The world is witnessing a textbook example of ethnic cleansing – this verdict regarding the Rohingya persecution by Myanmar made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been echoed by many intergovernmental and international organizations, and reported and repeated by the world’s media. Half a million of the Rohingya population, the natural inhabitants of Arakan region of Myanmar, have been forcefully displaced by their very own government, who neither consider nor recognize the Rohingya as their citizen, and thus have kept them as stateless people for decades.
This episode of ethnic cleansing is unwarranted. In twentieth century alone, the world experienced enough such cases that there are international bodies and mechanisms to predict and prevent such atrocities. Yet, this incident takes place, and has been in the making for a while now. The sheer lack of commitment by the International community to hold the Myanmar Government accountable is to blame.
In this modern world where most of the countries aspire to create open, progressive and developed societies, the actions by the Myanmar Government flaunts regression even on their progress to pluralism. The Rohingya situation is now being compared to Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Palestine – such is the extent of violence they face. This is a demonstration of state sponsored violence to the extreme over the entire population of an ethnic minority in their own country. These people have lived in that land even before the current form of state began and the current constitution was enacted. The atrocities caused by the Myanmar rulers makes a mockery of the norms and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This example of state oppression is unacceptable behavior by a member country of the UN. Countries around the world must actively denounce such action and hold the perpetrators accountable. Intergovernmental organizations and treaty bodies should condemn this in the strongest terms. Yet, we see powerful regional countries turning a blind eye to the latest atrocities committed by abusing state power. So far, international organizations have only been able to issue warnings to Myanmar using somewhat tough words, and nothing more. This is truly a deplorable example for the world, as it shows a clear lack of interest by countries to follow and uphold international rules and norms.
Undoubtedly the Rohingya situation is a human catastrophe. Along with regional and international humanitarian implications, there are significant security challenges that this incident has produced. Myanmar has shown that it has not changed from its previous habit of oppressing its own population. The Rohingya are only one ethnic group among many that are being persecuted by the ruling powers in Myanmar. Unfortunately, this recent incident shows that if the timing is right, a country can carry out ethnic cleansing without any major opposition from the world community. Such use of unchecked state violence sets a terrible precedent, which is gravely worrying.
The incident also shows the power of a military junta that has no concern for the people in that country. This policy of pogrom, that only brings chaos and destruction, is being carried out alongside the Myanmar military. Many of the developing countries have suffered from excessive and unchecked power usurped by their military, and continue to struggle to contain such recklessness. The latest incident by the Myanmar military will only encourage other such power-hungry generals around the world to suppress the rights of their people and to abuse their power. This indeed is a threat to world peace.
Without deliberating the further oppression awaiting the Rohingya who are still residing inside Myanmar, let us observe the difficulties of the current refugees in Bangladesh. As history shows, without a significant diplomatic initiative along with international pressure, all the recent refugees to Bangladesh will most likely spend a good amount of years in Bangladesh, if not their entire natural lives. Providing basic needs for a million people is no easy task for a country that is itself reeling from poverty. The struggle for resources among the population, especially in the districts that the Rohingyas are currently staying in Bangladesh, will only get fiercer. Already there are tensions between the ethnic Bengali population, the indigenous people, some of whom are Buddhist Rakhine people – ethnically similar to the ones allegedly burning Rohingya villages inside Myanmar – and the Rohingya refugees. This tension will only get worse. In Bangladesh, land is the most precious of resources, and conflict due to land is the leading issue of judicial arbitration. The added pressure from the Rohingya population will invariably affect land and environmental resources, leading to further tension and possible clashes among these groups. The possibility of revenge-attacks loom large as well.
It is never an easy task to ensure security and safety for a million people. Imagine them as running away from extreme violence, recently displaced, traumatized, in dire constraints, with no form of wealth, and a family to feed. Abiding by the local law is probably not one of the top priorities for any human being in such struggle. Now imagine that in the scale of a million, alongside with millions more of Bangladeshis, who are also constantly struggling to meet their own basic needs. It is not difficult to see the mammoth task ahead for the law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh to ensure security and safety in that part of the country. To complicate the matter, there is now an acute language issue that was not there before. The Rohingyas that have arrived from Arakan do not speak Bengali, the language the officials use. There is probably a handful of people within the Bangladesh Government and law enforcement agencies, who can speak Arakanese or Rakhine. As a result, the authorities would have to rely on translator middlemen, who may want to further their own interests, or exploit the situation for their benefit – a sad fact of third world bureaucracy.
The Rohingya refugees that had come to Bangladesh during previous exoduses, have had a difficult life to live, and they still remain stateless to this day. The refugees who lived in registered camps in Cox’s Bazar, received some basic needs, but lived in a truly sub-human condition. The UN and other aid agencies provided basic food, primary education and some healthcare. But there was no further prospect for someone growing up in that camp. They were not allowed to hold any jobs either. The necessities of human existence meant that these refugees would strike a deal with the locals, and illegally work as fishermen, day-laborers, henchmen, or more commonly as drug smugglers to the local leaders and businessmen. Bribery was the word of the day. The refugees who were unregistered, and lived in various areas throughout Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and the three hill districts, had a more difficult life. They were often accused of stealing resources, illegally squatting on other peoples’ land or destroying the precious forestry reserves in Bangladesh. Hence, it is no surprise that the Rohingya refugees had got into conflicts with the local people, and sometimes with the authorities as well. With this massive influx of refugees now, one can only imagine the law and order situation in the coming months.
Moreover, a volatile situation creates opportunities to create further violence and disturbance. Criminal groups, especially the narcotic and weapons smugglers and human traffickers, prefer volatile and chaotic situations, for it becomes easier and more profitable for them to operate. With the local law enforcement agencies fully occupied in dealing with the refugees, routine operations are paused, if not halted altogether. Such conducive environment for illicit activities also becomes a natural safe-haven for criminals and terrorists, something that could be a welcome place for violent extremist organizations currently on the run by law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh.
The geostrategic aspect of this conflict cannot be overlooked either. The Naf River, which divides Bangladesh and Myanmar, is the end of the Himalayan range of mountains and hills that create a massive geological boundary for land transportation between South Asia and South East Asia. From this aspect, one could say that this Naf River plains is the narrow gateway between the East and the West. This area also has access to sea on several sides, with naval routes going to all directions in the continent. This is why this region is a part of the One Road One Belt, and other such regional connectivity projects. Several oil and gas pipelines, railway lines, and highways are planned over the Arakan lands where the Rohingya have been living for centuries. This great opportunity can also be a great vulnerability. With ease of access comes the smugglers, traders of illicit goods, traffickers, and terrorists. Volatility in this area can easily affect the future of the entire region.
It appears that the Bangladesh Government has appointed Bangladesh army to take over the relief and rehabilitation process of the Rohingya. There are reports of large scale deployment of multiple battalions of the army in that region. While the army does have a reputation for working more efficiently than any other government organization in Bangladesh, it also suffers from a negative image within the non-Bengali indigenous population of the Hill Tracts historically. The question also remains how safe and trustworthy will the Rohingya feel about another military when their own killed and burnt them. Furthermore, the Bangladesh Government wants to keep the Rohingya contained within certain areas of Cox’s Bazar district. Certainly some force will have to be used to achieve this result. It would be unfortunate if the army is seen as the jailor. Bangladesh navy has been given the task of developing an island in the Bay of Bengal as a future location of the Rohingya refugees. These actions have the potential to cause distrust and disapproval, not only among the Rohingya but possibly also among their sympathizers in the region, which could further complicate the security situation.
Now let us focus on the Rohingya people, refugees and the ones that are still inside Myanmar, vis-à-vis the political aspect of their struggle. The Rohingya people have faced severe limitation to resources and basic rights of human beings for generations – inside and outside of Arakan. As a result, they have not been able to create any capable political organization that will champion the cause of their people. Some groups who tried to engage on this issue, opted for a secessionist approach. These insurgent groups were quickly denounced by all the governments in the locality, and often dealt with militarily. Unfortunately, a non-extremist or non-violent political organization has not been able to materialize for the Rohingya people, to represent them internationally. Currently, there is much debate about ARSA, the latest of the groups, as to whether they are ‘terrorists or freedom fighters’. The current international system is also less sympathetic to any secessionist, violence-espousing entity. Hence, it is unlikely that groups like ARSA will be taken seriously by other governments.
Without a strong and organized leadership of this oppressed people, it should not be a surprise that various nefarious elements would like to take this opportunity to utilize this vulnerable population. International violent extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the (so-called) Islamic State would, without a doubt, try to exploit this situation. In this age of utilizing social media to gain popularity, supporters and recruits, global terrorist groups will use this crisis. These violent extremist groups need to be seen active and leading as the saviors of Islam. They will use their predictable narrative of Muslim cleansing in Myanmar to inspire and recruit followers from around the world.
To begin with, Arakan was the reason for the establishment of jihadi groups in Bangladesh in 1990s. During the first Afghan Mujahidin war with the Soviet Union, several Bangladeshi citizens had fought alongside the Mujahidin from neighboring countries in Afghanistan. Many had died, but many survived the war to see it come to an end. As trained Mujahidin, many considered this to be their call in life, and looked for new places that needed their assistance. They decided that the Arakan region of Myanmar needed a jihad to save the oppressed Muslim people, i.e., the Rohingya. As a result Harkatul Jihad (HUJI) was established in the 1990s with a wing in Bangladesh – HUJI-B. The focus for these groups of Mujahidin, i.e., violent jihadis, was Myanmar, and not Bangladesh. The story goes that the HUJI leaders based in Bangladesh had brought in Rohingya leaders to Dhaka, but these leaders later opted out of the jihadi business because they were ‘’sold to the luxuries of modern life’’. Thus, the first attempt by regional jihadis to liberate Arakan failed.
Al-Qaeda would include ‘the plight of the Muslims in Arakan’ from time to time in their rhetoric, but it did not seem as though they had any clear intention or plan of action for the region for a long time. Even in 2013, after the Shapla Operation in Dhaka, Bangladesh on May 5, Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audio message that informed that Al-Qaeda was coming to Bangladesh, but about Myanmar he only asked “the people of Arakan to keep patience”. After this latest incident of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Al-Qaeda has openly called for a jihad in Myanmar, and has asked their followers in the region to act upon it. One must remember that groups like Al-Qaeda do not rely on rhetoric alone. A statement from Zawahiri is a command to the followers, and groups like Al-Qaeda do not simply release a statement without having a plan in motion.
For the (so-called) Islamic State, the more recent terrorist organization, the Rohingya situation will be also an opportunity to further their cause. While exact numbers are not there, it will not be surprising to find a few Rohingya, who have fought or still fight for IS in the Middle East. The Bangladeshi members of IS, who are in senior positions within the organization, surely will want to engage on this issue. The Rohingya crisis, further, gives IS another location to expand to, adding to their Asia portfolio along with Afghanistan and the Philippines. The situation in Marawi in the Philippines in particular is an important case. Local supporters of IS along with foreign fighters, possibly Indonesian and maybe even Arabs, took over the city, which is still under military operation and has not been successfully cleared from the IS fighters after months of complete crackdown. Imagine such a situation in the Arakan. What is there to say that parts of Bangladesh will also not be pulled into such a conflict, especially because extremist seminaries and training camps are located in the Chittagong region and in the Hill districts, just beside where the displaced Rohingya people are living at present?
Additionally, the South Asian region does not lack in violent extremist organizations operating in different areas, espousing jihadi, nationalist, and ultra-leftist ideologies. There has been reported cases of a long affiliation between some Rohingya people and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET) and other jihadi groups. There are incidents where some Rohingya people went to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, then to Pakistan, received training in terrorist camps, and then returned to the Rohingya camps for further recruitment activities. The plight of the Rohingya people have been used by various violent extremist groups in the region. In Bangladesh, the spiritual leader of the group Ansarullah Bangla Team – which later became a part of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) – Jashimuddin Rahmani had called a jihad against Myanmar at least twice. On the second occasion in 2013, some of this supporters actually were at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, ready to infiltrate. On the online platform, the suffering of the Rohingya people have been used frequently to further the cause of these jihadi organizations.
Following this recent surge of displacement, several government and security officials in the South Asian and South East Asian regions have warned of possible terrorist attacks on Myanmar, or on interests of Myanmar in other countries. Different global and regional terrorist organizations have had interest in Myanmar for a long time, many even had Rohingya working alongside with them. All of these mean that there is an existing network present for operation in the region. The enablers, the material providers, the money launderers, the recruiters etc. are already there. This makes the threat truly credible. The international community must do everything to stop an entire ethnic community of more than a million people from finding terrorist groups as their only choice for survival.
The acute and complex crisis that we find ourselves in today regarding the Rohingya people has been in the making for generations. There cannot be any doubt that it is a failure of the current international system that allowed such a catastrophe to take place. The Government of Bangladesh proposed to create a UN-administered safe-zone inside Arakan for the repatriation of the Rohingya displaced people. Given that the Myanmar authorities have not demonstrated genuine steps to implement the Kofi Anan Commission Report on the Rohingya, it is quite certain that they will not want any UN mediation. One could also question how effective organizations such as the UN can be in this crisis, since powerful states neighboring Myanmar have much to gain from the lands in Arakan that have now been freed, and are unwilling to co-operate. While this would be desirable from an economic point of view, it would only complicate the delicate security situations in Arakan, North-East provinces of India, and the Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
It would be unwise to think that the Burmese military leadership had not thought about the short- and long-term consequences of their actions. As military men, they are trained to think strategically. They must have known very well that such an operation to force out the Rohingya from Arakan would cause mass condemnation from the international arena. They must have also predicted that most of this condemnation and call for action will actually be addressed to Aung San Su Kyi, and not at the military, simply because Su Kyi is known in the West – in the media and among the population. Hence, this is an added benefit for the Burmese military to put extra pressure on Su Kyi, and visibly show her weakness, and their own invincibility.
The military leadership must have made long-term plans as well. For decades, they have been hoping for the complete removal or displacement of the Rohingya people. Now that there are more Rohingya people outside of Myanmar than inside, the military is sure to have made plans to keep it that way. It has been reported that the military is planting land mines on the routes the Rohingya would have to take to return, thus making it impassable. What is there to say that they had not made arrangements internationally to maintain this situation? Will they move in Buddhist people from other parts and occupy the land rapidly? Will they cause a diplomatic stalemate with Bangladesh just the way it has been with the several hundred thousand Rohingya stranded in Bangladesh for a few decades now? Time will answer these questions, but it will be foolish to think that the Burmese military leadership does not have a plan.
There have been efforts made internationally and regionally, and most certainly in Bangladesh, to mitigate this current crisis. However, one cannot but wonder about the long-term plans of the national and international governments and organizations to manage this crisis. The pressure on Bangladesh is acute, and threat to regional peace and security is indubitable. In the end, if people blame the Rohingyas for the security challenges that has arisen, and expect that if the Rohingyas leave their temporary shelters the problems will end, then they have not been paying attention. The Rohingya are so oppressed and vulnerable, they are kept in such dire conditions void of basic human rights, that any glimmer of hope would naturally gain their attention. It is imperative to make those positive ones, and not the ones by criminal or terrorist organizations, to prevent an already precarious security situation from becoming irredeemable.
Asheque Haque is an LGBTQ+ activist and writer, living in Sweden.