The Rohingyas: partisan politics and poor diplomacy
The Daily Sun
Jne 24th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Bangladesh’s stand to shut its border to Rohingya refugees has disappointed many at home and abroad. Article 28 (b) of the constitution commits Bangladesh to “…support oppressed peoples throughout the world in waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism or racialism”. The commitment is based on our experiences in 1971 when 10 million of our people were forced to flee to India to escape racial crimes committed by the Pakistani military.
The Rohingya refugees have been forced to flee before this instance twice in 1978 and 1991-92 in numbers much larger than the current influx to escape ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar government that has not officially recognized their existence although they number close to a million. There is racialism and barbaric oppression, often state sponsored, that drives Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, nevertheless, has stated that as Bangladesh is not a signatory to the conventions on refugees, it is not obliged to open doors to the Rohingya refugees.
The government of Bangladesh should spare itself a moment and contemplate its own predicament if New Delhi had closed its doors in 1971. Just as we are not in a position financially to accommodate the Rohingya refugees today; India too was in a similar position in 1971. And mind you, the Bangladeshi refugees were in millions. Yet they accepted us willingly and did not look for excuses to close its doors to crimes against humanity.
The position that our Foreign Minister articulated was bold in its lack of ambiguity. It has nevertheless been well short of projecting Bangladesh as a responsible nation that is willing to make the sacrifices when it comes to saving humanity at risk. It is also clearly in contrast to the spirit with which we have fought and won our liberation. Most importantly, it has shown the government rejecting the very ethos of its emergence as an independent nation; a commitment for freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere.
A government that has won support both at home and abroad for its courageous decision to put to trial those who committed crimes against humanity in 1971 has now allowed the authorities in Myanmar to commit the same crimes on the Rohingyas without protest. Unbelievably, instead of protesting the atrocities and assisting the victims, the government decided to push them back to the perpetrators of crimes against humanity! By closing its border to the Rohingyas over the pleas of the UNHCR, the UN and the government of the United States, the government of Bangladesh has exposed a double standard on issues of human rights. In clear departure to diplomatic norms, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry imposed restrictions on the movement of the UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh.
The government also injected politics to the issue that has been very frustrating. In a statement in the parliament, the Foreign Minister said that the Myanmar has complained that Jamat has been behind the disturbances that have led to the refugees’ influx. The Secretary General of the ruling party went a step further. He said that the Jamat was responsible for the influx because it wanted to derail the war crimes trial! These statements left many wondering why the Bangladesh Government was making excuses for the crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar authorities and its majority Buddhist population who have a history of racial hatred towards the Rohingyas.
The Government’s stand to agree with Myanmar and make Jamat the villain is clearly strange diplomacy. Does the Government think that by putting the blame on Jamat, its decision to close the borders would be justified? Does it not realize that in doing so, it has validated Myanmar’s contention that Jamat is the guilty party without even asking for evidence and thereby has absolved that country for committing crimes against humanity? In fact, Myanmar’s treatment of the nearly 1 million Rohingyas is one of the well documented examples of state sponsored ethnic cleansing in modern history. There are piles of evidences documenting atrocities by Myanmar authorities against the Rohingyas in the past in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Why has the Foreign Minister turned a blind eye to records and evidences available in her Ministry to hold Myanmar responsible from crimes against humanity?
In fact, the Government of Bangladesh committed mistakes galore in dealing with the problem. In the first place, it was caught totally unguarded till the refugees tried to cross the border. There was a major failure of intelligence. Second, the Foreign Ministry did not lodge a formal protest to the Myanmar Government, detailing the atrocities that were committed on the Rohingyas. Instead it allowed the Myanmar Government to make the first move by accusing the Jamat for the crimes to avoid its own responsibilities. By failing to make the first move, the Government allowed the offender to justify its crime.
The major mistake of the government has however been to close the border. As it has turned out, the problem was not as serious as it was in 1978 and 1991-92 when hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the border causing massive problems, financial and otherwise, to Bangladesh. In this instance, the influx occurred due to the majority Buddhists attacking the minority Rohingyas as a consequence of communal conflict. Earlier it was the government machinery that had attacked the Rohingyas as a part of ethnic cleansing that had caused the huge influx. The actual number of potential refugees this time therefore was quite within the ability of the government to handle.
Therefore, the correct way of handling the problem by the government would have been to accept the refugees as part of its constitutional commitment and international obligations and in remembering its own history. At the same time, it should have taken up the matter strongly with the Myanmar Government instead of going public with the latter’s accusation against Jamat and thus giving legitimacy to the atrocities. It should have moved strongly with the UN and UNHCR for their support against the Government of Myanmar to receive international support for the Rohyngas and for funding the costs for looking after the refugees.
The government handled a very serious diplomatic issue in an immature and ill motivated way. It sacrificed national interest for gain in domestic poliitcs by not protesting Myanmar’s accusation against Jamat. Jamat is currently in disarray with its top leaders in jail and the threat of war crimes trials hanging over the party. The party is not in any shape either to carry out cross boundary terrorism as accused by Myanmar or to create disturbance inside Myanmar to cause the refugee influx to derail the war crimes trial as stated by the AL General Secretary. The government responded to Myanmar as if it was representing the interests of the Awami League while dealing with its international obligations and not the nation’s as it should have.
In resolving problems with Myanmar in the past on the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh was supported by the Saudi and the US Governments, the latter with its influence in the UN and UNHCR. This time neither would be interested to assist Bangladesh, the latter because it is trying to get closer to Myanmar’s military regime as it shows signs of reform. China that has influence over Myanmar Government would also not be overtly warm to any request that Bangladesh could make to it to talk to Myanmar. Perhaps Bangladesh could turn to India for help that it has not.
The Bangladesh government thus stands alone in dealing with Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue. It would need the nation behind it to succeed. Unfortunately things are not going the way of the Bangladesh Government because by some poor diplomacy and equally poor politics, the government has already absolved Myanmar of any wrong doing by accepting the latter’s contention that Jamat is responsible for the influx of refugees!
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan