The Platform

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017.

To resolve the impasse over repatriating Rohingya Muslims, all relevant stakeholders must engage in dialogue.

The Rohingya issue has surged to the forefront of international concern, casting a long shadow over the prospects for political stability, social tranquility, and environmental viability in Southeast Asia. The quagmire, originating from Myanmar, extends its geopolitical tendrils, ensnaring not only its immediate neighbor, Bangladesh but also posing a broader threat to the Southeast Asian region.

The saga of the Rohingya is a chronicle of sustained persecution—Myanmar’s repeated crackdowns and flagrant violations of international law have scarred generations. The community has withstood severe forms of institutionalized discrimination and societal disdain within their native borders. The military regime’s systematic purge, which began in the late 1970s, displaced over 200,000 Rohingyas from Rakhine State, compelling them to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Subsequent bilateral negotiations, albeit transiently successful, facilitated their return to Myanmar.

The narrative took a dire turn with General Ne Win’s ascension to power in 1980, whose regime negated the Rohingya’s identity, citizenship, and belonging. Stripped of their status, the Rohingya were vilified as ‘Bengali Muslims,’ a label that rationalized their expulsion and flight to Bangladesh. The early 1990s saw Bangladesh orchestrating the Rohingyas’ second repatriation, with the United Nations intervening for the first time.

The electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 was anticipated as a turning point. However, far from ushering in recognition of citizenship for the Rohingya, her government escalated the campaign against them. The August 2017 military onslaught—characterized by rape, torture, and arson—drove approximately 720,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh, enduring abject misery in the sprawling encampments of Cox’s Bazar, on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.

Western sanctions, particularly from the United States and endorsements by the United Nations, have condemned the crackdown as ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Facing international pressure, Bangladesh and Myanmar inked a repatriation deal on November 23, 2017. Despite Myanmar’s pledge for swift resettlement, the process stagnated—of 8,032 refugees, a mere 878 received Myanmar’s nod for return.

The UN Security Council’s 2018 visit to Myanmar unveiled a grim picture, countering Myanmar’s assurances of return conditions. Defiantly, Myanmar dismissed participation in a fact-finding mission to uncover the scale of atrocities and security forces’ excesses.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House of Representatives sanctions Myanmar military officials implicated in ethnic cleansing. Concurrently, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, at a summit in Dhaka, called on the Myanmar government to account for its actions. Aung San Suu Kyi, once hailed as a beacon of democracy, was named a principal actor in this escalating crisis, which could have far-reaching implications for regional stability.

The Bay of Bengal’s eastern shore, shared by Myanmar and Bangladesh, is a stage for India and China’s geostrategic plays. Myanmar’s relationship with these Asian powers, particularly in the context of insurgency and regional influence, is significantly more advantageous to Myanmar than to Bangladesh. The ethical imperatives are often overshadowed by geopolitical and geo-economic interests, with both China and India perceived as enablers of Myanmar’s defiance.

Rakhine State, endowed with the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and significant investment from China and India, has emerged as a focal point for regional aspirations. The Bay of Bengal’s accessibility and the economic dividends of such projects underscore the geo-economic priorities overshadowing the plight of the Rohingya.

Bangladesh, in extending refuge, has displayed extraordinary humanitarianism. However, the impasse persists, with Myanmar demonstrating little intent towards facilitating the Rohingyas’ return.

To untangle this complex issue, Bangladesh must strategically engage in trilateral dialogues, incorporating China’s influence over the Arakan Army. Diplomatic finesse must supersede traditional approaches, leveraging intelligence resources to negotiate with non-state actors instrumental in the region.

In these opaque and foreboding times, Bangladesh is cornered yet resolute. The pursuit of justice and reparation through bilateral, regional, and international channels remains imperative. The global community’s concerted effort is crucial in steering the repatriation process, with China and India’s involvement being pivotal. The endeavor is arduous, yet relinquishing the cause is not within the realm of choice for those committed to the principles of human dignity and international law.

Rasel Hossen Shakib is an analyst on international and strategic affairs. He serves as the columnist for several newspapers in Bangladesh, especially the Daily Observer, Pathom Alo, Ittefaq, and Jaijaidin. He is currently studying at the undergraduate level in the Department of Economics at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh.