Who Rohingya? What Rohingya? When Rohingya?

Last Updated on August 22, 2023 9:41 am

This is about South and Southeast Asia’s Palestinians, as it were. The Rohingya. The nowhere people.

Myanmar officially doesn’t want them. Bangladesh, where most of them now live as refugees, can’t indefinitely house them — more precisely, can’t indefinitely house them with current arrangements. China and India won’t say anything substantial about them in order to safeguard their vast geopolitical and geo-economic interests in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal area. And Asean, the Southeast Asian regional grouping of which Myanmar is a part, loath to use the word “Rohingya” lest it gives the Rohingya any legitimacy of citizenship in Myanmar and residence in its Rakhine State.

And yet, there needs to be urgent movement or else the result could be an implosion in southern Bangladesh — where a million Rohingya refugees are housed — with catastrophic socio-economic and security implications, not just for Bangladesh, but the entire arc of eastern South Asia. A drop in global donations has already led to a drop of food aid from $12 a month per person to $8, which has triggered a nutrition and healthcare crisis over and above crises of joblessness, the flourishing of gangs, trafficking of narcotics and women and children, and an increase in perilous sea-borne voyages of escape to Indonesia and Malaysia.

In Bangladesh the issue is likely to either be buried or handled cursorily by political parties in the run up to imminent parliamentary elections. By the time Bangladesh emerges from this electoral black hole next January, the Rohingyas will have slid even further down the food chain of global attention and aid.

There are various ongoing initiatives to try and maintain interest in mitigation, even force the pace using various options that range from maintaining a realistic status quo, to the fantastical status quo ante position of Rohingya returning to Rakhine and living uneasily ever after.

While this last outcome would require the hell that is Myanmar to freeze over and then thaw with new respect for all ethnicities, the common thread of nearly all suggestions I have recently encountered signals a simultaneous escalation of several approaches to impel bilateral and multilateral dialogue with a view to urgent solutions. I will share more as the situation evolves, but here’s an overview.

One approach calls for reaching out to all political parties in Bangladesh to incorporate a Rohingya roadmap in their election manifestos.

Other approaches include a range of futures, from more Bhashan Char-like settlements in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia with the help of the international community, to quid pro quos with, say, India, China, and Japan — even though the last two have boosted economic activity with post-coup Myanmar — to pressure Rohingya repatriation.

Yet another approach calls for increasing pressure on that other missing link in the Rohingya crisis: Asean.

China and India have for long held back on the Rohingya issue, and typically looked to the Tatmadaw to secure their interests. I have discussed some aspects earlier in this column (Tipped in favour of Myanmar in February 2023 and Rohingya repatriation: A delicate dance of saving face and saving the neighbourhood in April).

I recently brought up the abdication of Asean on this matter with a senior Asian Dhaka-based ambassador.

“Asean doesn’t consider the Rohingya to be like them,” the envoy responded bluntly. Here he first pointed to his Asean-like face, so to speak, and then to my quite Bengali face, and brown skin. “They think they are Bengali and belong in Bangladesh.”

“But Bangladeshis and the Rohingya don’t think so.”

He gave a it-is-what-it-is shrug.

I was reminded of a perceptive commentary in The Diplomat in late 2018 which summed up the attitude of Asean. The article spoke of how a statement from the 30th Asean summit in 2017, when the Rohingya crisis was greatly evident, didn’t mention the word “Rohingya” and instead spoke of a task force that would respond to “crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons in Southeast Asia” that also included “victims and affected communities of the conflict.”

The Asean chairman’s statement in April 2018, by which time the Rohingya issue had literally exploded and the mass escape/migration to Bangladesh was a fait accompli, didn’t have a word about Myanmar, let alone the Rohingya.

Indeed, in December 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s once-celebrated democracy icon, then a little over a year from being deposed in a military coup, defended Myanmar against accusations of “ongoing genocide” and “genocidal intent” at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. She didn’t once use the word “Rohingya” to describe the million-plus who had fled depredations in Rakhine State to seek refuge in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Another proposed approach of mitigation is to actually broaden the scope of concern and engagement to include a range beyond the Tatmadaw; and, in some ways, hold up the entirety of Myanmar with its inglorious ethno-political fracture that has deepened after the coup in February 2021.

 This approach is premised on the chaotic post-coup present in Myanmar, which, besides an already complicated stew of ethnic armed organizations, or EAOs in parlance, has added a massive infusion of what are called “PDFs” — peoples’ defense forces. Essentially, these are groups of outraged and increasingly armed Myanmarese citizens ranged against the state aka the Tatmadaw. PDFs are now estimated to be more than 550 and growing.

According to one credible think-tank estimate, the two years since the coup to February 2023 recorded a staggering 8,000-plus armed clashes across Myanmar. These clashes are nearly double the number recorded in the decade preceding the coup.

While the largest numbers of clashes have taken place between government forces and armed ethnic groups in the south-eastern Karen — or Kayin — region bordering Thailand, there have been numerous instances of clashes with PDFs across central and northern Myanmar. In certain cases the armed groups and PDFs have combined to take on government forces.

“Here is a message to India, China, and Asean,” a top Myanmar analyst said last month at a peace conference in Kathmandu, referring to the three entities, besides Japan, that have ramped up their commercial and strategic interests in post-coup Myanmar. “The military is not the only partner for your interest. You have to diversify. Or you will see a huge influx of people, or refugees, in your countries.”

He broadened the scope of mitigation from a Rohingya matter to a matter of Myanmar’s monumental disorder scattering refugees of several ethnicities across all points of the compass, in numbers exceeding the two million-plus currently estimated as being internally displaced after the coup. He described an “existential moment” for the Tatmadaw, which is being challenged for its “legitimacy” and “centrality;” and an existential moment for Myanmar as a whole, where there can be no return-to-normal because the decades-old parameters of normality no longer exist.

China is engaged with this flux, according to several indications, beyond reportedly being the puppet masters of the face-saving and as yet utterly impractical exercise of Rohingya repatriation for which Bangladesh engaged with an obdurate Tatmadaw earlier this year. China cannot but be in discussions with several ethnic armed groups and communities to protect its vast energy pipelines across Myanmar, besides mineral, trading, and other on-ground investments. India has also woken up to this new normal, albeit more sluggishly.

The Rohingya tragedy and its mitigation — including repatriation in meaningful numbers to Rakhine where Arakanese ethnic armed groups are an indelible part of the equation — will also require a multi-tiered approach.

Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Center for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He has authored several books on history, ethnography, conflict resolution, and Eastern South Asia. His most recent book is ‘The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East’ (Simon and Schuster).

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