Unresolved Rohingya crisis may spur instabilityby Shahidul Islam Chowdhury
THE Bangladesh government should start multimode diplomatic engagements involving the United Nations, and hold serious bilateral discussions with Myanmar for resolving the Rohingya issue once and for all, says Professor Akmal Hussain of the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University.
‘Bangladesh may ask the international communities including the United Nations to use their good offices to resolve the Rohingya issue before the crisis becomes even more serious,’ he said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
In addition to social, economic and law and order implications, protracted Rohingya crisis would disrupt peace in the region and the border can become unstable and fluid, he said.
Resolving the Rohingya crisis would help the two countries in the region to look at future positive engagements, he added.
Myanmar is one of the two next-door neighbours of Bangladesh with land, river and maritime borders. To what extent have successive governments given importance to relations with Myanmar?
Presence of Myanmar is certainly there in our foreign relations. However, for obvious reasons, relations with Myanmar are not wide-ranging as it is with India, another neighbour with multidimensional proximities.
For Bangladesh, there were historical links with the Arakan kingdom (now the Rakhine state in Myanmar) and Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) as all three had been under British rule for long. However, relations between the two neighbours was limited as Burma kept itself isolated by choice from both international and regional relations.
On economic grounds, Myanmar, a major rice producing country, was important for Bangladesh in the past. A sustained relation with the country has become much more important to go beyond resolving protracted Rohingya crisis.
It is not that members of the Rohingya community, a national religious minority in Myanmar, have been crossing Bangladesh borders for the past couple of days; they have been for years.
The problem was, however, formally recognised for the first time after a mass exodus from the other side of the border as the then Burmese military junta conducted Operation Dragon in 1978. About 200,000 Rohingya people had crossed the border. However, Bangladesh had repatriated almost all of them through diplomatic efforts.
The problem erupted on a large scale once again as about 250,000 Rohingya people crossed the border in 1991 and 1992. A majority of them were repatriated with support from the UNHCR. Residual 30,000 persons have been staying in two refugee camps in bordering Cox’s Bazar.
At least 300,000 more Rohingyas, who are now identified as ‘undocumented Myanmar nationals’, have crossed the border.
However, Myanmar has been buying time for years to get its people repatriated.
Now the situation is about to go out of control with the recent exodus from Myanmar.
What positive things do you find in the relations between the two neighbours?
Historical links and amicable settlement of land, river and maritime boundaries have created the ground for both the countries to maintain good relations.
After the recent settlement of maritime boundary disputes by a judgement of ITLOS, the two sides have no territorial dispute.
Opening two routes of Asian regional highways through Bangladesh and Myanmar can also help improve relations. Foundation stone was laid for a 91-kilometre cross-border road through Cox’s Bazar border.
If Bangladesh can amicably repatriate Rohingyas to their homes in Myanmar, the scopes for improving relations would become wider.
What problems, other than Rohingya repatriation, do you see in maintaining good relations with Myanmar?
Unlike our knowledge and understanding about India, we do not know much about Myanmar due to its sustained policy to maintain isolation from the rest of world.
How do you expect an early resolution of the Rohingya crisis as Myanmar says in international forums that the members of the community are Bengalis?
It is not a proven fact that Rohingyas are of Bangladesh origin. There are, in fact, many national minorities in Myanmar and inter-ethnic relations are not good there.
The government in Myanmar made the crisis grave with the promulgation of the Citizenship Act making a good number of its people ‘stateless’.
The present semi-military government in Myanmar is apparently trying to accommodate minorities in the political process.
It is said that Rohingyas speak in a dialect unlike Bangla and their script is Arabic.
Arakan was not part of the erstwhile Burma. It was an independent kingdom from 900AD to 1500AD. People including Arab and Moor nationals had sailed in Arakan for business and other reasons. Some of them married and settled there. Arakan kings had used Muslim titles. There were Arabic inscriptions in coins of the kingdom.
Bangladesh foreign ministry officials say Myanmar does not mention Rohingyas as Bengalis in official bilateral discussions.
It does not make any sense. We need to see what Myanmar does on the ground. It has created situations that forced Rohingyas to cross the border with Bangladesh time and again. The country is yet to fully agree to repatriate its citizens, refugees and undocumented, let alone starting and completing the repatriation process.
How do you foresee consequences for Bangladesh if the Rohingya crisis lingers?
Protracted Rohingya crisis would disrupt peace in the region. The border can become unstable and fluid. There are many social and economic implications as well.
How do you see the role of international community on the Rohingya issue?
The international community needs to understand that Bangladesh has not created the crisis yet we have been bearing its burnt — social, economic, law and order and diplomatic — for years.
The semi-military rulers are now talking about reforms in Myanmar and more engagement with other countries. The United States, India and European countries are now extensively engaging Myanmar. Can Bangladesh avail this opportunity?
Certainly. The recent positive phenomenon is that Myanmar is opening up with a plan for internal reforms, political and otherwise. It may create scopes for wider economic engagement with rest of the world. Bangladesh can avail the opportunity for resolving the Rohingya issues once for all.
Bangladesh should hold start multimode diplomatic engagement with Myanmar including serious bilateral discussions.
Bangladesh may ask the international communities including the United Nations to use their good offices to resolve the Rohingya issue before the crisis becomes even more serious.
Resolving Rohingya crisis would help the two countries in the region to look at future positive engagements.
We also need to observe to what extent Myanmar engages with other countries including America when the latter is planning to deploy naval fleets in Asia and the Pacific regions. How Myanmar maintains relations with China and India is also another important point for observation.
What benefits are there for Bangladesh from further bilateral engagements with Myanmar?
There are scopes for increasing trade between the two countries. Myanmar can become a market for Bangladesh’s export products.
Bangladesh has mooted a proposal in the past to cultivate lands in Myanmar on long-term lease.
Bangladesh and Myanmar can play vital a role in developing regional road and rail connectivity.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina visited Myanmar last December. Myanmar president is expected to visit Dhaka next month. Do you expect any breakthrough from this visit?
It would be a return visit by the Myanmar president.
The Bangladesh government should now extensively engage in all diplomatic levels with Myanmar without any delay for some positive outcome, especially on Rohingya issues, from the visit.
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