How to solve the Rohingya drama

Rohingya Refugees carry an old man towards the shore of Naf river as people arrive by boats, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 13 September 2017.

Over half of the 1.1m Rohingya have been forced over the border into Bangladesh – driven away by a campaign the United Nations has described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Last week, the de facto leader of the Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi, broke her long silence on the refugee crisis.

According to an article by Phil Humphreys, a British journalist and former Bangladesh development worker, for The Dhaka Tribune, it is difficult to foresee how her stated aim to help resettle the Rohingya can be squared with the atrocities committed against them by a military over which she has no control.

After denying the Rohingya citizenship and human rights for decades, the Myanmar junta has washed its hands off the minority in the final stitch of a painfully familiar pattern.

Rohingya are a nation devoid of both a state, and the hope of ever achieving one, writes Humphreys.

During her speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for the creation of a “safe zone” for the Rohingya people inside Myanmar. In stressing the need for a “quick and permanent solution” to the crisis, she no doubt has one eye on the national exchequer and the other on the next parliamentary polls due by early 2019.

The so-called “safe zone” is perhaps the most convenient end point for Bangladesh. But even if Aung San Suu Kyi is sincere in her resettlement pledge, there are numerous obstacles lying in the way.

According to Humphreys, at the most literal of levels, these include the land mines. And even if the zone could be made “safe,” there is the possibility that with their livelihoods destroyed, the Rohingya will never again be able to support themselves within the borders of Myanmar.

“So rather than petitioning the UN for a “safe zone” inside Myanmar, the PM should be courting Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and regional and world leaders, for international assistance to facilitate the proper and permanent integration of the Rohingya people into Bangladesh,” writes Humphreys.

“Instead of exploring ways to repatriate or isolate the problem, the government must put itself at the centre of the solution. Citizenship must be offered to the Rohingya, conditional on a basic proficiency in the Bangla language. The additional roads, schools, hospitals, and houses they will use can be paid for by international donors initially, and maintained thereafter by a rise in tax on the most offensive fiscal target: The heaviest-polluting industries.”

Humphreys calls on the government to set up a ministry for the integration of the Rohingya, ring-fencing its finances for external scrutiny.

By granting the Rohingya people national citizenship for the first time and by clearing their pathways into society, Sheikh Hasina can secure her place on the right side of history, just as Aung San Suu Kyi sees it re-written against her.

The most persecuted people on the planet have been a nation without a state for too long. It’s time to give them one, writes Humphreys.