Is there salvation on the horizon?
Injustice, communal hatred, and racial discrimination have persisted in Myanmar because the Myanmar administration does not bother to be consistent with international law and human rights regulations. They have dictated their own terms, followed their own hacked grammar of life, and disregarded accepted norms of behaviour.
This unfortunate aspect has grown in dimension and intensity because of Myanmar’s existing potential in the form of energy resources and territory that can be used by some neighbours, not only for improving their own economic and national interests, but also for selling defense equipment.
It has since become very clear that Myanmar might have an elected government and a so-called civilian administration, but the reins of power still belong to their arrogant armed forces -- now blatantly supported by radical and communal Buddhist monks. They want to create a completely Buddhist state without the presence of ethnic minorities belonging to any other religious faith.
The government of Myanmar and their other administrative authorities presently practise a format where no one is allowed to even the utter the word Rohingya in the context of the affected population. Even Pope Francis carefully avoided using this reference during his visit to that country in 2017. Myanmar authorities believe such a measure will help their younger generation to forget that such a population ever existed in their country. Hitler did the same with regard to the Jewish population during his rule.
Since August 2017, systematic oppression, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, and arson have led to more than 790,000 illegal migrants leaving their Rakhine homes and entering Cox’s Bazar, Ukhiya, and Teknaf.
Instead of denying entry to these affected people, our prime minister showed her magnanimity. A coordinated effort was undertaken by the government, the host community, and several international and local organizations to ensure that this suffering mass would receive food, health care, water, sanitation, and also special care for their children.
However, the subsequent months have revealed a gradual growth in the number of Rohingya living within the different camps in this sub-region. This development is unfortunately beginning to create many deleterious effects on the affected region.
Careful surveys carried out by different government agencies have revealed that the total number of the Rohingya population has now crossed one million. The gradual expansion of the camps meant to provide temporary shelter to the Rohingya has led to destruction of nearly 200 hectares of arable land. About 5,000 acres of land has also, according to UNDP, been rendered useless because of sandy soil flowing down from the denuded slopes. This has also seriously affected the use of such forest area by wild animals. The displaced Rohingya also appear to have become busy in drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling, and other nefarious activities in the Cox’s Bazar area.
There have been several bilateral discussions between Bangladesh and Myanmar officials. In these bilateral meetings, Myanmar was informed of the five demands that had been put forward by the Rohingya from their camps. That included (a) citizenship for the Rohingya with equal opportunities, (b) security for the Rohingya after their return with monitoring facility of such security by international actors, (c) return of land forcibly taken away from them and proper compensation for damage that had taken place, (d) justice for the violence perpetrated on them and (e) rehabilitation of those living in internally displaced camps in the Rakhine state.
These were indeed tall orders. In an interview with a German media outlet towards the end of August, circulated eventually on September 4, 2019, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has however pointed out the reality: “Myanmar authorities have agreed to one of these demands: Provide safety, security, and mobility to the Rohingya people. Demands such as granting citizenship to Rohingya, punishment for people involved in the Rohingya massacre, recognizing Rohingya as an ethnic group, and allowing them to return to their own homes have not been met.”
There have been two attempts to repatriate these Rohingya back to Myanmar. Both were symbolic. These attempts failed, as those identified as acceptable for return decided not to take that step, because they had not received any assurance of being accorded Myanmar citizenship. Matters came to a head on August 25, with Rohingya convening a protest meeting in the Kutupalong camp with digitally printed banners and placards written in English, pressing their five points demand and refusing to move out of Bangladesh.
There were fiery speeches by Rohingya activist Mr Mohibullah and other Rohingya. Instead of supposedly being a prayer meeting, the gathering assumed different connotations. Tens of thousands of Rohingya also turned up in a particular uniform dress code. The disappointing aspect was that the Bangladesh authorities appeared to have been totally ignorant that such a dynamic was about to take place.
It was also evident that the coordination required for holding the meeting had required funding and that had obviously originated from external sources. Some foreign and local NGOs have been identified in encouraging Rohingya not to return. These include US-based NGOs Adventist Development and Relief (ADRA) and Al Markazul Islam (AMI) and also the Rohingya Refugee Committee (RRC) and the Voice of Rohingya and Arakan Refugee Society for Peace and Humanity (ARSPM).
They have also been responsible for creating a negative mindset about a possible transfer to Bhashanchar. It has since been discovered that incorrect information has been used to assist the Rohingya in obtaining mobile phone SIMs, citizenship ID cards, and even Bangladeshi passports.
Such a scenario has evidently been a source of embarrassment for the government.
In view of the above evolving circumstances, it is good that the government has now taken some significant decisions -- (a) identifying those organizations who are instigating Rohingya not to return, (b) banning their entry or operations within the Rohingya camp area, (c) incapacitating the use of the SIMs obtained by the Rohingyas illegally, and (d) building strong barbed wire fences around the camps to stop Rohingya from leaving their camps and becoming a source of anxiety for the host community.
Bangladesh has done enough. It is now the turn of UN, as well as the EU, the US, Canada, and Australia to be more active within Myanmar. Salvation might then appear.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]