Talks on the Rohingya crisis now all revolve around Bhasan Char. We are busy debating and discussing on whether a section of them should be relocated to the island or not. We are moving away from the actual focus of getting them back to their own homeland in Rakhine. Our efforts and initiatives to repatriate them have failed because Myanmar does not want to take them back. At this juncture, what are we to do? From what has been written by analysts and experts, it seems that diplomatic initiative is the answer. What are we capable of in that regard?
It is possible to relocate 100,000 of the 1.1 million Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh to Bhasan Char. The government has begun this process of relocation and this has created a sort of distance with the international community. If diplomatic efforts are the only resolution to the crisis, this relocation to Bhasan Char has served to create gap with the international community.
At an international level it is clear that Bangladesh has nothing to do with creating the Rohingya crisis and this is a problem that has been forced upon Bangladesh. Facing genocide and brutalities in Myanmar, the Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh and Bangladesh has displayed it magnanimity in sheltering them. The international community acknowledges this. But other than praise and empathy, Bangladesh has received no effective support in resolving this crisis.
As part of a long-term plan and state strategy, Myanmar has driven the Rohingyas out of the country. That is why it is hardly plausible to believe they will voluntarily take them back. Unless forced to do so, Myanmar will not take them back and so international pressure must be used. Our diplomacy has failed in carrying out this task.
While the West may criticise Myanmar’s Rohingya policy, they have no tools in hand to put pressure on Myanmar. It is the two regional countries, India and China, that can apply the international pressure that is needed. These two countries are not just rivals in the regional geopolitical scene, but they their adversity is very visible too. Bangladesh has close ties with both of these countries and maintains balanced relations with both. Bangladesh can take credit for this diplomatic feat. But Bangladesh has failed to mobilise either of these countries when it comes to the Rohingya issue. Both countries clearly lean towards Myanmar.
China and India made their stance clear once again on 18 November at the third committee of the United Nations General Assembly where a resolution regarding the Rohingya issue was taken up. China voted against the resolution regarding the human rights situation of the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. India abstained from voting. South Asian countries Nepal and Sri Lanka and one of Bangladesh’s major friendly countries, Japan, also abstained. Like China, Russia too voted against the resolution.
Many experts and analysts have explained the reason why the two rival countries, India and China, both stand in favour of Myanmar. They maintain that these two countries back Myanmar due to geopolitical equations, strategic reasons and commercial interests.
We know that India and China are competing with each other to exert influence over the countries of this region. So it is natural that both countries will want Myanmar by their respective sides. China is proceeding ahead with its geostrategic plans by means of the Belt and Road Initiative. The highest investment in Myanmar is from China. Myanmar is an important partner of China. India is also advancing with its strategies centering Myanmar. India has made big investments in several projects like the Kaladan Multimodal Transport project to connect Kolkata port to the Sitwe port in Arakan, setting up an industrial zone there, a gas pipeline from Arakan, hydroelectric projects and more. Accordingly, India is building up its geopolitical and economic relations with Myanmar.
It is only natural that India and China will look after their respective geostrategic, economic and commercial interests. Perhaps reality is also that they will overlook, in their own interests, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But the question is, do these countries have no interests in Bangladesh? These countries need to keep Myanmar in their hands at any cost, but don’t they need Bangladesh? Or has Bangladesh failed to hold up its importance to these two countries?
Unless the Rohingyas who are sheltered in Bangladesh want to return to Myanmar voluntarily, there is nothing Bangladesh can do. The Rohingyas will only want to return to the Arakan state in Myanmar when they can be assured of security. Back in 2017, addressing the UN General Assembly, prime minister Sheikh Hasina had proposed a safe zone in Rakhine in order to resolve the crisis. However, without any such assurance or international guarantee, Bangladesh went ahead to sign a bilateral MOU with Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation. It is now very obvious that the decision had been a wrong one. This year in August, Bangladesh’s foreign minister once again put forward the proposal for a safe zone to be set up in Arakan under international supervision.
It is clear that we have failed to take proper and timely diplomatic initiatives regarding the Rohingya issue. It is also a diplomatic ask to project the importance of the country at an international level. But we have possibly fallen short there too. If not, why does Bangladesh not receive the importance that Myanmar gets in international geopolitical equations and economic interests?
AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at email@example.com. This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir