Professor Abdur Rob Khan, Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, North South University, talks to The Daily Star’s Naznin Tithi about the present state of the Rohingya crisis and whether a sustainable solution to the problem is possible.
After repeated failures in starting the repatriation process, a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis seems like a distant possibility. What’s your view on this?
A sustainable solution to the crisis is contingent upon the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya people to their homeland in Rakhine state in Myanmar, with their safety, security and dignity ensured. After two failed attempts to set the repatriation process on its due course, it is difficult to be optimistic about a sustainable solution in the immediate future. Key to the repatriation, as the two attempts have made it abundantly clear, is convincing the Rohingyas of their safety upon returning home.
Last July, there was a two-day international conference at North South University where different aspects of the crisis as well as the concept of a sustainable solution were discussed. More than 100 papers from 15 countries were presented at the seminar. One stumbling block to finding a sustainable solution, which was highlighted in the papers, seems to be the stubbornness in Myanmar in resisting reforms that are necessary.
Therefore, it is hard to visualise a scenario where Myanmar is going to agree to take back the Rohingyas as full citizens of the country. They have redefined their definition of citizenship rendering the Rohingyas practically stateless. It is unlikely that we will be able to persuade Myanmar to change their legal status. Considering that, the best-case scenario will be if Myanmar takes back the Rohingyas by restoring the status quo ante—i.e. the situation that existed before the exodus of August 2017.
Such a realisation was also reflected in the 5-point formula our prime minister presented at the 72nd UNGA session in 2017, where she called for the creation of “safezones” in Rakhine. But the reality is that Myanmar forces had destroyed and bulldozed their homes. If the Rohingyas go back now, they will be put in camps, which they don’t consider safe for living.
One might ask if UN peacekeeping forces could be deployed around the camps to ensure their safety. That possibly will be too much to ask for, knowing the reluctance of the Myanmar regime to allow any kind of UN role in their country. The United Nations Security Council has failed to make a condemnation resolution for Myanmar’s atrocities on the Rohingyas. It is quite unlikely that Myanmar will agree to the deployment of some foreign forces on their soil.
Why do you think have our diplomatic efforts failed to end this crisis? What was lacking on our part?
The fact is that there hasn’t been any substantial pressure on the Myanmar authorities, thanks to the leniency of its allies including China, Russia and India. We are asking the international community to mobilise support and put pressure on Myanmar. We are requesting India and China to put pressure on Myanmar. But for a sustainable solution, the pressure must come from Bangladesh, first, and only then will the pressure from the international community have a multiplier effect on Myanmar. Mere requests and persuasions will not work.
We must create enough noise on the international platform so that they listen to us. When the second repatriation bid failed, we made some noises and probably that is why China has given the issue some importance, following the visit of Bangladesh prime minister to Beijing in July 2019.
There is no doubt that the three powers have entrenched interests in Myanmar. They have huge stakes in the country. But the stakes that India, China and even Myanmar have in Bangladesh are not less substantive. When our friends tell us that Myanmar should not be pressurised and that a bilateral approach should be followed, let us at least reply that “our approach is not necessarily bound by bilateralism unless backed by strong underwriting.” Such an assertion itself would send a clear-cut message. Actually, our approach should not be limited to bilateralism. A pragmatic mix of bilateralism and multilateralism should be our approach in diplomacy.
It’s mentionable that China has even cautioned Bangladesh about putting much pressure on Myanmar because Myanmar’s reactions might not be favourable for us. But what’s the benefit of just being careful in dealing with Myanmar? The output has so far been nil. Therefore, in hindsight, we should not have listened to our “friends”, because they are thinking about their own interests, namely their investments in the Rakhine state. They are building deep sea port, roads and railways, etc. there. Our foreign policy, as far as the repatriation diplomacy is concerned, lacks clear signals and messages.
What will be the long-term economic impact of giving shelter to this large population for Bangladesh? With international aid organisations slowly losing interest in funding for the Rohingyas, how will Bangladesh feed them in the coming days?
About USD 120 million had been the direct cost of supporting the Rohingyas during the last fiscal year. And without foreign aid, the total burden will be on us. But sadly, the international community is losing interest in this issue. In this planet of fleeting events, it is natural that their attention will be diverted to more recent situations. Such an eventuality is not difficult to foresee.
Already there are huge economic and environmental impacts of supporting the Rohingyas. The costs in terms of the loss of forestry, agricultural land and topsoil as well as losses in our tourism sector are enormous. However, currently the losses and damages are localised. But as time passes and the crisis continues over a long period of time, we will see the macro-impacts. Fiscal burden will multiply, environmental damage will be long-lasting, tourist inflow will dry out and we will start counting the damage and burden in national terms.
Considering the environmental impacts, how would you evaluate the decision of relocating a portion of the Rohingya population to Bhashan Char?
We are talking about shifting around one lakh of them, which is only one-tenth of the Rohingya population. I think if it is done, it will have a serious psychological effect on the whole community. These people are already organised. We saw a big gathering in August. They would certainly react to the uncertainty of going to an isolated place, since the remaining nine lakh people would remain here. I think the government should make it clear to the Rohingyas what facilities they will be getting in Bhashan Char. If they agree to go, knowing the details, then it’s fine. So far as I know, it is a pilot project and if it succeeds, more such projects can be taken. But we also have to remember that land is scarce here, so any such plan should be taken wisely.
Moreover, such a decision may also create confusion among the international community because, on the one hand, the government is talking about their safe and dignified repatriation, and on the other, it is planning to shift them to another place. The government should be transparent in any attempts to relocate the Rohingyas to another place. However, it is still not clear as to when Bhashan Char will be ready for their relocation. It is still a non-starter.
What’s your view on the restrictions imposed on the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement and access to the internet and online communications?
I do not have any direct information about how this has been implemented. But initially, there was quite a bit of uproar from the Rohingyas, the NGOs working there, and also from the international community as well as the international media. There was also a discussion about putting barbed wire around the camps. However, it looks like they have made their way out in a manner that controlling their communications has actually not been possible. They have access to phones and SIM cards either from Bangladesh or from Myanmar through various channels. But the government has probably relented a little bit in terms of a strict implementation of such restrictions. This was maybe a reaction to the Rohingyas’ recent gathering and other activities in and around the camp areas.
How would you evaluate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-point proposal at the UN General Assembly regarding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya problem?
Three proposals in three consecutive years on the same platform might create some confusion, although the proposals are consistent and related. However, the four-point proposal made this year subsumes the recent developments on the repatriation front. Point one concerns an expression of clear political will on the part of Myanmar manifested by concrete action; point two reflects the urgent need of building trust and a sense of safety and security among the Rohingyas by means of “go and see” visits to Rakhine. Points three and four are remarkable, as they seek involvement of the international community in monitoring and investigation of the genocidal crimes committed by Myanmar army. There is a mix of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in these points. The question is, what’s next? How will these points be put to action? Vigorous bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in the neighbourhood and at the UN is what is urgently needed.