It was a blatant charade of epic proportion. On September 29, the minister of the Office of the State Counsellor of Burma blamed The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and its supporters for "hampering the bilateral repatriation process" at the UN General Assembly session. He accused Bangladesh, now saddled with 1.1 million Burmese nationals, of allowing ARSA and Arakan Army elements to use Bangladeshi territory as a sanctuary. Audaciously, the Burmese minister urged the Government of Bangladesh to "show its genuine political will to cooperate, by strictly adhering to the terms of the agreement signed in 2017". Reminding that his country "does not respond well to pressure", he urged the UN audience to provide "time, space and respect for its domestic accountability processes". The Burmese representative appealed others "to examine the negative narratives on Myanmar carefully and impartially, before drawing their independent conclusions."
Rejecting such "concocted and misleading assertions", the representative of Bangladesh persuasively dispelled the claim that the Rohingya issue was a bilateral concern. She reiterated that the Burmese state has created the protracted problem through "inhumane treatment" and by "unleashing a carnage" on the Rohingya. She further alleged that Naypyidaw is resorting to "distorting history and facts to justify its genocidal acts". The Bangladesh representative noted that the prevailing reality of Rakhine of "isolation, discrimination and clearance operations… obliterating villages and changing maps" are clear indications that the rogue state has no intention to create enabling conditions for the repatriation of Rohingyas.
The timing of the Burmese tirade against Bangladesh is of little surprise. Several factors may have contributed to this.
Firstly, with the national elections scheduled on November 8, to garner the support of the ultra nationalists and religious zealots, the contending parties across the political spectrum of Burma are ratcheting up their anti-Rohingya (and by default, anti-Bangladesh) rhetoric with fresh vigour. They have even rolled out the fictitious claim that it is the (non-existent) Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh who have spread the Covid-19 virus in Rakhine.
Secondly, the scaling up of military operations of the Arakan Army (AA)—a rebel group seeking more autonomy for ethnic Arakanese Buddhists in Arakan and Chin states in recent times, and the increased incidences of clashes between AA and the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military), have thrown a major challenge to the Burmese politico-military establishment. Scores of civilians have been reported killed and tens of thousands displaced. Both parties have traded allegations of abuse. Expressing its concerns over "reports of intense fighting", the United Nations has called for "urgent measures to spare civilians".
Furthermore, the recent confession of two Burmese soldiers about their participation in the Rohingya genocide has provided a major fillip to global accountability processes. The deserters have testified that they were instructed by their commanding officers "to shoot all that you see and that you hear" and "exterminate all Kalars (a derogatory term for Rohingya), including babies," validating the widely held view that the massacres, rapes and other crimes were army directed. The deserters also claimed that his unit "wiped out" 20 villages and the killings were sanctioned by the battalion commander. They also admitted to looting at the prodding of their superiors. These revelations have become a major source of anxiety for the Burmese authorities as they have come under further international scrutiny.
In addition to that, The Gambia filed case of genocide in the International Court of Justice has also gained some traction. The decision of Canada and the Netherlands to formally join the legal bid to hold Myanmar accountable over allegations of genocide has been described by observers as "historic". Calling the lawsuit "a concern of humanity", the two countries have agreed to intervene in the case "to prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account". Earlier, EU and the US had announced targeted sanctions against key functionaries in phases. Daw Suu Kyi's magic wand, which has so far worked in charming the world, appears to be losing its shine.
And finally, the recent overtures of the Arakan Army, the armed resistance group of younger generation Rakhine Buddhists and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA)—"to embark on a new strategic initiative to collaborate with Rohingya Muslims in their quest for international justice" and presenting the two Burmese army deserters to international justice mechanisms—have been an important development with major ramifications for the political landscape of Arakan. The Arakan Army/ULA's ultimate goal is "to establish political autonomy for the Arakan or Rakhine region as well as peace and reconciliation with all co-inhabitants of Rakhine, most specifically Rohingya, who also belong to Rakhine as their shared birthplace," according to Maung Zarni, writing in the Andalou Agency last month. This is a refreshing development in an otherwise vitiated, protracted stalemate dominated by the Burmese state meting out brute force, aided and abetted by their international patrons of all hues.
Thus, while pressure mounts on Burma on different fronts and the political reality in Arakan undergoes a subtle transformation (albeit at a slow pace), the wheels of justice and accountability mechanisms gain traction and shimmers of hope appear on the horizon for the Rohingya. Bangladesh, a country that has provided sanctuary to 1.1 million refugees, has to shore up its efforts to continue to exert more pressure on Burma.
The policymakers in Dhaka need to come to terms with the hard truth that a business-as-usual approach based on "good neighbourliness"—expecting "reconciliation of the communities in Rakhine through dialogue" and hoping that "congenial conditions for repatriation", with the Burmese honouring the conditions of the lopsided repatriation arrangement that freed Burma from any time-bound and international monitoring mechanism and retained their final say on verification—will never succeed, nor was ever meant to.
Bangladesh's past policy of ignoring the reasons for the arrival of the Rohingya from Arakan—presumably viewing them as economic migrants, whose number subsequently rose to 200,000-300,000 prior to August 2017, and thereby failing to alert the international community of the slow-burning genocide that went unabated in Arakan—proved to be grave. Since 1991, its refusal to recognise the incoming Rohingyas as "refugees", pandering to the Burmese decision to deny the Rohingya their right to self identify and bestowing on them the dubious label of "forcibly displaced persons" rather than refugees (despite fulfilling stiff conditions of the 1951 Refugee Convention), all stem from its efforts to cajole, if not placate, the Burmese. This was no less evident as Bangladesh appeared to be uncritically subscribing to the discourse of "border, law and order and human mobility" skillfully crafted by Naypyidaw on the Rohingya question.
In all likelihood, the policymakers in Bangladesh under successive regimes were guided by the false optimism that through trade, investment and connectivity arrangements under the much fancied "look east" or "constructive engagement" policies, they would eventually be able to address the Rohingya problem. Time has proven that such myopic policies bereft of principles were grossly erroneous.
Addressing the Rohingya problem is the most important foreign policy challenge that Bangladesh has faced since its independence. Therefore, in the light of recent experiences, there is an urgent need for re-strategising Bangladesh's Rohingya plan. Guiding principles of such a strategy should be the recognition that Burma has thrust upon Bangladesh more than a million Rohingyas through a deliberate policy of discrimination, exclusion and genocide, pursued over decades and thus far, not accounted for. Therefore, by taking a cue from the past, an all out diplomatic offensive should be launched. This may include giving the Rohingya issue its due priority in all foreign policy decisions, including bilateral and multilateral engagements. The perceived friends of Bangladesh should be communicated to in no uncertain terms that along with the humanitarian support that Bangladesh welcomes, it expects their active support in all regional and international forums in solving the Rohingya problem.
There must be a major shift in Bangladesh's engagement with Burma. Its trade, commercial, communication and other forms of interactions should be reviewed. Downgrading the status of its diplomatic mission in Burma is likely to send a strong signal about Bangladesh's stance on the Rohingya issue, not only to the concerned country but also to its ASEAN partners and other allies, who have doggedly supported the rogue state on pretexts of "state sovereignty" and "non-interference in internal affairs" in breach of international human rights and humanitarian principles.
Bangladeshi negotiators need to be mindful that strategic, trade and investment considerations of the major players are not necessarily a zero sum game favouring Burma. They need to work out and argue what tangible and intangible benefits partners gain from their relationship with Bangladesh, and that Bangladesh expects its core interests are not dispensed off when other states pursue their bilateral relations with Burma. The issue is particularly important in view of the unacceptable Indian response to concrete measures that Bangladesh had taken over more than a decade to allay the former's crucial security concerns in the northeast, trade, transit, transshipment, communication and other matters. Also, there is a case in point to examine why our diplomatic efforts have thus had very limited success in garnering support, not only from the powerful states but also from neighbours in the region.
So far, Burma has enjoyed near complete impunity from world bodies. The UN Security Council's inaction has been patent, despite a plethora of statements from the UN Special Rapporteurs and resolutions of the General Assembly and Council on Human Rights. With pressures mounting on Burma, this is perhaps an opportune time for Bangladesh to lead a campaign to urge the UN Secretary General to invoke Article 99 of the UN Charter "to bring the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security". In all likelihood, such a move will not yield desired results; however, it will at least expose the hypocrisy of the mighty and powerful states, which over the decades have only prioritised their narrow national interests, failed to uphold the lofty human rights standards that they preach to others, but also contributed to a situation that has the potential to morph into a threat for "international peace and security".
Burma is beginning to feel that its ride on deceit and propaganda is reaching its limits. Recent developments in Arakan, international accountability mechanisms and burgeoning dissatisfaction of western states have exposed the crevices in the foundation of international support that Burma once enjoyed. It's time for Bangladesh to make a break from its past policy of appeasement and provide the rightful moral leadership to address the Rohingya problem. Let Bangladesh's act at the General Assembly on September 29 be the beginning of that process.
C R Abrar is an academic with an interest in migration and rights issues.