Rohingya crisis: Myanmar's policy of isolation a challenge, but Bangladesh should've handled it better

During my recent visit to Dhaka, I saw how the Rohingya crisis had hit Bangladesh squarely in the face. Having been formidable consumers of violence, dislocation and religious extremism themselves, Bangladeshis not only worry about its humanitarian and strategic aspects but are also sucked into the emotion of the crisis. For a nation that faced genocide and a catastrophic movement of refugees, the empathy is understandable.

Bangladeshis display a curious mixture of anger and helplessness. An informed Bangladeshi citizen uses words like "ruthless" and "dirty" for Myanmar's leaders, who have "killed" Rohingyas. An editor, using a historical analogy, delivers a softer blow: "'Mugging' derives from Myanmar's Mogh tribe, which in the past conducted raids across a porous frontier for rice and cattle, commemorated in Dhaka's Magh Bazaar.

Rohingya crisis. Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

Once, in a region where identities overlapped, there were no national boundaries between what is now the Rakhine state and Bangladesh. This might have been a good thing. Haven't humans been shoving and jostling for space and resources for millennia?

Scholars, think-tankers, and serving officials express dismay at Myanmar's policy. India might work some magic with the Myanmar government for a solution, they hold. There was "shock" expressed over the fact that India had stood against extremist violence without taking stock of the atrocities against the Rohingyas.

Puzzlingly, India's statement of 29 September in the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling for restraint by the Myanmar security forces, and supporting the immediate and safe return of displaced persons under the 1993 understandings, after verification, was ignored.

After I pointed to this statement, a university professor graciously acknowledged the positive outcome of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Dhaka on 22-23 October, adding that she had said "some encouraging things to our prime minister (Sheikh Hasina)."

I learnt that when all the facts were presented, those in government showed better appreciation of India's position, compared to think-tankers and academics. Emotion rather than intellect forms their attitude towards India.

The irony is that the Indian position is almost the same as Bangladesh's. But it is not what India has said, or the humanitarian aid it has sent, that matters. In the Bangladeshi imagination, Indian policy is fixed in time and space.

Friends test the benchmark for India at its extremities. Yet, oddly, they are silent on China's explicit support for the Myanmar government. For India's diplomats, meeting the expectations of a 'friend' is hard.

The across the board explanation I got for India's supposed tilt towards Myanmar is its strategic rivalry with China. For India, I was told, Rakhine state takes centre-stage, being a staging post for long-term Chinese inroads into Myanmar, at India's expense. What friends forget is that India's real competition is with itself.

Besides, India's relations with Myanmar have stood the test of time, being grounded in strategic cooperation. Myanmar has met India's concerns on the insurgency in the North East. But my friends missed the script of this regional dynamic. India's delicate balancing between two friendly neighbours was not properly appreciated.

Consider that the previous Bangladeshi regime had given sanctuaries to Indian separatists, while the current one has been sensitive to India's concerns. In contrast, Myanmar's approach has been relentlessly stable.

My friends (in diplomatic circles) said that the chances of radicalised Rohingyas combining with home-grown extremists to undermine the Bangladesh government are not high. Nevertheless, they worry about a link up.

Major General (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies said: "Our security will be drastically hampered if local terror groups make recruitments from the Rohingya refugee population."

Where the emotion dampened was in hard-nosed appreciation of Myanmar's strength. Force cannot secure the return of the refugees, and "we must find a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” asserted Muniruzzaman. However, following the agreement reached on 24 October, everyone I spoke to remained doubtful if the refugees would return in significant numbers.

Bangladesh missed engaging Myanmar, failing to build trust and improve communication, friends asserted. Myanmar's policy of isolation has been a challenge, but Bangladesh should have seized the initiative. Successive governments missed the signals of an impending humanitarian and security crisis, I was told.

In Bangladesh, there is a despairing intimacy with the Rohingya issue. But the crisis looks different from Myanmar. This is a subject for another day.

The author is a former ambassador of India to Portugal.

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2017 16:51 PM

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