potential for a prominent leadership role from the already fragile Muslim world because of their general absence from the central world leadership and their preoccupation with their own domestic crises.
The Rohingya are the largest community among eight prominent Muslim groups in Myanmar and have lived in its Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) for generations. They are envisaged by the nation's government and Buddhist population as illegal Bengali immigrants who came from what is now Bangladesh, to Rakhine State as labourers during British colonial rule. At the wake of clearance operation of Tamadaw, around 10,00,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar and took shelter in Bangladesh.
At the start of 2018, a UN team found that Myanmar's actions against the Rohingya amounted to genocide as discussed above. Then, in late January of 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to take all necessary measures to prevent genocidal acts against the Rohingya. Though this was a crucial breakthrough, any verdict from ICJ is virtually worthless unless the UN Security Council enforces it. However, none of the permanent members of UN Security Council or world powers are willing to go beyond providing little humanitarian aid. The chart below explores why major world players are reluctant to take action against Myanmar.
All four of these powerful countries have complex relationships with their domestic Muslim population. China, India, and Russia have internal problems with minority Muslim populations: the Uyghur Muslims, Kashmiri Muslims, and Chechen Muslims respectively. Each state believes that these minority groups pose a threat to the territorial integrity of their countries and as a result, has been repressing them. Therefore, any criticism or action taken against Myanmar in defence of the Rohingya can call into question the internal policies of these powers against their domestic Muslim populations. For the United States, there is still trauma from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Throughout the "War on Terror," Islamophobia has been highly present in American society. Hence, any robust action taken by the US against Myanmar could cause a domestic backlash, especially if the military is used.
Furthermore, the Rohingya-populated areas of Myanmar have large oil and natural gas reserves, reaching 11 trillion and 23 trillion cubic feet respectively; this has made Myanmar a strategic partner for the major world powers. This particular area of Myanmar holds great significance for China's Belt and Road Initiative, which is an ambitious programme to enhance regional integration. Similarly, India and Russia's gas lines and their investment in gas exploration and extraction projects in Myanmar have made the region a crucial geopolitical theater. American interests with its "Pivot to Asia" policy lie in establishing strategic ties with Myanmar to contain Chinese market expansion and influence in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the encirclement policies of China and India are aimed to counter each other's influence by establishing a strategic alliance network with the opposing nation's neighbours, including Myanmar. Among all these major powers, however, India is the most dependent on Myanmar, as it helps it to maintain the stability and security of its Northeast region. India uses Myanmar's intelligence and army to counter separatist movements and insurgencies in the northeast.
In terms of arms trade, a UN fact-finding team has recently found that Russia, China, and India are Myanmar's top arms suppliers. It is likely that these countries are keeping friendly relationships with the authoritarian Burmese government, despite its appalling human rights record, in order to maintain this lucrative arms business.
Clearly, due to the strategic interests of these powerful states, there is little appetite for a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar. Not China, Russia, India, nor the US has the diplomatic will to pressure the Burmese government to resolve the crisis in a sustainable and peaceful way. The fate of the Rohingya will likely further deteriorate until the dominant powers alter their current stances to make a collective efforts to reach a proper and sustainable solution to the crisis.
India and China are key regional powers and neighbours and both have acted cruelly towards the Rohingya at the behest of Myanmar. China has blocked attempts to meaningfully address Myanmar's abusive treatment of the Rohingya at the United Nations Security Council, using its veto to create stronger diplomatic ties with the Burmese regime. India, meanwhile, which is deepening military engagement with Myanmar as a bulwark to Chinese influence, had announced it would deport 40,000 Rohingya who fled to India for asylum.
Whearas, Bangladesh, which has long been a haven for persecuted Rohingya, housing around 10,00,000, has been pursuing Rohingya's return to Myanmar with the full citizen status and dignity. The action of India is in clear violation of international law. The principle of non-refoulement, widely considered to be part of customary international law, expressly prohibits states from returning a refugee to a territory where they will be subject to persecution.
The international community's response to the violence has been woefully inadequate. The UN, the United States, member states of EU and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have issued standard condemnations and Muslim-majority Indonesia has been the most active, sending their foreign minister for urgent talks with Myanmar.
However, condemnations alone are not enough. The international community must adopt a two-pronged approach to assisting the Rohingya. Firstly, punitive measures, such as sanctions should be taken against the government of Myanmar to demonstrate that the international community firmly denounces the actions of the Tatmadaw. Secondly, and most importantly, the international community must take immediate action to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya people by providing humanitarian relief and proactively assisting the Rohingya in seeking asylum.
Finally Bangladesh has succeeded in winning its long-drawn diplomatic battle at the UN which was vocal against relocating the Rohingya to Bhasan Char from Cox's Bazar, but now has joined forces with the government
Bangladesh and the United Nations (UN) signed a formal document on October 10 last, ending a long wait for a much-sought-after UN engagement on the humanitarian front to support the Rohingy at Bhasan Char.
Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief Md Mohsin and Bangladesh Representative of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, Johannes Van Der Klaauw signed the memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the Bangladesh Secretariat.
The Minister for Disaster Management said that the UN and its agencies had finally taken the right decision and it would be easier for humanitarian agencies to provide services following the signing of the MoU.
The signing of the MoU demonstrates the UN's support to the government's massive investment there to ensure a better living condition for the Rohingya.
The MoU - signed by UNHCR on behalf of UN agencies working on the Rohingya response in Bangladesh - establishes a common protection and policy framework for the Rohingya on the island.
The MoU is a further expression of generosity of the government and people of Bangladesh and their support towards the Rohingya population until they can return safely and sustainably to Myanmar.
It is also a reconfirmation of the UN's commitment to continue supporting Bangladesh in running the humanitarian program for almost 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in the country.
The agreement relating to Bhasan Char allows close cooperation between the government and the UN on services and activities to the benefit of the increasing numbers of Rohingya refugees living on the island.
These cover the key areas of protection, education, skills-training, livelihoods and health, which will help support the refugees to lead decent lives on the island and better prepare get then ready for sustainable return to Myanmar in the future.
The UN response will build upon and complement the humanitarian assistance, so far provided by Bangladeshi NGOs on the island.
Before signing the MoU, the UN held discussions with the Rohingya community in Cox's Bazar, as well as those already on the island, including during the UN visit to Bhasan Char in March 2021, to better understand their needs and views.
These discussions, as well as those with the government counterparts and Bangladeshi NGOs working on the island, are expected to continue on a regular basis and further disseminate any humanitarian and protection responses at Bhasan Char.
The UN encouraged the international community to increase its generous support to the humanitarian response in Bangladesh, recognising that the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Response in Cox's Bazar is currently less than half-funded for this year.
This support should continue until refugees are able to return to Myanmar in a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable manner, which remains a shared priority of the UN and government of Bangladesh, as well as the desire of the Rohingya refugees in the country, said the UN.
The numerous challenges associated with the temporary hosting of persecuted Rohingya from Myanmar have compelled Bangladesh's government to plan the relocation of 100,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Bhasan Char, a temporary shelter for Rohingya until repatriation, remained unhurt with no casualty to personnel and livestock during recent cyclones.
During his recent visit, former United Nations general assembly president Volkan Bozkir highly appreciated Bangladesh's efforts for Rohingya at Bhasan Char, saying it will be another example to the world on how to deal with refugee issues. "I applaud the work done there - the quality of buildings and all the precautions."
Bozkir hoped that it would work well for the Rohingya people, giving them a better condition in Bhasan Char. The government has re-emphasized that Bhasan Char is completely safe and suitable for human habitation.
The 30-year-old island has all the amenities, including healthcare, clean water, options for economic activities, and cyclone shelters.
The island offers enough space for free movement of the Rohingya.
Officials from the foreign ministry said it should be remembered that Rohingyas are Myanmar nationals and Bhasan Char and Cox's Bazar camps are temporary arrangements. "Bangladesh has temporarily been hosting them purely out of the humanitarian gesture."
"Rohingya want to return to their homeland, Myanmar, and all need to work constructively to that end," a ministry official said.
As stated above, at least 860,000 Rohingya FDMNs, mostly women and children entered Bangladesh fleeing unbridled murder, arson and rape by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, what the United Nations has decried as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and genocide, beginning on August 25, 2017. The latest influx of Rohingya brought the number of undocumented and registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 1.1 million. Not a single Rohingya returned home to Rakhine when the Myanmar government blocked the repatriation process in various ways. Owing to critical socio-economic, environmental and security concerns, the Bangladesh government launched a project of relocating one-tenth of the Rohingya to Bhashan Char on a voluntary basis. So far 20,000 Rohingya have been relocated to Bhashan Char and they expressed "high satisfaction" over the existing considerable safe, secured and crime-free environment compared to the camps in Cox's Bazar.
Bangladesh government invested more than US $310 million from its own funds to develop the 13,000-acre island with all amenities and facilities of drinkable water, electricity, sanitation, agricultural plots, 120 cyclone shelters in each cluster, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, learning centres and playgrounds. From the outset, the initiative was called into question by some human rights organisations and NGOs. However, in the wake of recent visits by high officials of the international community and donor states, it has been proven that the allegations against Bangladesh were merely political and propaganda.
Delegates from the EU, the OIC and the UN all demonstrated their prima facie satisfaction by seeing the facilities and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in the Bhashan Char. Previously, a few NGOs and interest groups disseminated that the conditions in Bhashan Char were UN inhabitable and the relocation plan was a wrong decision of the government. But now all the foreign delegates and human rights proponents agreed that the decision to relocate some 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char under the Ashrayan-3 project was a timely decision for the well-being of the Rohingya community itself. Since the massive influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh in August, 2017, Bangladesh has actively carried out its humanitarian role as a well meaning state actor. But, has the international community fulfilled its duty, apart from criticising Bangladesh's initiatives and raising inadequate funds for refugees for the time being? Bangladesh has done its part, and it is now time that the international community shares the burden and puts pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh is trying to solve the crisis with its utmost efforts using all of its diplomatic maneuvers in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. Acknowledging the outstanding assistance in hosting 1.1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh, the US special envoy for climate change John Kerry during his visit to Bangladesh said that the global community must hasten efforts to resolve the crisis as it is not merely responsibility for the country. Bangladesh in every multilateral forum has been desperately raising the issue of the Rohingya crisis as it has a far reaching social, economic, environmental and security implication not only for Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region. But it is unfortunate, due to lack of goodwill of the concerned parties that the situation is protracting. All the international communities including the UN, the EU and the OIC should work in a coordinated way to find a comprehensive and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis. Signing of an MOU with the UN on relocation of Rohingya to Bhasan Char can be seen as winning the initial diplomatic battle by Bangladesh and formal acknowledgement of the crisis by UN which may usher in further victory over the issue though it is stilla long and arduous one.