From Mar 25 to Mar 27 we distributed relief materials among Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong-2 and Balukhali-1 refugee camps. This was exclusively a private initiative. Sakib Mahmud, an associate professor at Wisconsin University, US and my ex-student, had sought my help in collecting and distributing funds and relief materials for the Rohingya refugees. Some of our relatives, friends, students and colleagues at home and abroad joined his efforts. We distributed sewing machines, solar panels plus lights, buckets with cover, lungis, thamis, mosquito-nets, umbrellas and foodstuff among the refugees. Some of the recipients, wearing decent clothes, received these materials with a lowered gaze, suggesting their embarrassment. From this I could feel that they were eager to return home in Myanmar as early as possible.
We had participated in similar relief operations in the same area during October last year. Compared to last time, we found that the vibrancy of private initiatives has cooled down significantly. This is quite natural. Our distribution work was conducted with the assistance of the relief distribution centres run by the army. It has to be admitted that the army is doing an excellent job with dexterity. But then the question arises naturally as to how long shall the army shoulder this responsibility of distributing relief among the refugees? For how long would Bangladesh have to bear the burden of refugees?
The available data on average repatriation period is not encouraging. In one UNHCR report dated 2004, it is stated that average repatriation period takes 17 years. Considering this data as incorrect, other estimates have emerged where the average repatriation period is around 10 years. This suggests that, if the work proceeds at an ordinary pace, Bangladesh will have to face this burdensome situation for quite a long time. At the same time, one has to bear in mind that international and local institutional relief support will also dry up in a similar way as the situation continues.
Hence, we need to seriously consider the ways for these refugees to be repatriated as quickly as possible. I can foresee three sets of alternatives that could lead to a quick solution and one unwarranted consequence that may emerge.
Good sense prevailing in Myanmar
Visiting the land port at Teknaf on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, we found that in spite of the Rohingya issue, international trade between the two countries was quite robust with imports from Myanmar showing a rise of nearly fifty percent. This has to be understood in the context that even in normal circumstances imports from Myanmar are more than ten times higher than Bangladesh exports. Apart from trade, both countries can profitably engage in bilateral cooperation in areas such as tourism, fuel exploration and trade, et cetera in the spirit of good neighbourly relationship between the two countries. Realising this, the Suu Kyi government and the military junta in Myanmar might like to earn the confidence of the international community including Bangladesh by opting for the early and speedy implementation of the bilateral agreement for repatriation of the Rohingya refugees and ensuring the safe and secure living of its displaced citizens. This will restore the tarnished image of Aung San Suu Kyi and vindicate her award of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rise of democratic forces in Myanmar
Apart from the Rohingyas, various other indigenous groups have engaged in armed liberation struggles in Myanmar ever since the country’s independence from the British in 1948. Among these groups are the Kachin rebels, the Karenni army, the Karen and Shan State army. This suggests that, although Myanmar has achieved independence, it has failed to form a cohesive nation-state. The main reasons lie in the long direct and indirect military rule in that country.
The democratic movement that coalesced surrounding Suu Kyi has lost its way in the myriad compromises involved in sharing power. Suu Kyi, who was engaged in the struggle of liberating the people, has herself surrendered to the will of the military junta and is acting as their puppet; she has either aided the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people or gave tacit support to these tragic events. There must be sensible people within Myanmar imbued with democratic ideals.
It can be hoped for that they would rise one day and protest these brutal killings carried out against their own people. When such a government of democratic forces is in place, Rohingyas will be in a position to return to their homeland free from any fear and with a sense of security.
There are four ways the international community may exert pressure on Myanmar. However, each of these moves has its own limitations. The first and foremost is of course imposing trade embargoes and other restrictions on Myanmar. Myanmar, which has had to contend with such restrictions for some time, has gradually emerged from their shadow. But they are accustomed to living under such bans. Hence, it is difficult to assess what impact it would have, if at all, should there be new restrictions put in place. Besides, the international support necessary to impose such bans does not appear to be in place. The UN, regional organisations such as ASEAN and others such as the OIC can mount pressure in this way. The second way to exert pressure is to deploy international peacekeeping forces in Myanmar. But the prospect of getting such a proposal approved at the UN Security Council looks bleak in the absence of support from China and Russia. The third way is to indict the military junta of Myanmar together with Suu Kyi in the International Criminal Tribunal for ethnic cleansing and genocide. However, as Myanmar is not a signatory to such conventions on internationals judicial trials, it would be difficult to execute a verdict from the international court. The fourth way is to consider suspension of financial assistance in Myanmar by international aid organisations, particularly the ADB and the World Bank. But this will require support from the US, Japan, and China.
In such a scenario, Bangladesh is obliged to pursue its efforts towards settling the issue making good use of all available bilateral and multilateral options. Special effort needs to be taken to mobilise international public opinion. Above all, support of China and India for Rohingya repatriation has to be ensured through pursuing a balanced foreign policy with these two neighbouring countries.
Continuous living in intolerable and inhuman conditions might result in the rise of extremism among the Rohingyas. It has been a cardinal principle of Bangladesh’s foreign policy not to let its soil be used against any of its neighbours and the country stands firm on this principle. Bangladesh is closely watching so that the Rohingyas cannot indulge in such activities. But if a human disaster of this magnitude continues for long, the Rohingyas might become deviant with evil forces lurking from behind to abet and support them. Such a situation can never be welcome for Bangladesh, Myanmar or India. But if the current impasse is allowed to continue, the situation might go beyond control of everybody.