Myanmar-Bangladesh-India: Grappling with the Rohingya crisis
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh has reacted with great statesmanship and empathy in the face of the huge influx of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar Ro the southern part of her country. Bangladesh has no choice to turn them back, given the humanitarian imperative, shared ethnicity and religion.
Bangladesh has seen massive demonstrations in favour of the Rohingya refugees, particularly from Islamist parties and organisations whose sympathy is driven by religious affiliation. Rohingya Muslims are regarded as “Bengalis” in Myanmar and have migrated from the Chittagong region of Bangladesh into Myanmar over many years, particularly when Burma (now Myanmar) was also a part of the British Raj.
By all accounts Bangladesh is making a heroic effort to deal with the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. PM Hasina has appealed to the international community at the ongoing United Nations General Assembly to intervene and create conditions for the refugees to return to their homes.
International pressure has finally forced Myanmar’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to break her silence and make a statement on the Rohingya crisis that has engulfed Bangladesh, Myanmar and, to a lesser extent, India. Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi’s televised address in English was clearly meant for a global audience. She was partially conciliatory.
Suu Kyi said: “hate and fear are the main scourges of our world. We don't want Myanmar to be a nation divided by religious beliefs or ethnicity ... we all have the right to our diverse identities.” She added: “We would like to end the suffering of our peoples as soon as possible. I accept that the real responsibility to solve the problems in Myanmar lies with everyone in this country.”
According to Suu Kyi, Myanmar was committed to a sustainable solution for all communities in the violence-torn Rakhine state and is taking steps to promote peace and stability. She also said those who have sought refuge in Bangladesh will be allowed to return “after verification”.
Rohingya Muslims or 'Bengalis' are a minority ethnic group residing in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. They have fled in their hundreds of thousands across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh. Last month Rohingya militants, belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked and killed scores of Myanmar military and police personnel.
The Myanmar military, aided by vigilante groups, has launched a massive crackdown to hunt for these militants, leading to widespread killings of civilians and militants, in the Maungdaw district of northern Rakhine. Hundreds of villages have been burnt as part of a scorched earth policy, women raped and children slaughtered to flush out militants, causing civilians to flee into Bangladesh and creating a huge humanitarian crisis.
The retaliation by Myanmar’s security forces against ARSA, a designated 'terrorist' organisation, has clearly been disproportionate and extremely violent. More than 4.6 lakh Rohingya men, women and children have fled and entered Bangladesh, near the town of Cox’s Bazaar.
The ARSA emerged as a shadowy organisation called the “Harakat-ul-Yaqin”, mentored by one Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya origin who was born in Karachi. Earlier in 2016, this organisation claimed that it had attacked Myanmar’s military post along the border with Bangladesh. The ARSA claims it is just another ethnic armed resistance group among many ethnic groups fighting the government for self-determination and should not be treated as a terrorist organisation.
The ARSA is qualitatively different from other ethnic resistance groups in Myanmar. They operate disguised as civilians, use conscripted villagers for attacks on posts of Myanmar security forces and retreat across the border into Bangladesh, to mingle with people of the same ethnicity and religion.
This is one reason for high civilian casualties in retaliatory attacks by Myanmar’s security forces, though indiscriminate attacks on Rohingya villages have undoubtedly occurred. The ARSA’s insurgency techniques are more akin to guerilla warfare, not dis-similar to Nepalese Maoists or Indian Naxalites.
Snatching weapons is an integral part of such attacks. The ARSA is also acquiring greater proficiency in social media propaganda, announcing a unilateral ceasefire to avoid a humanitarian crisis and putting out photographs of atrocities by Myanmar security authorities.
Burmi has appeared in social media videos calling for “jihad” in Myanmar and has intimate links with the Pakistan state-sponsored terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistani jihadi outfits have called for jihad against Myanmar to avenge the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims.
The ARSA cannot escape responsibility for triggering this latest bout of violence. Suspicion of the ARSA’s links with Al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups, operating out of Pakistan, have persisted despite denials by the ARSA.
Its leader Ataullah Abu Ammar Junjuni, alias Hafiz Tohar, was born in Karachi and schooled in a madrasas in Saudi Arabia. There are thousands of Rohingya origin people living in Karachi, many of who were recruited and trained by Pakistan’s ISI join the jihad in Afghanistan.
It is undeniable that foreign jihadis are now part of the ARSA. Reports indicate that Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Malaysians and Thail Muslims have joined the ranks of the ARSA. Training of jihadis have taken place along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and also in Aceh in northern Sumatra in Indonesia. Jihadi elements in Bangladesh have extended support to the ARSA.
It seems unlikely that Myanmar’s military establishment, which still wields extraordinary power, will agree to take back the Rohingya refugees, except some who are carefully vetted to ease international pressure.
Myanmar’s government enjoys full support of its Buddhist population in its action against the Rohingyas. The delicate transition to democracy currently underway in Myanmar is another complicating factor.
While Islamic countries, the United Nations, Muslim countries of Asean and others have all issued strong statements, India and China have been far more restrained in their reactions.
Bangladesh clearly expected greater support from India, but India has its own complex relations with the Myanmar government. Also, it already hosts over 40,000 Rohingya refugees. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has articulated a clear policy designating the refugees in India as illegal and dangled the threat of deportation. The Indian Supreme Court has been dragged into the issue.
The Rohingya issue has become a factor in Bangladesh-India relations, though India can do very little to pressure the Myanmar government -- a step that some sections in Bangladesh seem to expect.
India has been subjected to considerable criticism in Bangladeshi circles for its initial lack of reaction to the crisis. New Delhi has noted the strong feelings in Bangladesh and issued a mild statement alongside a massive effort to airlift relief material and other assistance to Dhaka.
India has to adopt a complex balancing act and navigate between its geo-political objectives vis-à-vis Bangladesh and Myanmar. In this effort, overt pressure on Myanmar does not appear to be a viable option.
China has come out in open support of Myanmar, hoping to curry favour with the military. With China making inroads steadily into all countries in India’s neighbourhood, India’s reaction has to be calibrated and will have to be more intense quiet persuation than public condemnation of Myanmar.
Moreover, with Pakistan’s terrorist fingerprints appearing in Rohingya militancy, it is not inconceivable that Pakistan’s ISI is using the Rohingya issue to destabilise PM Hasina’s government. Bangladesh-Pakistan relations have taken a steep dive with Hasina’s government going after Pakistan’s Islamist proxies in Bangladesh, as well as Pakistan-supported Indian insurgent groups operating from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya crisis will add to Bangladesh’s long term problems since it cannot mount a relief effort for the refugees indefinitely. Indian and international aid will certainly flow in but a long-term solution has to be found.
Islamic countries are quick to wave the banner of Islamic solidarity but have done little to help Bangladesh. As Muslims, some Rohingyas can be re-settled in Muslim countries, under a UN-led effort and if the report of the International Commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, is even partially implemented.
For Sheikh Hasina this is a crisis that will test her mettle, as Bangladesh heads towards a general election in 2018. Her political opponents will pillory her and question her India-friendly policy. Such is the nature of domestic politics in Bangladesh.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. He is former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and a former Ambassador.