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Rohingya crisis: Conflict in Rakhine is an unwelcome addition to Myanmar's numerous problems

After a century of colonial rule, and long spells of authoritarianism, self- imposed isolation and sanctions; Myanmar is just about finding its feet. With many insurgencies, its nation-building is fraught. As Myanmar stabilises its nationhood, the Rohingya crisis has flared up as an unwelcome addition to its many problems.

Myanmar’s history of insurgency and violence makes it difficult for the leadership to see the Rohingya crisis in moral terms alone. There can be no case for Myanmar’s use of force, but its behavior is realpolitik.

After the agreement of 24 October, both sides have backed off from bluster and posturing. We are now seeing a search for balance and stability, the normal diplomacy of an imperfect world.

Rohingya refugees. File image. Reuters

Rohingya refugees. File image. Reuters

Things are not straightforward. After ARSA’s attacks on police stations in August, Myanmar stole a bit of the moral thunder. If Bangladesh can fear Rohingya radicalisation, why can’t Myanmar?

From the Bangladeshi side, the situation is dire. Government officials, members of think-tanks, professors and informed citizens I spoke to during a recent visit to Dhaka were united in acknowledging that, with elections due in 2018, home-grown extremists could exploit the Rohingyas for electoral gain. The refugees are not yet radicalized, but some indulge in criminal activities.

For Bangladeshis, war is not an option. A professor told me how students, bristling with rage and itching for war with Myanmar, calmed down when asked how the war might be fought. “Patient diplomacy” is the need of the hour, he asserted. A leader of a think tank said: “Myanmar was the fifth country to recognize Bangladesh. We neglected Myanmar.”

So, how will diplomacy work? All I spoke to stressed that, beyond statements and humanitarian help, the world will not tilt towards Bangladesh, which must deal with Myanmar bilaterally. “There is no diplomatic support even for a peaceful settlement,” said the president of a think tank.

Both sides can manipulate precedent as a template for a solution, however imperfect. The agreement is just the start of a tortuous process. “I am optimistic,” asserted a member of a think-tank.

Friends in Dhaka said that Bangladesh kept a little under half the refugees after an agreement for repatriation in the 1990s. This renders Bangladesh’s negotiating position “fragile,” a professor conceded, as Myanmar’s leaders “feel they can push them out, and Bangladesh will keep them again.” But half of the refugees were also allowed to return to Myanmar in the 1990s.

For India, which took ten million Bangladeshi refugees in 1971, the moral aspect is persuasive. India has been hospitable to refugees through history. 50,000 Rohingyas are not an unbearable burden, but the fear of radicalization is real. Some Rohingyas are thought to work for Pakistani agencies. “Some Bangladeshis” understand India’s Rohingya refugee problem, asserted a professor.

From India’s point of view, if Myanmar takes back refugees from Bangladesh, it could just as well do so from India. Thus, India needs to keep Myanmar on its side, which explains the diplomatic minuet between two friends.

But diplomacy is not a musical score. It can be administered only in workable doses. Recall how India came to grief by taking Kashmir to the UN in 1947. As Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said at a seminar on 26 October, in addressing the Rohingya crisis, constructive conversation is better than condemnation.

In the combustible politics of Bangladesh, where even a rumour can trigger diplomacy by the mob, India’s able high commissioner and his team have kept open communication with the government and civil society. I did not notice anger at India, only very high expectations. On 22 October, visiting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s calming words of support for Bangladesh were timely.

As so many young nations, including India, do, Bangladesh keeps ticking the morality box. But Bangladeshis also need to humanize Aung San Suu Kyi, and appreciate the competing dilemmas of a fragile democracy. This beacon light of human rights is also a mirror to the imperfect world that Myanmar is.

Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador to Portugal and Laos.


Published Date: Nov 03, 2017 20:08 PM | Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 20:08 PM

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