By: Tasnim Islam
After an assault on Myanmar’s police force by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a newfound insurgency group, the U.N finally accused the Myanmar military of ethnic cleansing. Even though it was only recently that several major news outlets exposed Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya to the world, the atrocities that the Rohingya have and are continuing to suffer are not new.
Myanmar has persecuted the Rohingya ethnic group for decades, and currently, they are the single largest “stateless community” in the world. Reasons for this root back to the British colonialism of Myanmar which lasted for over a century and enacted colonial policies to encourage migrant labor. These policies drew many Rohingya Muslims to what was a mostly Buddhist Myanmar. In addition to using them as a source of migrant labor, the British recruited the Rohingya’s support during the Second World War whilst Myanmar’s nationalists supported Japan. In return for their support, the British promised the Rohingya a “Muslim National Area” as well as several prestigious government posts. Following 1949, the year in which Myanmar achieved independence from Britain, the Rohingya asked for the autonomous state that they were promised. The Myanmar government responded by calling them foreigners and denying them not only the promised autonomous state but also citizenship. Nationalist movements in Myanmar, as well as Buddhist religious revival, contributed to the growing hatred of the Rohingya, which resulted in several decades of ongoing persecution. Due to this, the Rohingya are not entitled to any rights regarding health services, education, and employment, and currently struggle with a staggering 20% literacy rate.
To escape this persecution, an estimated 800,000 to 1,100,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and several others, since the late 1970s. As of December 2017, the largest fraction of Rohingyas has fled to Bangladesh. To accommodate the 700,000 and growing number of Rohingya, Bangladesh set up refugee camps in or near Cox’s Bazar, one of Bangladesh’s most famous tourist sites. Although many humanitarian groups in Bangladesh have put in countless hours to help provide the Rohingya with a home, Bangladesh still isn’t receptive to this group, which is demonstrated by the country’s hesitation to recognize the Rohingya as refugees and provide them with those associated rights.
This hesitation derives from the current economic, political, and social state of Bangladesh and the impact the Rohingya are having on these fragile structures. For instance, Bangladesh fears that the presence of the Rohingya within its borders will incite further violence from the ARSA. The ARSA has pledged to continue its insurgency campaign, so Bangladesh is worried that the group might try to target the camps for cross-border fighting. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s economy is simply not equipped to financially support this growing number of refugees. Although the U.N and several charitable organizations have provided generous humanitarian relief to support the Rohingya, not all costs have been covered. As of May 2018, the Bengali government estimates that roughly 434 million USD has been spent on the Rohingya crisis, with the Bangladeshi government incurring roughly 26% of that amount. This is a significant cost, especially when considering that Bangladesh’s GDP per capita year is a mere 1700 USD. Though the presence of the Rohingya has boosted the local economy of camps, the surrounding area of Cox Bazaar is generally very poor, and it is estimated that the next seven years of sheltering and feeding the Rohingya will require another 4.4 billion USD. Thus, Bangladesh simply cannot afford to support the Rohingya in a sustainable manner without sufficient aid.
Arguably the largest issue that Bangladesh is facing right now is the absence of a long-term solution for the living conditions of the Rohingya. In the first attempt to come up with a “solution”, the Bengali government signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2018 to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of 700,000 Rohingya. After receiving criticism from the U.N. and the traumatized Rohingya who did not want to return to a land where their safety was not assured, Bangladesh was forced to put the agreement on hold. To resuscitate the agreement, Bangladesh scheduled the repatriation of roughly 150 Rohingya in mid-November 2018, but almost unanimous refusal from the refugees rendered the attempt unsuccessful once again. This response begs the question: does this repatriation agreement have any actual merit or is it simply the result of Bangladesh trying to come with a hasty solution under intense pressure? Although China, a supporter of Myanmar that views Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as a legitimate counterinsurgency operation (instead of ethnic cleansing) believes the agreement to be a positive step for resolving the Myanmar-Rohingya conflict, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, thinks the opposite. He believes that repatriation is not only impractical, but also that Myanmar is disingenuous for partaking in it since they have been trying to exile the Rohingya for so long. Now that many of the Rohingya are no longer there, it does not make sense for Myanmar to now want to take them back. He believes that the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar is useless unless Myanmar admits to its persecution of the Rohingya (instead of claiming that they were only eliminating terrorists), takes steps to prevent further oppression, and provides the Rohingya with citizenship rights.
So what can be done for the Rohingya? Obviously, there is no simple solution, but Dr. Azeem Ibrahim believes that the U.N must put pressure on Myanmar to change their laws to protect the Rohingya. This includes persuading Myanmar to overturn the Citizenship Act of Myanmar (1982) which formally denied the Rohingya rights. Other potential solutions involve finally providing the Rohingya with an autonomous state on Bhasan Char island, or even creating a Special Economic Zone around Kutupalong to provide the Rohingya with employment opportunities. Even though all of these potential solutions (along with others that have not been mentioned) have complex implications, it is of utmost importance that the Rohingya be provided with the resources and land they need. All in all, something must be done to abolish the status of the Rohingya as the largest stateless society in the world.
Tasnim is a first-year in Hopper College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.